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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.

Archives terminology

Archives use terminology that may be unfamiliar to new researchers. If you are doing any kind of archival research, there are a few terms you should familiarize yourself with:


A group of documents of any provenance that is intentionally assembled based on subject, form, geographic scope, or some other common characteristic.

Finding aid

1. A tool that facilitates discovery of information within a collection of records.

2. A description of records that helps users gain access to and understand a fonds or collection of archival materials.


The entire body of records of an organization, family, or individual that have been created and accumulated as the result of an organic process. Fonds are typically arranged into:

  • Series: Documents arranged systematically or maintained as a unit because they relate to a particular function or subject, result from the same activity, have a particular form, or because of some other relationship arising out of their creation or, arising out of their receipt and use. Many series contain groups of related papers that can be grouped under sub-series.

  • File: An organized unit of documents, usually within a series, brought together because they relate to the same subject, activity, or transaction.

  • Item: An archival unit that can be distinguished from a group and that is complete in itself. Items are usually found within files

Check the How is archival material organized? page for a diagram that illustrates the hierarchical structure of a fonds.


1. The origin or source of something.

2. Information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or group of items.

Reading room

A secure space area designed for patrons to work with a repository's holdings.

Reference code

The unique identifier for a given item or group of items. This code is usually required when accessing archival materials on-site in the Archives and Special Collections Reading Room.

Additional glossaries