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Home > Publications

Using Archives:

A Practical Guide for Researchers

Experienced travellers take time to learn something about their intended destination before leaving home. By knowing what to expect in terms of language and customs they are able to adapt and enjoy their stay.

First-time archives users frequently experience something of a culture shock as they struggle to adapt to new concepts and procedures. Their expectations of what an archives should be are based on their experience of libraries. Most of us tend to equate the two, but there are significant differences between them.

This guide is intended to introduce new users to some of the "customs" of archives. As with a visit to any new locale you can ensure a more productive and pleasant time by being prepared.

Item Archives and Libraries: The Fundamental Difference
Item The Language and Customs of Archives
Item Finding Aids
Item Planning the Research Strategy
Item Finding the Archives You Need
Item Is a Visit Necessary?
Item Inter-Lending Services
Item Research by Mail
Item Research by Phone
Item Professional Researchers
Item Arranging a Visit
Item What to Expect
Item Gaining Access
Item The Registration Process
Item The Reference Interview
Item Restrictions to Access and Use
Item Getting Down to Work
Item What's Expected of You?
Item Realities of Volume and Time
Item Note-Taking Tips
Item Copying
Item Using the Information
Item Copyright
Item Citations
Item Completing Your Visit

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The many differences between archives and libraries can be traced to one central and all-encompassing fact: the nature of the material collected by archives is fundamentally different from that found in libraries.

Libraries collect published material, also known as secondary sources. The holdings of one library may be duplicated in whole or in part by the holdings of another. If a book is lost or stolen it probably can be replaced.

Archives collect original unpublished material or primary sources. The records held by archives are unique and irreplaceable. By their very nature archival materials are fragile and vulnerable to improper handling. If an archival document is lost, stolen, or irreparably damaged, the information it contains is lost forever.

The unique nature of archival material has led archives to develop stringent security procedures. Researchers cannot browse through the stacks as they do in a library, and archival material can only be consulted in supervised reading rooms. As well, a myriad of rules govern how documents must be handled. These regulations usually are explained as part of the admission process and first-time researchers adapt quickly to these aspects of their new environment.

Practices related to the arrangement and description of archival material are more perplexing, particularly since the archival profession, like every other, has developed its own jargon. Some knowledge of basic concepts and terminology, of the language and customs of archives can help the new user to feel at home.

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Archives are concerned with archival fonds — all of the documents created and/or accumulated and used by a person, family, government institutions, or corporate body in the course of that creator's activities or functions. Since archives acquire documents in any medium that records information, the format of collections may be diverse and may include letters and diaries, photographs, maps, architectural drawings, computer tape, video and audio cassettes. The size of a collection may range from a single document to hundreds or even thousands of metres of material.

Archivists frequently distinguish between record groups and manuscript groups. A record group would include the various media created as part of its activities by a government agency or other institution. A manuscript group refers to the papers of an individual or private agency. The National Archives of Canada and the archives maintained by the provincial governments have separate divisions responsible for archival records created by government and the textual records created by private sources. Increasingly, the Canadian archival profession is using the term fonds rather than collection to refer to the records or papers of a particular individual, institution or organization. A fonds will contain information about numerous diverse topics and, unlike library material, cannot be organized physically by subject.

The work of arranging archival materials is based on two principles: provenance and respect for original order. The principle of provenance requires that the archives of an organization or person not be mixed or combined with the archives of another. For example, if an archives holds the records of two theatre companies it would not consolidate the records even though both are involved in the same artistic endeavour and both create similar records. This practice also is referred to as respect des fonds or respect for the source or creator. The principle of original order requires that archives preserve or recreate the order in which documents were created, maintained and/or used by the creator or office of origin. If, for example, the administrative office of a religious denomination maintained files alphabetically by name of congregation, that order would be maintained or, if necessary, reconstructed by the archives. Original order is most obvious in institutional records where organization and the need for easy retrieval were prime considerations in their creation and use. Private manuscripts and papers often show little discernible evidence of original order. The creator may have been happy to keep papers in a shoe box or bottom drawer. Original order is, of necessity, a more flexible rule than provenance. Where it is obvious that no particular order existed or when the order in which records were created cannot be recreated, archivists may leave the material in the order in which it was received or an order may be imposed to facilitate research.

Finding Aids

We are all familiar with the card catalogue, the subject index which is the main access tool to library collections. Finding Aids are the tools which provide access to archival material. These take many different forms and serve a variety of purposes. The type and level of sophistication of finding aids in a given archives will depend on the resources of the agency. Some common finding aids are described below.

Guides to Holdings provide a ready reference to the complex holdings of institutions. These consist of an abstract of the information included in the descriptive inventory and give an overview of each collection. Guides may also focus on particular subjects, time or places. Guides allow the researcher to identify those collections which will be of value to their research. They can then consult the descriptive inventories for more detailed descriptions. Guides to holdings are often published. These are of particular value to researchers who cannot easily visit an archives.

The Descriptive Inventory is the most common type of finding aid which the researcher will encounter. The inventory provides detailed information on the organization and activities of the agency or person that created the records and on the physical extent, chronological scope and subject content of the records. Lists of box and file titles and other descriptive material may also be included.

Lists provide box or file titles, names, places or subject information in alphabetical, chronological or other order. Box or file lists are often appended to inventories.

Indexes, adaptations from the library world, are the finding aids researchers are most comfortable using. The main entry card identifies each separate accession. Other added entry index cards lead the researcher to that accession from a variety of subjects places, people and events. An accession is a group of records from the same source taken into the custody of an archives at the same time. Since indexes are time consuming to produce, this type of finding aid is most often associated with large well funded agencies. The Accession Register is designed to establish control over material as it enters the archives. It is intended largely as an internal administrative document. However, it does contain elements of description and in some situations, particularly small volunteer managed archives, it may be the only finding aid available to researchers.

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Whether you are a writer or graduate student, genealogist or local historian, successful use of archives depends on a carefully plotted research strategy. Your strategy should allow adequate time for background research, establish which archives hold relevant collections, and include a work schedule which takes into account the extent of the material to be consulted.

The library should always be the first stop on the way to the archives. Your success in using archival material will depend on your grasp of the secondary material available for your subject - the information found in encyclopedias, books and journal articles.

Secondary sources help you develop parameters for your project and provide a context for assessing the primary sources you use. As you acquire a general knowledge of your topic, you will develop a sense of the areas that have been thoroughly covered and those aspects that need further study. You will begin to formulate the questions and ideas that will provide the focus for your work in the archives. The names, places, events and dates which you cull from your reading will provide the access points to the primary material you consult. If, for example, the records you wish to use are arranged chronologically and you don't know key dates, you will not be able to use them. If major players are unknown to you, you will overlook important manuscript sources.

As your reading progresses, move from the general to the specific: from broad surveys of a topic or period to works which explore particular themes. The reference librarian can help you work out a methodology which will include basic reference works for your subject, appropriate published bibliographies and major journals in the field.

How much reading should you do? The answer is unique to every project. Experienced researchers develop a kind of sixth sense and know when it's time to move on to the archives. First-time researchers will have to depend on their own hit-and-miss methods as well as the advice of librarians, archivists and colleagues. One thing is certain: secondary sources provide a touchstone. You will want to return to them frequently as you carry out your primary research work: to assess the material and to evaluate the ideas and theories you develop.

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Some 800 archives in Canada make their holdings available to researchers. These repositories are maintained by a variety of organizations and range from the archival authorities of federal, provincial and municipal governments to university, military and church archives and the archives of businesses and other private sector agencies.

Some archives serve an in-house function caring solely for the records of the parent organization. Examples would be the archives maintained by religious denominations. Other archives perform a collecting function, gathering records from a number of sources relating to a specific region, subject or activity. The Archives of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, for example, collects only material relating to the mountains of Western Canada.

Many archives perform a combination of these two functions. This would be the typical role of archives maintained by the various levels of government. As well as caring for records created by the federal government, the National Archives of Canada is responsible for collecting material which documents our cultural heritage.

Identifying which of these archives will be useful to you is one of the most important steps in your research strategy. Your background research will provide your first leads. Footnotes, bibliographies and often the narrative of a book or article can provide important information on sources. As your reading progresses, build a list of the material you wish to consult and note the name of the archives where it is held. Talk to colleagues who may have done work in the same topic area. What holdings have they used? Have they found them useful?

Imagination and resourcefulness are essential in tracking down material that will be useful to you. As you think about your subject area and the persons and institutions involved, ask yourself - What documents might have been created? Who would have produced them? Might these documents have survived? What repository is most likely to hold them? Successful researchers are like successful detectives ferreting out clues and leads. However, successful detectives build supposition on sound evidence. Never assume that a document should have been created or should have survived. Rather consider what evidence you have to support your belief.

Directories and published guides to various archives are available at your library, through the inter-library loan system or the reference libraries maintained by major archives. Directories provide a concise indication of the holdings of individual archives and information on location, hours of operation, etc. The Directory of Archival Repositories, maintained by the Canadian Council of Archives, for example, provides information on more than 800 archives. Its thematic index is a boon to researchers. Guides provide a ready reference to the various holdings of an archives and assist the researcher in deciding what collections might be of value.

Many National Archives of Canada published finding aids can be consulted in major university and specialized libraries throughout the country. The Union List of manuscripts in Canadian Repositories, Guide to Canadian Photographic Archives, and Union List of Foreign Topographic Map Series in Canadian Map Collections, will provide further information on the documents available in your area.

Guides to holdings and other finding aids on microform, as well as on electronic databases, are now becoming more readily available to researchers. For example, the National Archives of Canada's decentralized access sites located in Halifax, Montreal and Saskatoon give researchers access to a number of data bases on CD-ROM. This technology makes it possible to consult information on microform holdings as well as on other topics.

The National Archives and other major archives also make some finding aids available for purchase for private study in the form of microfiche, microfilm or photocopies.

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Inter-Lending Services

The material you wish to consult may be held by an archives hundreds of miles from your home. However, a visit is not always necessary. The National Archives of Canada and a number of other major archives make important or popular sources available on microfilm through the inter-institutional loan system. A library or archives in your area is likely a participant in the system.

Provincial and territorial archival repositories hold copies of some of the National Archives documents on a permanent basis. Usually, these are documents of general interest, such as the papers of prime ministers, censuses or documents relating to regional interests, like the records of the Department of Indian Affairs regarding western Canada or Canada Post records concerning the Atlantic Provinces. Copies of some maps, photographs, audio-visual material and works of art are also available. 

Research by Mail

Many archives will provide limited research assistance by mail. However, the amount of time an archives staff will spend on your request will be limited to a specific period of time (e.g., one half hour) or to a set number of questions that can be asked per letter (e.g., no more than three requests per letter). Research by mail is only viable when a researcher requires specific information. It is not the role of the archivist to interpret documents for clients. To take advantage of this service you should have planned your research strategy and know exactly when this option is appropriate. Archives staff, quite reasonably, may refuse to do research for individuals living within the vicinity of the repository. Some archives charge a fee for research services.

Before you write: use Directories and Guides to Holdings to establish appropriate archives and to note the correct address, the archivist's name (for small centres) and current charges if applicable.

When you write: specify what you need as succinctly as possible including name of person, place, event, location and approximate dates. "I am writing to request a search of the Gophertown burial register for the period 1910-1912 for John Doe son of William Doe and Jane Smith." Don't add unnecessary detail. While it may be interesting to know that John Doe died of complications from an abscessed tooth, this information will not aid the archivist's search.

Research by Mail: If you have corresponded with the archives before, say so, giving the date of your last letter and any reference number which you may have been assigned. It is not necessary to go into detail about your previous correspondence.

Research by Mail: Type or print your letter legibly. Allow a reasonable length of time for a reply (from four to six weeks and possibly longer for some agencies). Remember that your request is not the only one archives staff have to deal with.

Research by Phone

All archives are prepared to give out basic information about their services, hours of operation, and general holdings over the phone. Many will take telephone queries and handle them in the same manner as mail requests. Archival materials usually are more complex and difficult to search than books and do not lend themselves to quick reference services. For this reason few archives are in a position to provide detailed information over the phone. As well, many small archives only have one staff person on duty and that person cannot deal with a steady flow of telephone inquiries in addition to other tasks.

Professional Researchers

If you are unable to travel, most archives can provide you with a list of professional researchers working in the area. These lists are provided as a convenience and always carry a disclaimer stating that the archives is not endorsing any of the individuals listed. All arrangements, including fees, are the concern of the inquirer and the researcher.

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Make your first contact with an archives by telephone or letter. Even if you live across the street, it is a good idea to call first and determine whether an appointment is necessary. It is not wise to "drop in" to an archives in the way you would a library. Large repositories have staff devoted to reference service and usually can accommodate the unscheduled visitor. However, the time available to assess your needs may be limited. The staff of small archives have a variety of responsibilities and may not be able to attend to unannounced researchers. Remember that most archives close occasionally to take inventory. Small agencies also may have to close to accommodate staff leave.

When you make your first contact with an archives, whether by letter or telephone or in person, state your research problem succinctly. Cite the sources which you know the archives has and which you wish to use or know more about. Ask what others possibly might be appropriate.

Usually, the archivist will set up an appointment for a reference interview. The amount of time scheduled will depend on the complexity of your project. The session also gives the archivist an opportunity to explain security and other procedures in place at the agency.

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What should you expect as you get ready to embark on your first visit to an archives? First, remember that not all archives are created equal. The records which you wish to use may be housed in a large well-managed and fully-staffed repository or they may be maintained in a facility that is little more than a storage operation. From one archives to another there are huge variations in hours of operation, levels of staffing and other matters of concern to the researcher. Be prepared to adjust your work plan accordingly.

Concerns for the preservation and security of these unique materials have resulted in distinct reference procedures. For example, archival records cannot be borrowed and researchers are not allowed to browse through the stacks. Documents must be consulted in a supervised reading room. To gain access to the reading room of most archives you will be required to complete some form of registration process.

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The Registration Process

Registration is required in most archives. This usually requires that you complete a form giving such details as name, address, telephone number, and area of research interest. Identification, such as a driver's licence or student card, also may be required. During registration, the archivist will explain various regulations including your responsibilities when handling archival material. Usually you will be asked to sign a statement indicating that you have been informed of these regulations and agree to comply with them. In large archives you may be issued an identification card which will be valid for a specific period, typically one to two years.

The Reference Interview

Successful research in archives depends in large part on a successful collaboration between researcher and archivist.

The purpose of the reference or orientation interview is to help you refine your research strategy by identifying appropriate sources. Your job during the interview is to explain as concisely as possible what your topic is, any deadlines for your research, what you have done, and what you need. From your preliminary work you already may know of material which you wish to consult. The reference interview is optional. However, the archivist's knowledge of the institution and the records in its care can be one of the most effective elements of your research plan. As well, the archivist may be able to put you in touch with other individuals working in your field or help you identify topic areas that have been neglected.

Restrictions to Access and Use

All archives have policies governing access to their records. Large public archives such as the National Archives of Canada and the various provincial and municipal archives are open to the public by legislation. In-house archives, such as those caring for the records of businesses or private institutions, may allow access only to their own employees or persons working under contract to the parent organization.

It is possible that records which you wish to consult will not be available to you. Depositors may place restrictions on records. For example, a politician's private papers may be closed to researchers for a period of thirty years following his death. The archives itself may have to restrict records which contain defamatory, libellous or some personal information about a person other than the depositor.

Records which are in poor physical condition or have been damaged may be withdrawn until they are restored by a conservator. If it is possible, an archives will try to provide microfilm or some other form of copy.

Finally, unprocessed material, i.e., records which have not been brought under control through arrangement and description, generally will not be made available to researchers. Depending on the resources of an archives and the backlog of work, it may take several years to make a new acquisition available.

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What's expected of you?

In addition to being unique, archival material is highly fragile and vulnerable to improper handling. Everyone who handles archival documents shares a responsibility for their care. As a researcher you will be expected to follow practices which will contribute to the preservation of the material you use. Some of the more common procedures are described below.

Pencils are used for note taking. Ballpoint pens, fountain and felt-tip pens, and correction fluid should not be used in reading rooms. All contain substances which can cause damage to records. Laptop computers are commonplace in reading rooms nowadays. However, few archives can provide an electrical outlet for every researcher. Be sure that your batteries are up to strength.

Smoking, eating and drinking are not allowed in reading rooms. Not only can documents be stained or damaged, but food residue can attract insects which harm paper.

Personal belongings, such as coats and briefcases, cannot be brought into the reading room. Secure storage generally will be provided for these items.

Mixing files or documents can undermine their research value. Use only one box of material at a time and only one file from the box; take care to keep the documents in the file in the order in which you find them. Archival material is arranged by original order.

White cotton gloves are worn when handling fragile materials. These prevent the soiling of documents and damage to paper fibres.

Handle with care and avoid propping volumes or applying pressure in any way; do not mark or fold documents. If you wish to mark your place, use paper marking flags which can be interleaved as required.

Realities of Volume and Time

First-time archives users often are overwhelmed by the volume of material to be sifted through. As part of your research strategy, use finding aids to assess the extent of a collection in order to "guesstimate" how much time to allow for your work. "Guesstimate" is the operative term since new users do not have the experience to accurately gauge a work schedule. The archivist will help you work out a time frame, but be prepared to adjust as every individual has different work habits. Names, places, events and dates must be used to get a "handle" on this material. This is where solid background research pays off.

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Accuracy of note taking takes on a different dimension in archives than in a library. It is more difficult to recover citations from documents than from books and revisiting an archives is not always an option. At a minimum, you should take enough notes to ensure that factual data and quotations which you intend to use are recorded in full. Accurate citations are a guarantee that you or your readers can consult the same material in the future. Ultimately, each researcher will have to decide how much detail to record. As with so many aspects of working in an archives, your skill in this area will improve with each subsequent visit.

Your working notes should include the name of the archival institution, the record group or manuscript collection, series or file title, the exact identity of the item consulted and, finally, your content note for the information that interests you. Record precise titles as used by the archives for your first entry. Abbreviations can be used for subsequent notes.

Once a record group or manuscript collection has been consulted, it is wise to prepare a summary note indicating the chronological scope and the arrangement of the material, whether all of a group or only part was checked, items which you plan to use and those which are irrelevant for your project. Such a summary will allow you to use material more efficiently and to avoid duplication of effort on any follow-up visit.

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Photocopies can be provided by an archives only within the limits of the Copyright Act and only if the condition of the material warrants exposure to the handling and light necessitated by the process. Copies are made by an archivist or technician. Charges vary and many archives set limits on the number of items they will copy for a single user in a stated period of time.

Most archives can provide copies of photographic prints, cine film, tape recordings, maps, drawings and other media. Charges and limits on the extent of copying allowed will vary from archives to archives.

A detailed statement on policy, procedures and prices for reprographic services will usually be provided on request. Copies provided through reprographic services are made available for private research and reference purposes only. You may be asked to sign a statement to this effect.

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Reproduction of archival material is subject to the terms and conditions of the Copyright Act. This is a highly complex area for both archives and researchers. However, the researcher is responsible for determining copyright ownership and obtaining permission to publish any copyrighted materials.

Copyright can be owned or held by an individual, a corporation, or the public, depending on the age, nature and disposition of the material in question. The diffficulty for both archives an researchers lies in determining who holds copyright, whether they are still alive or when they died, and if they have made special arrangements for the transfer or maintenance of copyright.

Public archives such as the National Archives of Canada and the various provincial archives and other collecting archives hold material for which the ownership of copyright may be uncertain. In-house archives generally own the copyright of the material they hold. Researchers should allow adequate lead time for researching ownership and obtaining permission to copy or publish.


Archival material is more complex to identify than books or journal articles making the accuracy of citations more critical. Many archives provide instructions on how best to footnote their holdings.

As a general rule of thumb, the first reference in a footnote is to the individual item. The series, group and name of archives follow. This is the reverse to note taking. Footnotes will vary according to the type of material being cited. When in doubt, seek the advice of archival staff.

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As you complete your work in an archives, make a note of any information which would be useful for a return visit. This might include practical facts, such as variations in hours of operation, or a notation on record or manuscript groups which will be useful to you in the future. If an archivist or librarian has been particularly helpful, take time to write a thank-you note. Finally, some archives and libraries have "friends" associations or other forms of donor and volunteer programs. Consider what you can do to assist in preserving our documentary heritage.

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