The Archivist as detective: The use of “diplomatics” in a municipal archive


“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Sherlock Holmes

When talking to patrons about conducting archival research, I will often refer to their task as being similar to a detective’s – sifting pieces of evidence and following different leads to arrive at some sort of conclusion.  The same is true of archival work, especially when archivists are trying to research a questionable or problematic record. Examples of such difficulties include:

  • A potentially forged record
  • A record claiming to be an original, but which is in fact a copy
  • A record where a fact is contested/contradictory
  • An undated record or a record where different dates of creation are claimed
  • A record where the identifying label is questionable or has fallen off
  • Records with lost or non-existent paperwork (also known as “orphaned” material)
  • Records that have become separated from one another or a group

The role of diplomatics in an Archive

One of the tools that we often rely on when dealing with the situations above is “diplomatic analysis” (not to be confused with statecraft).  “Diplomatics” (as it is often called) is defined as “[t]he study of the creation, form, and transmission of records, and their relationship to the facts represented in them and to their creator, in order to identify, evaluate, and communicate their nature and authenticity.”[1] In other words, we closely analyze the record in question, interrogating and cross-referencing different aspects of it with regard to its purported context of creation and use, to ensure that we can say with some degree of certainty that the record is what it appears to be, and that it was created or used at a certain time by a known creator.

Part of a diplomatic review includes an examination of applicable physical aspects of the record, including:

  • Base material – paper, parchment, glass, plastic, etc.
  • Writing medium – ink, pencil, pencil crayon, marker, etc.
  • Language and syntax
  • Fonts, scripts, and punctuation
  • Layout of the record
  • Seals, crests, and stamps
  • Signatures
  • Damage and marks of use

During a review an archivist will also determine and analyze the context of creation and use of the record. Such context can be subdivided into six categories, although not all of the categories are necessarily discernible or relevant during each review:

  1. Socio-Historical context: the socio-historical framework and environment within which the record creator existed and functioned
  2. Juridical-Administrative context: the legal and broader organizational system in which the creating body belonged
  3. Provenancial context: the mandate, structure, and function of the record creating body
  4. Procedural context: the procedures and/or actions that occurred in the course of the creation of the record
  5. Documentary context: the relationships between and among the creator’s records
  6. Technological context: the technical aspects of the record creation system (binding techniques, photomechanical reproduction techniques, etc.)

Reviewing the physical aspects of the record in conjunction with the relevant context(s) allows the archivist to develop a hypothesis as to the identity, authenticity, history of use, and ultimately, the archival value of the record.

Theory in practice: A diplomatic thought experiment

By way of example, let’s imagine that a well-meaning citizen buys an old document on the internet and decides to give it to the Archives. They are told by the seller that it is a rare 1799 land grant for a lot of land in the Township of Toronto (now known as Mississauga). It is printed on cotton rag paper with faded red and black ink, and contains a mix of English and Latin script, is attached to a wax seal impressed with the Canadian coat of arms and is issued under the authority of Queen Victoria.

On the surface this may sound like a legitimate record.  But a diplomatic analysis would reveal that this item is a forgery, because:

  • Land grants could not be issued in 1799 for lands in the Township of Toronto, as the township was not surveyed until 1806
  • Upper Canada land grants were issued on parchment, not paper (Upper Canada was a predecessor of Ontario, in existence from 1791-1841)
  • The language on grants was in English only, and the ink used was always black or brown
  • Queen Victoria did not ascend to the British throne until 1837
  • The Canadian coat of arms did not exist in 1799, and any seal on a land grant would likely be either the United Kingdom coat of arms or the Great Seal of Upper Canada.

So, unless the document came from an alternate universe with a drastically different timeline and history, we are in fact dealing with a forgery here. This fictional example, while interesting, is an extreme illustration – most diplomatic conundrums that we encounter here are more routine.

Below I will lay out four case studies where a diplomatic analysis of a record or a group of records was carried out by staff here in the Peel Archives to settle some sort of question or concern. I should note that these examples involve analog textual and graphic records, but diplomatic principles can also be applied to electronic records.[2]

The case of the “missing” Town of Caledon inaugural meeting minutes, 1974

Earlier this year I was surprised to learn that the inaugural 1974 Town of Caledon meeting minutes were missing from the Caledon minute binder (transferred to the Archives in 2000).


There was a gap in the binder between the December 19th, 1973 meeting of the Committee of the Whole that was ironing out the details for the creation of the Town of Caledon on January 1st, 1974, and the minutes for the “2nd Regular Meeting” of The Corporation of the Town of Caledon that took place on January 3rd, 1974. So where were the minutes for the first meeting? To my knowledge the binder had never been disassembled while in our custody, raising the possibility that the minutes were missing when the binder was transferred in 2000.

So, I decided to check to see if we had ever received at another time, either from the town or a private donor, the program for the inaugural meeting to help fill in the gap. And, as it turned out, in 2017 we had indeed received from the Town of Caledon Heritage Office a small accession of material, including something identified as the 1974 “inaugural program.”

When I retrieved the file from storage something about it struck me as odd: the folder contained an invitation and an inaugural program stapled onto a piece of paper.  But this was no normal piece of paper – it was quite large and was punched with three large uniform holes. And the size of the paper was certainly familiar, eerily reminiscent of the size of the pages in the actual minute book.


Could it be that this page was separated from its binder prior to 2000? And did this program thus serve as the official record of the meeting given its inclusion in the binder?

I sat down with the minute book and the loose page to test my hypothesis. The paper size and quality certainly seemed very similar, and the punched holes aligned exactly with the brand of binder. But what sold it were some ink lines along the side of the paper. At some point after the binder was compiled in the 1970s a Town of Caledon staff person had written on the spine of the binder “1974 Town Minutes.” This ink bled through a tiny bit onto the different pages, and the small blotches lined up exactly when placed back in the binder.



Even closer examination revealed that the staples used to hold the inaugural invitation and program in place had created small indentations on the proceeding page, thus further cementing the conclusion that this the page had indeed been removed by the Town prior to being transferred to the Archives.

Given that this is the only page in the binder with such an attachment, I suspect that Town staff extracted the page for use in a special program or event, and that it was accidentally left out when the minutes were transferred to the Archives. The page has now been happily reunited, ensuring that we now have, in one volume, a complete record of the early Town of Caledon Council meetings.


The case of the errant County of Peel printing block, 1966 or 1967

In July of 2018 we stumbled across a metal and wood printing block for sale by an antiques dealer in Ohio, USA. Of interest to us was that this printing block was of the crest of the County of Peel, the Region of Peel’s municipal predecessor (in existence as an independent county from 1867 to 1973).

_Peel Co Woodblock 2 (2)

_Peel Co woodblock _side view

Even before it arrived at our office we were extremely curious as to the origin and use of the block: Who made it? Had it been used, and if so, on what? And how did it get all the way to Ohio?! To try to answer these questions, we reached out to experts both on site and abroad and started to dig through our own records.

The use question was settled easily: Our own art gallery staff was able to confirm for us that the block had indeed been used to print something, as evidenced by the dark patina around the edges of the metal printing surface.

When and how it was used was more trouble. Different depictions of the county crest can be found in several different record types within County of Peel records, including clerk memos, correspondence, official bylaws, and official publications. What we needed to do was compare the various printed versions of the crest to the depiction on the block’s metal printing surface, to determine if any of the depictions aligned exactly. This would then help us to maybe answer when the block was made and how it was used.

With the help of Nick Moreau, our Reprographics Specialist, I was able to obtain scanned copies of several different Peel County crest prints, including:

  • Embossed crest from a bylaw, 1898
  • Red ink print, [1908?]
  • Embossed seal, 1916
  • Blue ink print, [194-]
  • Gold inlay from the cover of “A history of Peel County to mark its centenary as a separate county, 1867-1967,” 1967

Both Nick and I compared the different iterations (using computer software as well as jeweller’s loupes) and came to the same conclusion: subtle and at times major differences between the printing block crest and the various crest prints in use within the County records left only one viable candidate: the crest as printed on the cover of the Peel history publication, a commemorative book published by the County in November 1967 (affectionately referred to by staff here as “The Red Book”). The depictions and dimensions were an exact match.


As a result, we suspect that this block was created in 1966 or 1967 by staff at the Brampton Conservator offices for their use during the printing of the “The Red Book.” But we are still not sure how the block, which was in use in Peel in the mid-1960s, ended up for sale in the USA in 2018. Unfortunately, the seller could not provide any additional details about the block’s backstory, so the block’s chain of custody is impossible to reconstruct. So, while we cannot say with 100% certainty, we are fairly certain that our hypothesis is correct.


The case of the Brampton bridge and culvert inspection reports, September 1974

We recently came across a box of backlog material labelled as being transferred by the Region of Peel’s planning department. When we opened it, we found that it seemed to contain September 1974 inspection reports pertaining to various roads in the Peel area. Given my well-documented love of the history of Peel’s roads, I was very excited and started to pour through the records.

However, further review revealed that the reports document road related structures, namely bridges and culverts, but only within the City of Brampton and not all of Peel as one might expect. So, I needed to step back and ask several questions: What purpose did these records serve? Were they part of a larger set? Who commissioned and created them? And why did the Region of Peel planning department have them if they only pertained to Brampton?

To try to answer these questions I had to spend some time looking the records over very closely for clues while also attempting to place them in their wider context of creation and use.

The set of records was uniform, consisting of inspection reports for bridges and culverts arranged by “Structure No.”



These numbers were, in turn, mapped onto an index map found at the front of the box. Each report was based on a template, with “fill in the blank” and checkboxes utilized by the person completing the report. And each report was accompanied by two black and white photographs, one of the structure in question and one of the related roadway. (As an aside, these photos constitute the most valuable component of these reports, documenting the state of various roadways throughout the City of Brampton in 1974.)

The main clue as to the origin and use of these reports is an ink stamp applied at the bottom of almost every report: “McCormick, Rankin & Associates Limited.”

Crop of name stamp

This stamp suggests that these reports were compiled by this firm on behalf of either the City of Brampton or the Region of Peel, likely in support of a larger fact finding or assessment project relating to area roads.

Given that the City of Brampton and the Region of Peel had been created in January 1974 I initially thought that perhaps this inspection work was being done in support of a report regarding the upload of responsibility for various roads to the Region. However, a review of the Region of Peel’s Council minutes revealed that while the Region has been known to hire the firm for road studies, that they did not secure the firm’s services for this type of project prior to September 1974.

My suspicion that these records were created for Brampton was bolstered when I cross-referenced the firm’s name against Brampton bylaws and found that the City of Brampton had indeed hired McCormick, Rankin & Associates Limited in April 1974 to draft a road needs study for the City.[3] The timing of this contract, while not definite, does,  given the nature and timing of the inspection reports, support that these reports were produced for Brampton by the firm. Therefore, I suspect that at some point Brampton decided to transfer these reports to the Region’s planning department for safekeeping or perhaps as reference material for other road projects of mutual interest, and that they were eventually transferred to the Archives given their archival value. But I am of course open to new evidence when (or if) it comes to light.


The case of the Township of Toronto bench mark book photographs, 1957

Finally, one of my favourite examples of a successful diplomatic analysis here involves our Township of Toronto bench mark book. I have discussed this item in previous posts but feel it should be highlighted here as a great example of diplomatic analysis.

The bench mark book is comprised of 285 glorious black and white photographs that were created by the Township of Toronto Planning Department in the 1950s (we weren’t initially sure of an exact year) to document the location of small metal plaques known as “bench marks” found throughout the township (now the City of Mississauga). The bench marks, which were located on various buildings and structures, were used by planning staff to assist in situating other municipal projects.

White or black arrows point to the bench marks in these photographs.

Each photograph is glued onto a page with a seemingly meaningless number assigned (more on this in a bit). Interestingly, these pages are a sort of prescribed form, with the number (“No.”), and “Description” fields pre-printed (evidenced by the differing font types), leaving room for staff to add typewritten additions as well as the photograph.


The description that accompanies the photographs are detailed, yet confusing. For example, the description of the location of the bench mark in the vicinity of the Derry West school house (Derry Road and Hurontario Street) is described as being “on the south face two feet west of main entrance of the red brick school on the north side of the road allowance between lots 10 and 11, 200 feet east of Hurontario Street.” While quite technical, such descriptions can be very difficult to pinpoint nowadays. As a result, the photographs are not necessarily as useful as they would be if we knew exactly when and where each one was taken.

Diplomatics to the rescue! During our recent inventory project we came across a file in the County of Peel fonds entitled “Bench Marks, cartographic, Toronto Township.”  When I saw it, my heart skipped a beat, as I wondered if the file might be related to the bench mark photographs found in the Township of Toronto fonds.

Among other things, the file contained two oversized maps: “Plan showing location of bench marks in the southern portion of the Township of Toronto” and “Plan showing location of bench marks in the northern portion of the Township of Toronto.” Each map is dated 1957, which is around the date of creation we had initially estimated for the photographs.


What proved to be the most enticing characteristic of the maps were numerous blue dots scattered throughout the Township, each with an assigned number in the same shorthand as the photograph pages (i.e. “No. 1”, “No. 42,” “No. 259” etc.).


These dots would have been more or less useless, unless one could prove that they corresponded with a numbered sequence of related records. So, I picked three of the dots at locations that we could easily recognize (i.e. well-known schoolhouses and intersections) and checked the corresponding numbered photographs, and…all of them matched!


So, we now have a confirmed geographical index for the photographs, allowing staff and researchers to pinpoint, with great accuracy, where every bench mark photograph was taken.

I want to take this opportunity to stress that this discovery reinforces the value of a Regional record program wherein the surviving archival records of all of Peel’s past and present municipalities are preserved and utilized together. Here we see that records kept in two separate municipal fonds (the County of Peel’s and the Township of Toronto’s) are of more use and value to researchers when maintained and utilized together.


I suspect that most archivists will admit that there is something extremely enjoyable about conducting a diplomatic review of an interesting record – there is nothing quite like the “Eureka!” moment when the facts of the case come together into a satisfying (and often useful) verdict.

by Kyle Neill, Senior Archivist

Further reading

Heather MacNeil, “Trusting Records: Legal, Historical and Diplomatic Perspectives,” London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000.

Luciana Duranti, “Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science, Part 1” Archivaria 28 (Summer 1989)



[2] For more on this please see Heather MacNeil, “Providing Grounds for Trust: Developing Conceptual Requirements for the Long Term Preservation of Authentic Electronic Records” Archivaria 50 (Fall 2000)


11 responses to “The Archivist as detective: The use of “diplomatics” in a municipal archive

  1. Hi, I really enjoyed learning about Diplomatics. You obviously did a lot of work to create this article However , I didn’t see a signature or signatures. Whoever wrote it deserves credit. Well done. I actually have an original Brampton land grant. I’m descended from the Elliotts and Carters. I had the Carter land grant framed by a reputable person recommended by the curator of the art gallery in Oshawa. I gave it to my daughter who treasures it and keeps it in a hallway away from light. I enjoy your blogs. It’s wonderful to have such experts working hard tp preserve our heritage. Sincerely, Rosemary Kaufman



    • Thanks Rosemary! Kyle Neill, our senior archivist, wrote this piece and he’s so pleased that you enjoyed and learned from it. It’s always lovely to hear that our professionalism is noticed and appreciated – Peel is indeed blessed with a great archives team. Your support means a great deal to us.


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  3. Great piece. I have worked at the National Archives of Namibia, where I am still helping out with the mostly young and inexperienced staff. And there are lots of orphaned pieces, some still left over from the time the leftover records of the German colonial administration (1884-1915) were collected and organised from 1939 onwards (no archive before that!), to debris from chaotic transfers when the Bantustan administrations were abolished with independence 1990, to items disconnected during a poorly exercised move in 2000. It’s a work that never ends, but diplomatic investigation has been quite successful in many cases. Maybe I should write up my experiences in a similar way to teach the staff who never learned this type of skill at university.


    • Thanks very much for taking the time to respond with such an interesting case. As you point out, political upheaval is one of the many reasons that documentary context and archival bonds can become lost or damaged – with profound and practical results for many affected people. Thank you to you and your staff for the work you do. Please do write about it – it’s the sort of topic that is best taught through real-life examples and by just doing the work.


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