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A guide to using archival sources

What are archives?

Archives are documents that are created, used, received, and kept by people or organizations during the course of their activities or functions and preserved because of their continuing value.

Some examples of archival records include:

  • Correspondence
  • Diaries and journals
  • Maps and plans
  • Graphic material including photographs, slides, 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
  • Notes and manuscripts
  • Annual reports
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How are archives different from libraries?

Archives Libraries
Closed stacks Open stacks
Original unpublished materials Published materials
Unique material Other copies of material may be present in the library
Materials are organized according to the way the person or organization kept their records (original order) and are organized by creator Materials are organized using call numbers and by subject
Groups of materials are described at different levels: fonds, series, and item level Material is described at an individual level
Items do not circulate Items circulate
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How are archival materials organized and made accessible?

Archivists organize records according to fonds. Fonds are arranged and described using a guide called a finding aid. Finding aids provide descriptions based on the hierarchical structure of the fonds and comprise several levels (fonds, sous-fonds, series, sub-series, file, and item). 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

Arrangement: The process of identifying archival documents as they belong to groupings within a fonds.

Description: The recording of information about the nature, structure and content of the records. 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 no longer usefully subdivisible for descriptive purposes.

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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page last updated on: Thursday 14 September 2017
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