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A Guide to Archival Research


Archival material is listed in a document called a finding aid. Follow this guide to learn how to understand the elements of a finding aid. The database of finding aids for archives held by McMaster University's William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, can be accessed here.
Finding aid A description of a fonds or collection. The finding aid is like a ‘roadmap’ to the archival material and helps researchers locate what they would like to access.

Reading A Finding Aid

Guide to the elements in an archival finding aid


How to Read a finding Aid. Large Arrow pointing to the Right. Click the arrows to navigate

Title: This usually identifies the creator of the archives -- the individual or organization responsible for the creation or collection of the records. For a collection, the title refers to the subject or idea that connects all of the material within it. 

Level of Description: Look at this element to learn whether the archives being described is a 'fonds' or a 'collection.' You may also read finding aids which include the level of description when describing series, files, and/or items. 

Text. Statement TITLE AND STATEMENT OF RESPONSIBILITY AREA Title proper Henry George Thode fonds  Level of description Fonds  Reference code RC0130

Dates: This indicates the time period covered by materials in the fonds.

Text. DATES OF CREATION AREA Date(s) 1932-1996 (Creation)

Physical description: This identifies, in broad terms, the quantity and format of the records in the archive. Textual records are measured in terms of how much linear space they take up on a shelf.

This can help you decide how much time you will need to look at material. In this case, almost 10 metres of records is equal to about 25 bankers boxes. That is a lot of material to go through!

Text. PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION AREA Physical description 9.8 m of textual records and other materials. 27 items, mostly medals.

Biographical or Administrative History: Overview of the life or history of the creator, providing basic facts and highlights. For individuals, this is called a Biographical History; for organizations it is called an Administrative History. 

ARCHIVAL DESCRIPTION AREA Name of creator Thode, Henry George (1910-1997) Biographical history  Henry George Thode was born in Dundurn, Saskatchewan in 1910. He completed his BSc. and MSc. at the University of Saskatchewan. In 1934, he took his Ph.D in physical chemistry at the University of Chicago. For his post-doctoral work, he was given the ...

Scope and content: This note provides more detailed information about the archival material, giving more specifics about what types of material an archive contains and the contexts in which the material was created and used. 

This can give you a better idea of major thematic groupings in the archive and what types of records it contains.  This is useful for deciding whether or not the materials are relevant to your research.

Scope and content There have been two accruals. The first accrual (24-1997) consists of nine series: National Research Council/Atomic Energy Canada Limited; McMaster University; Nuclear reactor and Nuclear Activation Services; experiments and research; correspondence;

Immediate source of acquisition: This describes the recent history of the material and how it was acquired by the archival repository in which it is located.

Restrictions on access: This will tell you which parts of the archives are not currently accessible to users.

This is very important to look out for; not every document you might want to see is available yet!

Finding aids: These link to online listings of archival content. By following this link, you will find the detailed description of the materials in the archives.

NOTES AREA Immediate source of acquisition The first accrual was acquired in 1997 from Dr. Thode. The second accrual was acquired from Patrick Thode in October 2007.  Restrictions on access There are no access restrictions.  Finding aids First accrual: Online Finding Aid Second accrual: Online Finding Aid  Accruals Further accruals are not expected

Box/File Description

Finding aids for archives will look different across archives. Not all archives will be described to the file-level. As you read the finding aid, your may notice descriptions of individual files or documents within the boxes. Be aware of the level of the archives that the description relates.

At William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections at McMaster University, archival material is typically described at either the box or file level. Files are listed as "F.1, F.2, F.3 ...".

This description, for example, tells you that the box includes copies of lectures given by Henry Thode between 1971 and 1976. If this information is relevant to your research, you might be interested in requesting this box to look at!

Box 33 Lectures, 1971-1976 Include faculty meetings, address at the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy Conference, Thode’s lecture series at Mount Allison University and his work with the Woods Hole Institute.  Box 34 Lectures, 1976 Lectures for the Woods Hole Institute. Van Cleave Lectureship in Chemistry. Speech at the Convocation at Regina University. A lecture given to the IUPAC ; the Urey Symposium.
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