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Archival Research Guide

This guide provides a general overview of how to search archival collections.

Welcome to the Guide on Archival Research

This guide will help you start your archival research at the McGill University Library.

The guide gives an overview of the following:

What is an archival collection?

An archival collection is a group of materials (called archival materials) that relate to each other. The materials are often unique, although archival collections can contain published materials or copies. Connections between materials within an archival collection are usually due to the following:

  • The materials were a product of a specific function and its activities. (Eg. the creation and administration of an association).
  • The materials are on the same topic, event, person, etc. In addition, there was an intention to compile the materials.

Various terms refer to archival collections. These terms indicate distinctions between different collection types. You will notice that, depending on the archival institution, or its geographic location, these terms will vary in use. Some of the most commonly used terms are:

  • Fonds - indicates that the materials are the products of the activities of an individual or group. The person or group who executed these activities is considered the 'creator' of the fonds.
  • Collection - indicates that a person(s) intentionally compiled materials on a specific topic, for example, travel souvenirs. In this case, the activity represented is the act of collecting. So the collector of the materials is considered the 'creator' of this archival collection. However, note that the term 'collection' is often interchangeably used with 'fonds'.
  • Record Group - usually used in the context of government or institutional records to distinguish between materials created by different offices or agencies within that institution.
  • Papers - Often used instead of Fonds. 
  • Archive - Sometimes used instead of Fonds. Although in the Canadian context is used to mean the place/space that holds archival collections.

Although it is helpful to recognize the terms listed above, you should not overly focus on their meanings. To get more context about the construction of an archival collection you can always ask an archivist. 

Guide created by A. Seccareccia, 2022.

Archivist/Liaison Librarian for McGill's Archival Collections

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Jennifer Garland
Humanities and Social Sciences Library | 3459 McTavish Street

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