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Northern BC History Resources

What are Archives?

Archives contain primary source documents that have accumulated over the course of an individual or organization's lifetime, and are kept to show the function of that person or organization. Archival records are naturally and necessarily generated as a product of regular legal, commercial, administrative, or social activities.They can come in almost any format, such as letters, reports, minutes, registers, maps, photographs and films, digital files and sound recordings. Archival material can be created by individuals or collective bodies such as governments, businesses, or professional organizations. Archives can contain records with a local focus or specialize in a particular subject or theme, for example: politics, social movements, natural resource extraction, transportation. Equally, archives created by individuals can range from those of a well-known public figure to an individual's collection of family letters, photographs, and memorabilia.

Archival Material vs Library Sources

Published content offered by a library is generally a secondary source of information, for example a monograph, biography, or journal article that has used primary sources within the author's research but which presents a thesis. Secondary sources can also include accounts of historical events created many years after the event has happened. In comparison, the records in an archives are primary sources and provide first-hand information or evidence relating to historical events or figures.

Published books, whether in physical or digital format, are indexed and catalogued by subject and author, whereas information in archives is arranged according to the person or organization that created it. The archives of two organizations or two different people, should generally be kept separately. This means that you will probably need to look at records from more than one source, which may be located in more than one archives, as you gather information for your research.

Catalogues for archives are generally arranged differently from library catalogues; indeed, they generally referred to as an "archival database" instead of a "catalogue". The arrangement is known as a hierarchical arrangement and is created to reflect, as closely as possible, the way an archive was created, or accumulated.

An archival database contains different levels of description beginning with the fonds, or collection level. This top level description provides a broad overview of the fonds/collection as a whole, including its size, information on the origin of the collection and the creator, a date range, and any finding aids associated with the records holding. It may also tell you whether the archival material is available for consultation or whether it has been restricted. The catalogue is then arranged in sections from largest [collection/fonds] to smallest [items], as shown below.

Searching for Archival Material

Knowing where to find archival records to support your research can be challenging. Archival material can be held in many types of institutions: archives, museums, historical societies, libraries, galleries, etc. It may also still remain with the original creating bodies (governments, businesses, organizations, individuals, families), not yet made accessible for public research. Archival material can also be spread out across institutions and geographies. Sometimes you will need to access material at multiple institutions -- even to find material created by the same organization or person. Finding and using archival material can be a rewarding but time consuming endeavour.

Some tips to get started:

  • Contact an archives that provides free archival reference service (like Northern BC Archives!). Tell them about your research and what archival material you are seeking. If that archives doesn't have records that fit your needs, their reference archivist will know where to direct you next.
  • Review the websites for archives that may hold relevant material for you (like the Northern BC Archives website).
  • Find their mandate, which should what they collect and why they exist (like the Northern BC Archives mandate). Knowing an institution's mandate will help you determine if they are worth contacting. 
  • If the archives, library, or museum has their holdings described in a database or catalogue, search it to see if it holds anything of interest (like the Northern BC Archives database). However, all archives have (often very extensive) backlogs of material that will not be represented in their database/catalogue. Contacting the archives is always the best way to proceed.