Skip to Main Content

Research Guides

Discover Archives

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


Discover Archives uses standards-based archival terminology that you may not be familiar with. This glossary of terms helps define and describe some of the trickier terms and concepts used within to help you search and browse the database.

You can also consult the Society of American Archivists' Glossary for other archives terminology help. 


In the context of Discover Archives and archival records at U of T, "access" refers to the permission to locate and retrieve information for use (consultation or reference) within legally established restrictions of privacy, confidentiality, and security clearance. See also Conditions of access and use


A unit of aggregated documents - an accrual of records transferred to the Archives.


Access points:

An access point is a name, term, keyword, phrase or code that may be used to search, identify and locate an archival description. In Discover Archives these can be used to find related archival descriptions - for example all the archival descriptions related to "Health" or "Quakerism", or all those related to "South Africa". You can search by keyword access points in the Basic Search.


An addition to an existing archive. Where the phrase 'Further accruals are expected' is used, more material is likely to be added to the archive in the future. (See also 'Accession' above)

Archival description:

A body of information about an archival record or records. This typically includes the name or title of the record, the date it was created, and a description of what it is. At present Discover Archives displays archival descriptions for the archival collections held at the University of Toronto and its federated colleges. These descriptions summarize the contents of a group of records created or accumulated and used by a particular person, family or corporate body. Archival description is created by an archivist. There's never enough time to describe everything in a fonds or collection so there can be varying degrees of detail from one fonds to another. 

All archival descriptions are original work - there’s no copy-cataloguing. In some cases, finding aids become labours of love for an archivist.

Archives institution / repository:

The word "archives" can refer to an archives institution or archives repository as an organization. Archives keep records - recorded information in any form, created or received by a person, family, corporate or government body in the course of the creator's activities or functions. In this context, an archives repository preserves and provides access to items of continuing value, particularly records; a storehouse; an institution focused on the care and storage of items of continuing value, particularly records. In Discover Archives, archival descriptions are connected to the different archives repositories at the University of Toronto. 

Authority (name) records:

Authority (name) records are collections of information about actors - corporate bodies, persons, or families - who interact with archival materials, typically as creators or subjects. They contain important contextual information, such as dates of existence, administrative or biographical history, and other forms of names by which the actor is known. They also include the relationship of the actor to other authority records or archival descriptions and this can be really useful for researchers. You can view key parts of the authority record in the archival description, or open it as a separate page by clicking on the name of the creator. You can also search by authority record by selecting ‘Authority Record’ in the drop down menu at the top left of the interface.

Conditions of access and use:

In Discover Archives, this field provides information on the legal status or other regulations that restrict or affect access to the record or records described. This might also include technical requirements affecting access, for example if video tapes, cassettes or computer files are included.


In an archival description, this is the date a record was created. When more than one date is displayed, for example ‘1900 – 1925’, these indicate the date of creation of the earliest and latest record within the collection or fonds. In an authority record, dates represent the 'dates of existence' of a person, family or corporate body.

Digital object:

A digital object, or digitized object or digitized record, is typically a text or image on paper or film that has been converted to an electronic format - an analog record that has been digitized into electronic format for the purpose of access or preservation. Simple digital objects are made up of a single file, such as a PDF or a single image, while complex digital objects are made up of multiple files, such as a digitized book. 

Extent and medium:

A description of the physical quantity and type of material described in a finding aid.


The smallest conceptual unit of aggregated documents. Files typically relate to one subject or one sub-activity.


Finding Aid:

A tool or document that provides a description of archival records to assists users in understanding and contextualizing the materials. Often a finding aid places archival resources in context by consolidating information about the collection, such as acquisition and processing; provenance, including administrative history or biographical note; scope of the collection, including size, subjects, media; organization and arrangement; and an inventory of the series and the folders. Finding aids could also describe a single level or a single item.


This is the highest-level of description, along with 'Collection'. The term fonds, originating in French archival practice, can be defined as 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. These records were accumulated over time and kept for their enduring value as a future reference resource and/or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator.

Levels of description:

Archives are organized in a hierarchical fashion, from the broad (general) to the specific. In a finding aid, the level of description typically begins with the fonds or collection as a whole, and it may include details about subordinate divisions, such as series, subseries, files, or items.


Name of creator:

This is displayed in the archival description and is the person, family or corporate body that created, accumulated and/or maintained the records described in the conduct of personal or corporate activity. In Discover Archives, creators have their own authority records which provide important contextual information (see ‘authority records’ above). You can view key parts of the authority record in the archival description, or open it as a separate page by clicking on the name of the creator.

Reference code:

This is the unique identifying code given to each archive collection and displayed at the top of the archival description. All items within a particular collection will be labelled with this code, followed by a series of numbers or letters. For example, the Ursula Franklin fonds has the reference code ‘UTA 1287.’ It is useful for you to make a note of the reference code of a record that you are interested in within the catalogue. If you then wish to make further enquiries about it, quote this reference code when you contact us and we will know exactly which section of the archive you are referring to.


Related units of description:

This gives details of other records, either at the University of Toronto or elsewhere, that have links to the record or records described.

Scope and content:

This is displayed in the archival description and summarizes the scope (such as time periods and geographical location) and content (the format of the record and its subject matter) of the record or group of records described. At fonds-level this is not an exhaustive list, but rather an overview to enable users to judge the potential relevance of the collection to their research. More detail about individual items can be found at lower levels.


Lower conceptual unit of aggregated documents – series are typically records grouped together because they were created as a result of a similar function or activity, record type or subject.

Further questions?

Please contact us.

Thanks to the Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York (UK) for the initial creation of this glossary and the Society of American Archivists for additional term descriptions from its Glossary