Archives: Definitions

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A list of definitions used in the archival profession:

Accession: The acquisition of archival materials whether through donation, purchase or scheduled transfer from a department.

Accessioning: The procedures followed by an archive to bring acquired archival materials under intellectual and legal control.

Appraisal: The process of assessing the monetary value of archival materials. Aspects to be considered are the physical condition; its “fit” within the mandate and existing holdings of the archive; evaluation of both evidentiary and informational content.

Acquisition: See accession. Acquiring archival materials must be a disciplined and deliberative process. the mandate of the acquiring institution must be strictly adhered to. All processes must be documented (including records of materials not acquired and the reasons for all decisions.

Archival Records: All recorded  information, regardless of media or characteristics, made or received and maintained by an organization or institution or individual. Archival documents are primary, unpublished and two-dimensional. They were created in the course of conducting a business, running an association, managing a corporate body or an individual’s life. They were not purposefully created to be used for research purposes. They exhibit evidential and/or informational value. These might take the form of textual records, such as:

  •  correspondence (letters), diaries, minutes, proceedings, commonplace books, printed materials (brochures, flyers, etc.), financial documents (ledgers, daybooks, statements), literary productions (manuscripts, reports, etc.), legal documents (deeds, wills), scrapbooks and scrapbook material, maps, graphs, charts and lists (Fire insurance plans).

Or,  they might take the form of non-textual records such as:

  •  microforms, (films or fiches), cassette tapes (audio or video) or photographic records.

Archives: This term can refer to archival records or the institution responsible for the care and control of archival records or the repository in which archival records are stored. The term is used in both the singular and plural form.

“Archives Canada”: A multi-year project of the Canadian Council of Archives to link provincial networks of archival repositories. For example, the Ontario component of the network is called "Archeion" and includes RAD (Rules for Archival Description)-compliant records from all participating repositories in a province-wide database marked up using EAD (Encoded Archival Description) which is in turn linked (invisibly) to “Archives Canada”.

Collection: An artificial accumulation of documents brought together on the basis of a common characteristic, such as subject, medium, name of collector, etc.

Deaccessioning: The process of removing archival materials from the holdings. A practice to be avoided and usually unnecessary if the archive’s written mandate has been adhered to. The euphemistic term is “reappraisal.” Deaccessioning always involves legal, ethical and practical concerns.

Deed of Gift - Donor Agreement: A signed and dated contact between an archive and a donor of archival material. Form sets out the terms of the donation and itemizes any restrictions on use, copying and whether or not copyright and publishing rights are being transferred along with ownership of the physical material.

Diplomatics: The study of documents (usually handwritten) to ascertain their provenance and thus authenticity. The paleographer looks at the paper, ink, writing style, subject matter and appearance to establish date and validity. Archival diplomatics looks at the physical, external characteristics of the document. An extension of this idea is towards historical diplomatics which includes looking at the context, author and intellectual purpose of the documents.

Evidential Value: The value of papers and records as documentation of the creating body (person, institution, association or corporation).

File or item: The lowest level of description, including files of documents or individual documents that might come in a variety of forms and media. These might include: a letter(s), a film, a photograph, a map, a journal, an architectural plan. Basically, it implies the contents of one file folder.

Finding aids: Descriptive tools which contain information about archival records and facilitate research into the records. Finding aids must conform to the standards of description specified by Rules of Archival Description (R.A.D.)  These tools may be called guides, inventories, indexes, file or, in the case of photographs, item listings which contain information that establishes administrative, physical, or intellectual control over the holdings of an archives, and make it possible to retrieve particular records or information from these archives.

Fonds: The whole of the records, regardless of form or medium, automatically and organically created and/or accumulated and used by a particular individual, family, or corporate body in the course of that creator’s activities and functions. The word is always plural.

Holdings: A general term which refers to the entire inventory of archival records, of any medium, in the custody of the archival institution.

Informational Value: The value of records or manuscripts for the information that they contain on individuals, subjects, businesses, and so forth, not just evidence of the creating body itself.

Manuscripts: Any documents in any form (hand-written, typed, word processed). Includes group of personal papers with organic unity or purposefully accumulated and artificially collected papers and documents.

Original Order: The principle whereby papers and documents are kept in the order that the archives received them from the creating body or person. The term is related to “provenance” and “respect des fonds.”

Provenance: The continuous history of the persons, families, or corporate bodies that created and/or accumulated and used the records in question. Provenance includes all information on the successive transfers of ownership and custody of personal papers, documents and records. It is akin to the “genealogy” of ownership of a group of documents or records. In archival terms, the word is often attenuated to a simpler definition. It is used to mean the originator of a record (person, institution, agency). See “original order” and “respect des fonds”.

Record: Recorded information in any form, created or received by a person, family, corporate or government body in the course of the creator's activities or functions. Often used (and always in the United States) to mean exclusively official documents created by governments, organizations, institutions or other corporate bodies, as compared with “historical manuscripts” which often (and always in the United States) means private papers: personal, family or association documents.

Respect des fonds: The principle which dictates that the records of a person, family or corporate body must be kept together in their original order, if it exists and has been maintained. Records cannot be mixed with the records of any other creating body or person.

Rules for Archival Description (RAD): A system for creating archival descriptions or "finding aids" that identify and describe records. It is based on the principle of provenance where each archival document exists as part of a group (fonds) and is linked to all other records in that group. To qualify for grants from the Canadian Council of Archives, repositories must create RAD-compliant finding aids. RAD is the result of attempts to create standardization across repositories in order to transmit and access records electronically. A RAD description must, at a minimum, give information about the scope and contents of a fonds, dates of creation, title, physical description, administrative history or biographical sketch, name of repository where material is housed. The Trent RAD database structure has ca. 30 fields.

Series: A group of records which is organized as a unit and documents a specific activity or function. Within a fonds, there may be several distinguishable series of records.

Sous-Fonds: Similar to a series. The sous-fonds is a discrete group of records clustered under the umbrella of a fonds. The papers of various individual family members, for example, would constitute sous-fonds within the larger fonds.

Textual Records: Paper-based manuscripts, as compared to electronic records, graphics materials, maps, sound and moving image recordings or photographs.

“Total Archives”: The Canadian system of archives whereby all records, in whatever medium, both official government records and private manuscripts are considered to be “archives” and handled similarly.

Transcription: A copy or reproduction: hand-written, word processed or typescript of an original document. A verbatim printed or typed copy of an oral presentation such as an oral interview.

Vital Statistics Records: Birth, marriage, baptism or death records gathered officially or unofficially (as in a family Bible).

Weeding and stripping: The removal of non-archival material from file units during the processing of records. The documents removed may be returned to the donor, donated to another archival institution, or destroyed.  Weeding should be limited only to those extraneous materials that are irrelevant to the significance of the series or the meaning of the remaining documents. Non-archival material usually consists of duplicates or items such as cheque stubs, financial records when there are monthly or annual summations, unidentified photographs which contribute neither evidence nor information to the fonds.