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A Guide to Archival Research


Material found in an archives is typically, although not always, unique and one-of-a-kind. These unique materials can include textual documents (such as letters, diaries, manuscripts, and business records) and also non-textual records (such as photographs, sound recordings, maps, films, and objects or artifacts).

Because of this uniqueness, archival material is often irreplaceable, and archival repositories have a responsibility for keeping their collections safe so they can continue to be used by present and future generations. This means that the materials held by archival repositories are treated and handled very differently than they might be in a library setting. Archival repositories and libraries differ in how they are organized and how they are accessed.

How archives are organized

There are two archival principles which are used to think about and organize archival material, affecting the manner in which archives are organized and kept:

  • Principle of provenance: Archives should be closely associated with the context in which they were created. Records created by one person or organization should not be mixed with those of other creators.
  • Principle of respect for original order: Where possible, records should be kept in the same order that they were maintained by their creator. Just as a person's organization of their own bookshelves might provide clues about what they like and how they think, the organization of archival records also gives us valuable insight into the circumstances of their origin.

The key to understanding these related principles is the concept of the archival bond. This is the philosophical principle that all the documents  within an archive have a relationship to one another; if they were separated, they would lose a part of their meaning. Preserving this archival bond means that archives are greater than the sum of their parts -- we can learn not just from the information the documents themselves contain, but also from how they relate to one another and to their creator. This is why archives are usually organized by creator rather than by subject. It is also why it is very important, when using archival materials, to keep them in the exact order that you find them.

When theses principles are followed, the materials form a fonds. A fonds refers to the total whole of materials created organically by a person or organization in the natural course of their life or activities. Libraries organize their books by subject; when you browse a library’s shelves, you usually expect to find all the books related to a topic (e.g. Canada---History---War of 1812) in the same place. In archival repositories, because of the archival bond, archives are organized by fonds. 

When these principles are not followed, the archival material forms a collection. A collection is like a fonds, in that it refers to the whole of documents which might consist of series, files and items, but unlike a fonds, it is an artificial grouping of material that has been put together after the documents' creation because they relate to the same subject. For example, if an archives has a collection of advertisements from a number of different companies, it makes more sense to organize them as an "Advertising Collection."

Examples of fonds

Examples of collections

Within a fonds or collection, there may be multiple series. A series refers to a part of the whole which is kept together because it is similar, relating to the same subject, function or because they result from the same activity.

Series are made up of files, which are made up of items. A single letter is an example of an item. The letter is found in a file of letters, which are found in a series of files of letters.

These terms will be important to remember when you are searching for material and citing your sources. Searching for archival material involves reading a finding aid, which is a description of the archival material written in order to guide researchers looking through its contents. To learn more about how to read a finding aid, check out the 'How to Read a Finding Aid' page of this guide. 

Another word that you may encounter in your research is 'accrual.' The term accrual refers to a grouping of material received by an archives at a single point in time. Typically, archival material is given to the archives in batches over time; archivists refer to these batches as accruals. 

Text boxes which read Fonds Series Series Series File File Item Item Item Item



How archives are accessed

Because archival materials are unique and one-of-a-kind it is very important that they are cared for and preserved in a specialized context.

  • Archival materials do not circulate (that means you can't take them home!) so they must be accessed on-site in a controlled space called a Reading Room.
  • Material must be handled with caution and care. All documents must be handled gently with clean, dry hands. Take care to preserve the order in which the documents are kept. Depending on the format and condition of the material, users may be required to wear gloves when handling archival material.
  • Most reading rooms have specific rules about how researchers are expected to behave and how their materials may be used, handled, photographed, or copied. The rules of the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections at McMaster University can be found here.
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