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A guide to using archival sources

What are archives?

Archives are materials that are created, used, received, and collected by a person, family, or organization during the course of their daily activities and preserved as a result of their continuing value.

Some examples of archival records include:

  • Correspondence
  • Diaries and journals
  • Maps and plans
  • Graphic material including photographs, slides, negatives, drawings, paintings etc.
  • Meeting minutes and agendas
  • Financial records such as ledgers and account books
  • Legal documents
  • Electronic records
  • Scientific data
  • Audio and visual material, including oral history interviews
  • Notes and manuscripts
  • Annual reports
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How are archives different from libraries?


Closed stacks

Original unpublished materials

Unique material

Materials are organized according to the way the person or organization kept their records (original order) and are organized by creator

Groups of materials are described at different levels: fonds, series, and item level

Items do not circulate


Open stacks

Published materials

Other copies of material may be present in the library

Materials are organized using call numbers and by subject

Material is described at an individual level

Items circulate

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How are archival materials organized and made accessible?

Archival materials are typically organized according to fonds. A fonds is the entire body of records created and accumulated by a person, family, or individual during the course of their activities or functions. Archival fonds are distinct from collections. Fonds are created and accumulated organically, while collections are brought together as a result of some unifying characteristic (subject matter, document type, etc.).

Fonds are arranged and described by an archivist so that they may be consulted by interested researchers. This work takes the form of a guide called a finding-aid. A finding-aid is a tool that facilitates the discovery of materials within a fonds. It tells researchers about the types of materials contained in the fonds and helps them understand its contents.

Each fonds is kept separately from others to prevent the records from becoming intermingled and to preserve their original context. Fonds are sub-divided in a hierarchical structure consisting of series, sub-series, files, and items. This hierarchy is reflected in the finding-aid. Each fonds will not necessarily be composed of each level. Some may include fonds and series level descriptions only, while others will also be composed of file and item level descriptions.

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Archival language

Original order:The organization of archival materials as established by the creator of the records.

Provenance:The person, family, or organization that created or received the items in a fonds; the origin of the records that form an archival fonds.

Arrangement: The process of organizing materials within a fonds with respect to their provenance and original order.

Description: The recording of information about the nature, structure and content of the records. Description is the process of creating a finding-aid that facilitates access to archival fonds. The Rules for Archival Description is the standard used in Canada to describe records.

File: (1) A level of description. (2) An organized unit of documents, usually within a series, brought together because they relate to the same subject, activity, or transaction.

Finding aids: A document containing detailed information about a collection of records, including the content, subjects, dates, formats, and significance of the documents, used by researchers to determine whether items in the collection are relevant to their research.

Fonds: All of the records naturally accumulated (created or received) by a particular person, organization, or family as a by-product of business or day-to-day activities, reflecting the functions of the creator and organized in hierarchical structure based on how the records were used.

Item:The unit that represents the smallest intellectual entity within a fonds.

Series: (1) A unit of archival description. (2) Documents arranged systematically or maintained as a unit because they relate to a particular function or subject, result from the same activity, have a particular form.

Sous-fonds: A subdivision of a fonds based on the structure of the creator or the organization of its activity.

Sub-series: A grouping of documents separately identifiable within a series by reason of form or organization which issue from the accomplishment of one activity of a creator.

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More information

Archives Research Tutorial - University of Manitoba Archives

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