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Research Guides

Discover Archives

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

What Are Archives?

The term ‘Archives’ is used interchangeably to mean:

  1. The archival institution – the cultural body, department or organization that collects and preserves historical records (i.e. Victoria University Archives)
  2. The primary records - usually relate to a person, family, group, organization or government body. In Canada, archival institutions use the word Fonds (Urusula Franklin fonds) when they mean the body of records from one creator but the term ‘archives’ and ‘papers’ in this context is still used -  ‘Now Magazine archives is held by Media Commons’ , ‘Where are Margaret Atwood’s papers?’

In Discover Archives, you will also encounter the term ‘Special Collections’ and ‘Collection’.  Each of these terms mirror the two definitions of ‘archives’ above.  

  1. Special Collections, commonly used in libraries, refers to an archival repository that collects and preserves primary documents often around a theme or subject area.  
  2. The term ‘Collection’ refers to a group of primary documents collected for the purpose of documenting a subject or a theme.  

What Do Archives Collect?

Archives as institutions are normally mandated to preserve the history of the organization or group they serve by collecting primary records relevant to their history.  Archives can also be mandated to collect primary records based on a subject or theme, as is most often the case for Special Collections.  

Archives collect primary sources of all types and formats.  You can find: 

●     Textual records (ex: correspondence, minutes, reports and drafts, project files, case files)
●     Photographs, negatives, postcards, drawings, posters
●     Film, video, and audio recordings
●     Maps and architectural drawings
●     Objects and artifacts
●     Select books, newspapers and ephemera related to the archives’ mandate

What Are the Benefits of Archival Research?

  • Archives hold primary sources, the raw material of research
  • Can tell a story from multiple perspectives
  • Can examine multi-media material on a topic (written records, photos, film, etc.)
  • Archival records are evidence of events, places and people that may not be well-documented in published literature
  • Archives hold original research material that you often cannot find anywhere else
  • Archival records were usually created by witnesses or first recorders of events at about the time they occurred and thus provide first-hand accounts of events that are of interest to researchers

If you are seeking to learn about the past, primary sources of information are those that provide first-hand accounts of the events, practices, or conditions you are researching. In general, these are documents that were created by the witnesses or first recorders of these events at about the time they occurred, and include diaries, letters, reports, photographs, creative works, financial records, memos, and newspaper articles (to name just a few types). From University of Illinois Primary Source VILLAGE

Researching in Libraries vs. Archives

Libraries Archives
Published material Unpublished material
Secondary sources Primary sources
Interpretations Evidence
Can browse materials Closed stacks
Can sign out materials On-site research
Organized by subject Organized by provenance and original order
Catalogued at the item-level (discrete items) Described at higher levels (aggregations)
Cataloguing is very standardized, opportunity for copy-cataloguing Descriptions are less standardized and often time consuming to create


Can I Do Research in U of T's Archives?

Yes, all archival repositories at U of T and its federated universities are open to members of the university community, and members of the general public.
Archival researchers include scholars, faculty, students, university administrators, genealogists and biographers, journalists, activists, lawyers, authors, artists, and members of the general public.

Archives typically use finding aids and databases to describe their material for researchers.

Unlike library stacks, the majority of the archival materials can only be accessed on site in a reading room. Archivists can assist you in accessing the appropriate records and they are happy to help.
Searching holdings:
Visit Discover Archives to search across each archives' archival descriptions. You can also visit each archives' website for more information - each U of T archives' website is linked from their profile in Discover Archives.

Is Everything Online?

No. Most archives only have selected material digitized and available online. Often this material is just a small fraction of the total holdings for each repository. Most archival research will require in-person visits to the archives itself to access the broader extent of these holdings.

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

What Else Should I Know About Research in Archives?

Visiting archives: Some campus archives require an appointment to visit, while others have public reading room hours for researchers. Each archives also has its own policies and procedures for researchers (for example, how copies can be made). Refer to each archives' website for more information.
Accessibility: Most archives at the University of Toronto are accessible. Please contact staff before your visit to confirm.
Archival literacy: You may have to develop your archival research skills in order to discover, work with, and interpret archival sources. In addition to this guide, here are some good archival literacy resources:

How Can I Cite Archival Materials?

Note: Archives and Special Collections may have citation requirements and conventions specific to that institution. If possible, be sure to consult an archivist or guide that belongs to the archive you visit.