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Using Archives

What are primary sources?

The majority of holdings in any archives will be unique original materials, in any format: textual records, such as correspondence; photographs; video, film, and other moving images; audio tapes; maps; architectural plans and drawings; and increasingly, digital records such as web pages, electronic databases or anything “born digital.” 

All of these are the records normally created by individuals or organizations in the course of their daily activities; and these are what we refer to as primary sources.  Unlike libraries, archives rarely contain published materials (secondary sources); although archives do contain some rare, hard to find or ephemeral published materials.  Archives preserve evidence of functions, actions, procedures, and decisions taken by individuals or institutions, departments, and organizations. 

These records are unmediated : as a user of archival materials you are the detective, sorting through evidence and drawing your own conclusions about what that evidence says. Interpretation and analysis is up to you. 

How do I find… ?

Holdings within an archives are organized by generator or creator of the material, not by subject.  Materials will normally be identified by the individual or unit responsible for creating and/or accumulating it: for example, the John Diefenbaker fonds or the Department of History fonds.  

For any given collection of material, any pre-existing organization of the material is retained – the organizational structure of collections will be unique, and will reflect the material itself. 

Archivists describe records rather than catalogue them.  Each fonds will have its own description: a finding aid, or guide, to the material.  These guides will include:

  • a note about the individual or organization;
  • an indication of the dates and full extent of the material;
  • the formats of the material;
  • a brief note generally describing the material; and
  • usually, a complete list of every file, often with a further description of the contents

Because their holdings are unique, no two archives contain the same material.  One of your first step will be to determine where the material you want is likely to be found.  Consider the likely collection mandate for different institutions

For example:

For federal government records, the Library and Archives Canada is the likeliest source;
For provincial government records, provincial or territorial archives are the likeliest source;
For municipal government records, municipal or city archives are the likeliest source.
Most universities in Canada maintain institutional archives, as do most religious organizations.

To locate archives or for contact information:

In Canada:
Canadian Council of Archives Directory:
http://www.cdncouncilarchives.ca/directory.html
In Saskatchewan:
Saskatchewan Council for Archives and Archivists Directory:
http://scaa.sk.ca/about_archives/directory.html

Finding archival resources online:

In Canada:
Archives Canada:
http://www.archivescanada.ca/
- this site also provides:
links to provincial networks
links to institutional websites
links to international archival databases
In Saskatchewan:
Saskatchewan Archival Information Network
http://scaa.sk.ca/holdings/sain-welcome.html

Tips for online searching:

  • if you are looking for the records of a specific individual or organization, search by title or provenance;

  • a general keyword search will search the biographical note/administrative history as well as the scope & content note, so results may include some less pertinent material.  For example, a general keyword search for Saskatchewan will return results including people born in Saskatchewan; with degrees from the University; etc.; as well as results with content specifically about the province.

Doing research in an archives:

Because the material is unique and cannot be replaced, remember:

  • holdings are non-circulating and must be used on site;
  • institutions may impose rules such as pencil only; no external books or bags; etc.
  • copyright and privacy issues may impose limits on access and/or use

When considering what fonds or collections to review, consider:

  • organizational or individual responsibilities
  • individual interests and avocations

Do your secondary source research first!! 

Be prepared to:

  • consult a variety of fonds;
  • consider new avenues based on materials you uncover
  • have an ongoing reference discussion with the archivist

Give yourself plenty of time; and
Always keep citations as you research; finding a document later may prove difficult if you haven’t noted the source

Some definitions:

Fonds: “The whole of the records, regardless of form or medium, automatically and organically created and/or accumulated and used by a particular individual, family, or corporate body in the course of that creator’s activities or functions.”

Collection: “An artificial accumulation of documents of any provenance brought together on the basis of some common characteristic.” For example: postcard collections; photograph collections, etc.

Provenance: “The person or office of origin of records, i.e., the person, family, or corporate body that created and/or accumulated and used records in the course of that creator’s activities or functions.” 

Respect des fonds: “The principle that the records of a person, family or corporate body must be kept together in their original order, if it exists or has been maintained, and not be mixed or combined with the records of another individual or corporate body.”