Skip to main content

Archival Research

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

Acquisition of collections

Archives Libraries
Material is usually acquired directly from author or creator Material is usually acquired through publishers or library vendors
Materials are usually donated, not purchased Materials are usually purchased but libraries also receive significant gifts from private individuals
Material is usually selected by archivists with broad knowledge of documentary heritage Materials are usually selected by subject specialist librarians
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Mostly unpublished material (e.g., letters, manuscripts, etc.)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.