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Archives 101: Archival Terminology

Basic information and tips on how to search for and access archives.

Fonds vs. Collection


A collection is an artificial accumulation of items that were purposefully collected by a person or organization. In contrast, a fonds is a natural accumulation of records a person or organization makes or receives through their daily activities. A collection is curated and often contains only one type of item such as butterflies, books, stamps, or photographs. A collection may also contain series and files in addition to the collected items.


A fonds is the full extent of the records a person or organization makes or receives within their lifetime, which are currently kept in an archives. These records reflect the activities of that person or organization; for example, if the person was a professor, they would have many records related to their researching and teaching activities. Their fonds would also include their non-professional activities including their hobbies and family life. If they were a collector, the fonds would reflect this activity through related correspondence and receipts, but the fonds would not include the collection itself. See Collection for more information.


A fonds is made up of series. Each series reflects a general activity of a person or organization. Using the same example of a professor, different series would contain records related to her researching activities, teaching activities, personal life, and hobbies. Often archives will create a separate series for special formats such as photographs or electronic records to aid access to these items. If a series is very large, it may be divided into subseries.


A file is a logical grouping of related items within a series. Usually, archives will maintain the original organization of the creator of the fonds and not reorganize items into files. Think about your personal organization strategies for your computer files, emails, or important papers; this organization is often maintained at the file level within a fonds. This may explain the ease or difficulty of finding specific information when searching archival holdings.


An item is a single item within a file. Most items are not described in a finding aid unless they are a special format that is difficult to access such as videotapes, film, or audiotapes. Items that have been digitized and put online will also have finding aid descriptions. Finally, items that are deemed to have great research or cultural value are also often described in a finding aid.

Find more information on How Archives Are Organised.

Archival Tools and Terms

Archives or Archive?

Either can be used interchangeably and are both correct. The word has multiple meanings:

  • Archives are records that have been selected for permanent preservation by the person or organization that created them
  • An archives is the place or repository where those records are housed and preserved

Finding Aid

Finding aids are created by archivists and contain contextual information about the archival materials they describe. This information may come directly from the donor or record creator(s) and may not be available through other sources. Finding aids are created as an archivist processes a fonds or collection in order to make archival materials accessible to researchers.


Digitization is the process of reproducing a physical or analogue archival record (such as a document, audiocassette, photographic negative or print, etc.) into a digital format that can be accessed online from any computer, tablet, or smart phone connected to the internet.