Archives tutorial

What are archives?

  • Archives are the non-current records of people, associations or institutions
  • Archives are unique, unpublished, primary, two-dimensional research resources such as letters, journals, photographs, posters or diaries which are deemed to have lasting evidential or informational value
  • Archives are not library materials, that is, purposefully created to serve research interests and organized in subject classifications
  • Archives are evidence of actions and transactions
  • Archives are more "elemental" than library materials and can be thought of as having a distinctly organic component; a sense of being a natural by-product of human or organizational activity
  • Archives have, perhaps, more in common with museums, oral traditions, natural and built environments, and works of art, than with library materials
  • Archives should be conceptualized as "records of" rather than "records about" a person or organization or association
  • Archives are accumulated rather than being consciously authored for the purpose of informing or entertaining. They maintain a special relationship with their creating body. Their organization and description after they are received into an archive reflects this relationship
  • Archival records such as day books, journals, and ledgers that may be used by business historians to construct a theory of nineteenth-century economic activity were created in the natural process of running a business; correspondence kept family members in touch with one another: their use by social historians is quite a different matter inasmuch as there was (usually) no sense of their being permanently preserved when they were written. They were not created for subsequent research use, and access and effective use of them for research purposes depends upon understanding this fundamental difference between archival and library resources.

Archives may consist of:

  • correspondence
  • journals
  • diaries
  • minutes
  • literary manuscripts
  • deeds or other land records
  • wills
  • marriage contracts
  • ledgers or day books
  • maps
  • sketches
  • broadsides
  • advertising flyers
  • architectural drawings
  • cassette or video recordings
  • micro-format records
  • electronic media
  • photographs

Archives are different from books:

  • archival materials do not circulate; they must be used in the archives Reading Room
  • archival materials are retrieved for the user from closed stacks
  • archival materials are preserved in the order that they were created by the person, association or institution
  • archival materials are unpublished, primary, unique

How are Archives Organized?

Archives are arranged according to provenance and, where possible, original order is maintained. Archives are not dispersed into subject areas but are kept as evidence of the creating body, not, in the first instance, as a resource for subsequent research. The concept of provenance is crucial to the authenticity of the archival record.

  • Each archival document or group of documents (known as a fonds) is assigned an accession number and shelved as it was created and subsequently forwarded to the archives whether it consists of one letter or a hundred boxes.
  • Archives have no subject categorization schemes as libraries do. Materials pertaining to specific subjects are not removed from the fonds. Some "extra" information adheres to the archival record by maintaining the papers according to provenance and with absolute respect for the context of each and every component of the fonds. Papers accumulated by a creator and kept intact tell us more about the creating body than would any sum of their parts if we broke it up into subject groupings or removed specific media from it without ensuring that appropriate intellectual linkages were in place. That is, maps for example might be physically removed from a group of papers to be stored more safely in special cabinets but any finding aids would include reference to those maps. Their contextual existence would be secure. Archival practice requires that the records of a person or agency be kept together, and, in addition, be kept in the same order as they were originally arranged. These are the rules of "provenance" and respect des fonds which govern the arrangement and description of archival material in every archival depository.
  • Archival materials are less managed, and less manageable, than library materials. The maintenance of fonds holistically, and in the order in which they were created, dictates mechanisms of acquisition, description, arrangement and accessibility within the archival repository.

What do archivists do?

Archivists acquire papers, arrange and describe them, and ensure their permanent preservation. They then make these resources available to researchers by maintaining secure facilities. In order to fulfill these responsibilities, they must:

Create Order:

Most archives will have, and should have, a written collections mandate. Within the parameters of this mandate, the Archivist will appraise and acquire such materials as are deemed appropriate to the repository. These are normally acquired through donation. Once acquired, the archivist has a responsibility to process, arrange and describe materials in a timely manner.


After the donor arrangements have been made and acquisition has been legalized, the archivist will inspect the papers; identify fonds and any sous-fonds or series; clean and repair if necessary; encapsulate fragile items; supply order, if none exists, by putting the papers into chronological or alphabetical order, as appropriate; perform weeding and stripping as necessary. At all times, the archivists will be aware of "respect des fonds" and retain the original order of the papers wherever possible.


The process of establishing intellectual control over holdings involves the preparation of finding aids which are descriptive media, published and unpublished, created either by an originating office, or an archival agency repository, which serve to establish physical or administrative and especially intellectual control, over holdings. Finding Aids include guides (general or repository-level, and subject or topical), inventories, registers, file lists, shelf and box lists, calendars, software documentation (for electronic records) and databases. Each of the above may be hard-copy, electronic, online or all three.

Google versus Subject Guides: The wide use of such search engines as Google has made the Subject Guide less critical for researchers. It is, however, still a valuable tool in that awareness of subject guides, created with the particular institution in mind, helps focus collecting and contributes to a coherent acquisitions program (in tandem with the mandate). Furthermore, keyword searching is not 100% effective – there are always advantages for the researcher in browsing a subject category.

One of the basic tenets of archival practice is authenticity of the record, and, thus, attention is always given to provenance. The rule of provenance does not prevent or hinder a subject approach by a researcher. After all, the preservation of the "collective memory" is legitimized, in part, by its use as research material. Even though archival materials are processed and maintained according to provenance, subjects and personal names can be uncovered by researchers by perusing finding aids prior to looking at the documents themselves. All archives should provide descriptions of their holdings using the guidelines known as "Rules for Archival Description." Compliance with "Rules for Archival Description"  (R.A.D.) means that all finding aids for any archives in Canada should all look the same, should thus all easily be coded with E.A.D. protocols, and should provide similarly-detailed information as to date, extent, scope and contents, and custodial history. Information about all fonds or collections will thus be electronically interchangeable via such on-line "union lists" as Archives Canada.


The papers will be prepared for shelving and placed in acid-free file folders inside acid-free records storage boxes; folders will be labeled clearly with accession number, folder number and box number. Box labels will note the total number of boxes in the accession. Any restrictions to all or part of the fonds will be marked on the label.


The function of a database has not been entirely superseded by search engines such as Google. Databases such as DB/Textworks are useful for generating consistently formatted reports in any form; for applying subject access points; for making global changes in a number of records, and for encouraging the creation and maintenance of in-house authority files. Trent University Archives generates all reports such as finding aids, subject guides, annual acquisition reports and donor lists from a DB/Textworks database. We enter information in 26 fields in the Trent database.

Make Accessible:

Managing archival resources is a balancing act. The Archivist is a point of intersection between the records creator and the records user, and it is that mediation between the preservation function, and the research function which demands our attention. Responsibility to the donor and ethical responsibility to the permanent maintenance and preservation of heritage materials implies security from human and environmental hazards. Whereas, commitment to research, and, one hopes, contribution to an accurate historical record, demands adequate accessibility for researchers. Tensions between these two must be examined and adjusted within the confines of staff and other available resources.

Our reading room procedures typify our dual commitment to preservation and research. We provide professional consultation and guides to the materials in our keeping. We also specify procedures for persons consulting these materials. Researchers are asked to register when they come in to the archives. They discuss their research project with the archives staff and pertinent materials are retrieved and brought to them from the closed stacks. They may first consult the "Subject Guides to Holdings." There are 31 subject areas which offer a brief, one-paragraph description of each fonds as compared to the detailed Finding Aids which are complete with biographical or historical information, scope and contents, and file list. Researchers are required to use only pencils, not pens, for note-taking; cotton gloves must be worn when handling photographs and other fragile textual material; any photocopying will be done by archives staff and only if the original document is in good condition. Archival documents are often fragile and they are always unique. Replacement of lost or damaged items is not possible.

The issue of preservation is a basic concern to archivists. An overview may indicate some of the more obvious points. Less obvious are the methods by which archivists (with the blessing of copyright law) are allowed to transfer documents from one medium to another in the interests of relieving pressure on the original. Most common are the photo-reproduction of fragile texts for research usage, the transcriptions which often accompany scanned documents in Web exhibits, and of course transcriptions of oral interview tapes. It is increasingly the desire of researchers to expect digitized records to be available for easy access, ready transport, and distance researching. The archivist must never forget that machine-readable media are good for access, but bad for preservation. Good quality paper has lasted for 2500 years; microfilm will last for up to 1000 years. Reel-to-reel tapes will last 100 years. Even audio cassettes will last for decades and still have recoverable tracks on them. But floppy disks? CDs? DVDs? In the interests of preservation, microfilming is still the best option for archives. Though an expensive procedure, microfilm can be retrospectively digitized and one will have the best of both worlds.

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