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Guide to Archival Research

A guide on using archival materials held in the University Archives

Research Bootcamp for Research Assistants & Teaching Assistants

Register now for the 3rd annual Dalhousie Libraries Research Bootcamp! Bootcamp sessions are free to Dalhousie graduate students.

Sessions will run from May 15-June 13 and will cover library basics; literature reviews (searching & writing); citation tools; writing abstracts & grant proposals; copyright, open access & academic publishing; legal resources; engineering resources; Pubmed & other health sciences databases; humanities resources; Canadian data & stats; grey literature; research data management; Excel; data visualization; conference posters.

Full list of sessions and the schedule
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What are archival materials?

Archival materials are materials created or received by a person, family, organization, or business, in the conduct of their affairs. They serve as evidence of past actions and events. 

Archival materials record information about past activities and events.  They act as memory aids that allow us to recall and relive these activities and events, or to re-communicate information about them at some point in the future. 

Archival materials are preserved as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator or because of their enduring value.

What kind of materials can I find in an archives?

Archival materials can include a wide variery of formats:

  • Textual records (e.g., correspondence, meeting minutes, reports, etc.)
  • Photographs
  • Architectural plans
  • Blueprints
  • Audiovisual records (e.g., tape, film, video, etc.)
  • Computer files (e.g., word documents, spreadsheets, software files, etc.)
  • Data sets (e.g., databases, GIS data, etc.)
  • Scrapbooks

How do I find information about archival collections?

Archives usually create "finding aids," which are standardized descriptions of their collections. The purpose of the finding aid is to communicate to researchers:

  • What records an archives has acquired
  • Who created the records and in what context
  • The nature and scope of the material in a fonds or collection
  • Whether access and/or use restrictions have been placed on a fonds or collection

This information should enable researchers to determine whether particular holdings are relevant to their research and thus warrant a visit to the archives to consult the original records in person. Like records in a library catalogue, archival finding aids do not typically include copies of the actual original records themselves. The vast majority of archival material must be consulted on-site.

However, many archives are now digitizing their holdings and making digital copies of records available online. For example, the Dalhousie University Archives Catalogue and Online Collections and the website have the ability to "embed" digital copies of archival material directly to the finding aids.

Do you have an archival reference collection?

Yes!  Many of our most frequently used materials can be found in the University Reference Collection.  The collection includes things like:

The reference collection is very large. We have prepared a Guide to the History of Dalhousie that helps identify key reference sources.

Contact Archives staff for assistance if you need help finding reference material.

Subject Guide

Creighton Barrett
University Archives
5th Floor, Killam Memorial Library
PO Box 15000
6225 University Avenue
Halifax, Nova Scotia
B3H 4R2
(902) 494-6490
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