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Diary of an Archivist: Archival Concepts for Teachers Part One

Posted by Emily Chicorli
10 December 2014 - 7:01pm

There are a few concepts in the archival profession that make working with records quite distinctive from materials you might find in a library, historical website or book. Knowing these concepts will make your quest to find relevant records a lot easier as you will better understand how to find the types of resources you need. 

Some archives have online databases and collections that make records accessible to you from home. If, for example, you search “world war one” into Library and Archive Canada’s search engine, a bunch of results that feature “world war one” in the title/metadata will be returned. From these results, you can scroll through the pages looking at particular items that you may want to use in a lesson. This process of finding records by search terms makes searching for records pretty easy. Unfortunately, not all archives have collections easily searchable online yet, though many are diligently working away to make this possible. Thus, it is imperative to know how records are arranged so that if you are working with a repository that does not have all their materials online, you can still maneuver through the system and find what you need.

The first concept to be familiar with is that records are arranged depending on the provenance and original order of the records. Without going into too much detail, provenance refers to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the records. Basically, if I, Emily Chicorli, donate my records to an archive, the provenance, where those records originated from, is Emily Chicorli. Similarly, if I somehow found the records of Jean Piaget, and I donated them to an archive, the provenance is not I, Emily Chicorli, but Jean Piaget, as he is the creator of those records.

Original order refers to the organization and sequence of records established by the creator of the records. This basically means an archivist does not rearrange records willy-nilly depending on how they think the records should be organized. Instead, archivists try to keep the context around how the records were originally organized in tact.

Lastly, records are arranged into fonds, which are the aggregations of records that originate from the same source/creator. All the records originating from Jean Piaget would be found in the Jean Piaget fonds. All the records from the British Columbia Liberal Party fonds that UBC Archives/Rare Books and Special Collections have on hand, can be found in the British Columbia Liberal Party fonds.

So why are provenance, original order, and fonds important concepts for you to know?

Because records are arranged and described through provenance and original order into fonds, finding the exact records you need for a lesson is not always easy. If you were looking for records on early developmental theory, your initial search method might be to search “developmental theory” in an archival database (which may or may not bring up the records you need). You might not think that these records could be found in the Jean Piaget fonds (click here to view some of Piaget’s records from a library database in Switzerland).

Stay tuned for the next post on archival concepts that will go over how to use archival finding aids