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Research Guides

Discover Archives

SearchTips for Discover Archives - finding archival records (primary sources) at U of T

Looking for archival records held at the University of Toronto?

You can find information about archives and archival records at the University of Toronto by searching and browsing Discover Archives

Discover Archives is a shared portal for exploring archival holdings at the University of Toronto and its federated colleges. The database contains descriptions of material related to the University of Toronto's history, as well as records from private individuals, families, businesses, and organizations.

Discover Archives is a database specifically designed for archival records. The database includes features that visually and structurally represent the organization of archival records and U of T archives repositories.


In Discover Archives you can find:

Icon of the outline of a person with the text "Names" underneath
Icon of a building with the text "archives" underneath
Image of digitized letter. Item link:

Because searching for archival records (primary sources) can require specific search strategies and planning, this guide provides search tips for the Discover Archives database. This guide can also assist you with FAQs of archival research and teaching with archives. If you are looking for published material such as books or articles, you can use U of T's LibrarySearch. The archival descriptions in Discover Archives are not currently discoverable through the LibrarySearch interface.

This guide is maintained by the Discover Archives Steering Committee.

New to archival research?

If you are new to archival research, here are helpful things to know before to you read the SearchTips:

  1. "Fonds"
    • A "fonds" is most often the top-level in the archival description hierarchy. A fonds is a body of records that was made and received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their everyday affairs.
    • You will see the word "fonds" throughout Discover Archives.
    • You will also see records group together as "Collections" and "Manuscript Collections" in Discover Archives.
  2. "Hierarchical"
    • Finding aids are narrative descriptions of a set of records. Finding aids and archival descriptions are structured hierarchically - they include lower level texts describing the series, files, and items at the archives. It is good to remember that archival description is hierarchical when searching Discover Archives.
    • chart-less
    • At the fonds, collection, or manuscript collection levels, the archival descriptions in Discover Archives will provide an overview of all the material in the fonds, collection or manuscript collection. The series description provides and overview of records grouped together because they were created as a result of a similar function or activity, record type, or subject. A file description provides information about material housed in a file or files that are related by use or by topic.
    • The SearchTips page contains guidance on understanding hierarchical descriptions.
  3. "Finding aid"
    • A “finding aid” is a document, usually a text document, created by an archivist that provides a description of archival records to assists researchers in understanding and contextualizing the materials that are cared for by an archives. Archival materials are usually grouped by the person, family, or organization that created or collected the records.
    • For more information about archives terms you may come across during your search, see the Glossary of Archives Terms page.
  4. Not everything is digitized and available online
    • A very small portion of archival records can be digitized for online access. In many cases, the finding aid or archival description is the only way for you to know what records an archives has. Some records may not have a finding aid yet so it can be helpful to consult with an archivist if you cannot find what you are looking for in Discover Archives.
    • If you are looking for digitized records available online in Discover Archives, you can specifically browse archival descriptions that have links to digitized records on this page.
  5. Not everything can be accessed - some records are restricted
    • Even if you find a record in Discover Archives within an archival description, this record may not be accessible to you for your research. Archives follow laws and, in some cases, limitations from creators or donors that may restrict access to records in some cases. There may also be limitations on use of records due to copyright.
    • In Discover Archives, you can refer to the "Conditions of access and use" field to find any access restriction information. 

Need more help?

If you can't find what you need in this guide or in Discover Archives, contact one of the archives at U of T.

For additional tips on finding and using primary sources and archives that are not from U of T archives, you can consult: