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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.

Acquisition of collections

Archives Libraries
Archives usually acquire primary source material directly from author or creator Libraries usually acquire secondary source / published items from publishers or library vendors
Archives usually acquire archival material as donations Libraries usually purchase items but some libraries also receive donations from private individuals
Archivists with broad knowledge of documentary heritage and their organization's mandate and collecting policy select archival material Librarians with specialized knowledge of their subject areas and knowledge of their organization's mandate and collecting policy select library material
Material is usually selected in accordance with archives acquisition policies and institutional mandates Material is usually selected in accordance with library collections policies and institutional mandates

Types of collections

Archives Libraries
Mostly unpublished material (e.g., letters, manuscripts, etc.)

Mostly published material (e.g., books, journals, etc.)

Collections are groups of discrete items Collections are discrete items
Material is usually unique and not available anywhere else Material is often available elsewhere

Organization of collections

Archives Libraries
Materials are organized according to principles of provenance and original order

Materials are organized according to subject classification

Archivists try to retain the organization imposed by the creator(s) of the collection Librarians organize collections without concern for how the creator(s) of the material organize their records
The intellectual order of a collection is presented in the finding aid. The physical order of a collection depends on the size and format of materials and may not match the intellectual order of the collection.  

Description of collections

Archives Libraries
A group of material is described on a number of different levels within the collection or fonds (e.g., fonds, series, sub-series, file, item).

Material is described on an individual level (e.g., catalogue record for a single book)

Descriptions of each part of a collection are linked together into a "multi-level" archival description, or finding aid Descriptions of individual items are not linked together unless they form a series of items
Finding aids often contain access points such as subject headings, geographic headings, and authority records (i.e., name(s) of the creator(s) of the archival material) Library catalogue records contain subject headings

Access to collections

Archives Libraries
Materials do not circulate and must be accessed on site. Only select materials are available online.

Most library materials circulate or can be accessed online. Some items (e.g., special collections, course reserves) do not circulate.

Access to certain information may be restricted (e.g., university records, personnel files, research data, etc.) Most library materials are published and do not contain restricted information. Access to the vast majority of online content (e.g., ebooks, journals, etc.) is restricted to Dalhousie students, faculty, and staff.
Materials must be handled with caution. White gloves are usually required for handling photographic materials. Materials must be handled with caution.