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Guide to Archival Research

What are archives? What is archival research?

Person with laptop at table with lamp in front of bookshelvesThe term 'archives’ has two related meanings. It can refer to:

  • a specific type of documentary source material giving evidence of past events (e.g. photographs, letters, business reports, manuscripts);
  • a place (also called an "archival repository") where such material is stored, preserved, and used.

You may also encounter the term "fonds," which is a technical term for a particular subset of archival material. In many cases, when describing these documents, the terms "fonds" and "archives" are used interchangeably. If in doubt, ask an archivist!

Archival materials provide evidence of things that happened in the past. These documents can be very old, but they can also be very recent. Most archives add new archival material to their holdings every year.

Archives and Libraries

Archives and libraries are both sites of knowledge and information. Archives differ from libraries in the following ways:

  • Archives often focus on unpublished material, while libraries usually focus on published material. Because archival material is unpublished, it tends to be unique and one of a kind. 
  • Archives typically consist of records which can include written documents, maps, photographs, objects, and audio-visual material.
  • Archives are organized very differently from libraries. Instead of being organized by subject, archives are organized by creator. As you can imagine, this impacts how you approach research in an archives. These differences are explained more here.

Types of archives

There are different types of archival repository. These differences usually have to do with the way that archives acquire their materials.

Institutional archives: repositories which mainly acquire material directly from their parent organization, often with a focus on preserving institutional memory. 

Examples of institutional archives:

Collecting archives: repositories which mainly acquire material not generated by their parent organization, often with focus on supporting research or community memory. These organizations, which include universities and historical societies, collect archival material from multiple creators to support research.

Examples of collecting archives:

Many archives, including Library and Archives Canada, are both institutional and collecting archives. This means that they are created to be the repository for institutional records (i.e. the records of the Canadian government), but that they will also collect material which is of interest to community memory (i.e. Canadian cultural property). 

What is archival research?

Archival research involves searching for, locating, and using primary sources held by archives. Using archival material involves analyzing the evidence these sources provide in order to inform a topic of enquiry or support a research claim. 

How this guide works

This guide will help you to understand how archival sources can inform and enrich your research project, how to locate these sources, and how to effectively manage your archival research. 

Before you get started, it is helpful to know basic archival vocabulary. Learn more here: Basic Facts about Archives. It helps to break down the archival research process into steps:

Archival research may take place in the physical space of an archival repository, which usually involves handling archival material directly, or online using digitized or born-digital material. Learn more here: Accessing Archives Online