In our posts on what archivists do and on what it’s like to visit the archives, we promised you a closer look at how archivists organize collections. Here it is: we hope this post demystifies some of the terminology and techniques archivists use. But most of all, we hope to convince you that what makes archival research a bit slower is also what makes it so rich.
Libraries vs. Archives
As a new archival researcher you might assume that archivists group documents together based on the topics they cover. So, you might ask us where we store all our information on a particular subject; say, railway stations, aboriginal history, agricultural fairs, or shoe factories.
What you’ll find is that archivists may send you off in multiple directions to comb through sometimes unlikely and unrelated groups of records. For example, to research aboriginal history here at the Peel Archives, we might suggest looking through the 1930s papers of a wealthy industrialist, the 1840s letters of an Irish settler, and government land records; to research 1920s railway stations, we might recommend regional planning records and the papers of a town seamstress. All these groups of records will be listed and stored separately; they’ll also need to be searched separately. And they’ll cover all kinds of topics beyond your own main focus.
So unlike libraries, archives don’t organize individual items by subject matter. But why not? Wouldn’t that make things easier to find? And if we archivists don’t organize records by topic, in what sense are we organizing them at all?
To answer these questions, let’s think about what archives collect.
Records: Documentary footprints
Archives primarily collect records. Acting individually or together, people produce records simply in the course of living their lives and conducting their business. Without even being aware of it, every time you scribble a grocery list, type an email, snap a photograph, or take meeting minutes, you’re documenting all kinds of information about you and the world you live in.
By fixing information on physical media, like paper, film, or hard drives, you’re creating firsthand evidence of your activities. Records are the documentary footprints people leave on the world.
As the tangible direct traces of past activity, records are the primary sources – the raw material – that we use to understand the past and to plan for the future. (Secondary sources, like the books historians write, are produced by examining and drawing conclusions from primary sources.) Archivists need to decide what records should be kept to document our shared past.
Groups of records: Documentary trails
Records accumulated over a person’s life, or over the period an organization functions, reveal even more about human activity. Patterns and interconnections between records shed light on how a person lived, or on how an organization carried out its business. For example, the return addresses on a group of someone’s letters can reveal his itinerary; government records stored together can show how an important decision was made.
The whole body of records is more than the sum of its parts. In fact, a lot of what we can learn from an individual record is actually related to other records around it. If individual records are footprints, groups of records are like trails of footprints showing routes and detours.
So records are closely linked to why and how they were created, used, and collected. And this is why archivists keep records together based on who created and collected them – if we didn’t, all that extra information found only in the whole group of records would be lost, even if all the individual items were kept. This is also why, when you look up archival material, you’ll notice that it’s listed under the name of that creator.
Some terminology explained
Many archivists around the world, including here in Canada, refer to the accumulated body of the records of a person or organization as the fonds of that person or organization. This word is taken from the French phrase respect des fonds, an archival principle which tells us to acknowledge the source, or provenance, of records when we organize them. Records have so much more to say to us when we know why, how, and by whom they were used and gathered.
You might be surprised to learn that in the archival world, a fonds is technically different from a collection. Collections are materials that are deliberately gathered and artificially organized by somebody, based on a theme or topic. Some examples would be a postcard collection of waterfalls, or a set of newspaper clippings about local history; such groupings aren’t usually created incidentally as the natural result of the collector’s daily activities or business.
Archivists still associate collections with the name of the collector, since, again, who they are and why they collected things adds information to the collection. (Archivists use the word “collection” loosely too, to refer to any group of records.)
Besides the concepts of fonds and provenance, another important guiding principle we keep in mind is that of original order. We try not to disturb the way creators arrange their own records because that order tells us so much more about creators and about the records themselves.
You also may notice that groups of records are subdivided into series, and series are further subdivided into files. Not only does this hierarchical organization make things easier to find, but it also often reflects the way people structure their lives and business.
The art of archival arrangement
So if archivists don’t want to disturb the way records were originally organized, what are we doing when we arrange records to make them useable?
A lot, it turns out. You’ve probably already thought of several ways real life might be messier than the above principles and definitions. The skill of the archivist comes in dealing with the messiness of life as it’s represented in records and documents.
You may have had to sort through a relative’s personal papers at one time, and struggled to figure out why certain things were kept together. Archivists not only make sense of records, but they also help other people make sense of them. Here’s just a handful of the problems archivists may face:
- It’s not always easy to determine why records were originally organized the way they were or even where they come from. How else can we seek informative context?
- A group of records may have been created by one person and then added to and re-organized by another. Whose records – whose “fonds” – are these? How can we tell the work, and so the lives, of different people apart?
- What about collections that are found within fonds? What does the habit of collecting tell us about a person or group’s life and about collections?
- What happens – and it frequently does – if a fonds gets split up over the years as people remove parts of it? If multiple archival institutions inherit different parts, how can we present a cohesive picture to researchers?
- What happens – and it frequently does – if an original order (if it ever existed) is barely or no longer discernible? How do we impose one that isn’t misleading?
- How do we balance original order with trying to make things easy to find?
Juggling all these factors means archivists need to draw on heavy doses of informed judgement, a fine balance of analysis and synthesis, a good depth of general knowledge, and honed research skills. And yes, many times we have to create order out of chaos.
The archival journey
Here’s another thing to think about. Human beings are unique; this means every group of records is unique too. While archivists use the concepts mentioned above to guide them, every collection they work on will present its own challenges and rewards.
It’s no wonder that organizing archival records can be a time-consuming process. However, once archivists have arranged and described records, they become an accessible part of the human story.
What else do the principles of archival arrangement mean for archival researchers? Because records are parts of collections, every individual item you access is surrounded by other records that you get to encounter as a result. Who knows what else you might discover?
And – going back to the beginning of this post – this is why at the Peel Archives, you’ll find information about aboriginal peoples in such different collections: Perkins Bull, the industrialist mentioned above was personally interested in Canada’s indigenous people and collected accounts of them whenever he could; the Magrath family from Ireland who settled in Erindale in Peel wrote about meeting these people in their letters to Dublin; and land records show the evidence of the dwindling reserve areas of the native people. As to why you’ll find information on railway stations in the papers of a town seamstress: she collected old phone directories complete with station timetables.
by Samantha Thompson, Archivist
Image of painting “Prise de la Bastille” by Jean-Pierre Houël – Bibliothèque nationale de France. Via Wikimedia Commons