Introduction to Archival Research

Where do I begin?

People and organizations create and keep letters, diaries, financial accounts, reports, photographs, audio recordings, films, and an endless variety of other materials in various media and formats. When a body of material comes to the SFU Archives, the archivist keeps it together under the name of the organization or person that created it. That is to say, by its provenance.

The archivist arranges the records according to the original order in which the creator kept them. Provenance and original order preserve the evidential value and context of the records. For example, if a letter dated 30 years ago is found with notes for a book published ten years later, a researcher might be able to deduce that the letter was used in the research for the book.

An archival fonds is made up of the records naturally created and kept by a person or an organization in the course of their day-to-day activities. By contrast, a collection is just an artificial assembly of materials brought together on a subject. While useful, collections might not have the same evidential value as an archival fonds. Our holdings contain both fonds and collections.

Since archives are not arranged by subject but by provenance, start your archival research by considering which organizations or people might have created records that apply to your area of interest. You can get this information from secondary sources or ask the archivist.

For example, if you came across the name Maggie Benston in a book about women’s rights and wanted to learn more, you might find information among her papers, which are held by SFU.

Archives vs libraries

A finding aid describes each archival fonds or collection. An introductory section provides context for the records through a brief history of the organization or a short biographical sketch, and describes the records in general terms. SFU's finding aids have been migrated to SFU Atom, a web-based database.

When you are making your file list, keep track of the numbers for files that interest you.  Also, note any restrictions on the files such as “pending review.” This means an archivist must review the material for privacy issues or other concerns before you can access it. Many files can be opened upon review, but you will have to allow time for the review process. See additional information about access restrictions and control in SFU Atom search tips.

With that background in place, you can prepare for your visit to the Archives.