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Guide to Archival Research

A guide on conducting archival research. Includes instructions on finding archival material at the Dalhousie University Archives.


What are archives?

  • Records created or received by a person, family, or organization and preserved because of their continuing value (Source: Dictionary of Archives Terminology).
  • An organization that collects the records of individuals, families, or other organizations; a collecting archives (Source: Dictionary of Archives Terminology).
  • Archives are usually considered primary sources that serve as evidence of past actions and events. 

Archival materials 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 are primary sources?

Watch this video to learn about primary sources:

What kind of primary source 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 create "finding aids," 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 Archives Catalogue and the website have the ability to "embed" digital copies of archival material directly to the finding aids.

History of Dalhousie University

Are you doing research on the history of Dalhousie University?

Visit the History of Dalhousie research guide for links to digital and print resources in the University Archives.