Into the Archives

The arrival of spring usually means one thing for graduate students in history: long sunny days spent indoors under fluorescent lights at the archives. With archives season upon us, this post offers some useful advice to those preparing for their first trip to the archives. There is a lot of preliminary research required before you make your first visit to the archives.

A good knowledge of the historiography will help you identify which archives to visit and which collections to consult, but that kind of preparation is specific to your own project and especially to your own methodology. I can’t really provide much useful advice for that part of the preliminary research but once you’ve decided which archives to visit and what kind of material you are looking for, I can certainly offer a few tips to guide your research. Proper preparation for a research trip will ensure that you are not wasting your time in the archives.

Time is always a precious commodity for academics but if you have to travel to get to your archives, time becomes especially short. Each day you spend on your research trip will cost you another set of meals and another night of accommodations. Making sure that you are efficient when you arrive is a great way to reduce the cost of your research trip, or to meet your deadline – whichever is more important. To save time, do as much research as possible before setting foot in the archives.

1. Understand how archives catalogue their holdings

The files are IN the computer
The files are IN the computer

Preliminary research is all about figuring out which archival holdings are useful to you. You know what information you want; the trick is finding it in the archives. You may already know that the archives hold an important person’s papers, or has a collection of manuscripts that is pertinent to your topic, but figuring out what is inside those fonds or how extensive they are will save a ton of time during your visit. It is also worth finding out what else the archives holds that may be useful to your topic.

Almost all Canadian archives have been organized and catalogued along the same principles employed at Library and Archives Canada. This system has been around since before the arrival of the internet and it works according to printed finding aids. The finding aid is the key to understanding Canadian archives. Each fonds or holding has its own finding aid that will give you a number of important details including the dates covered, a physical description, some background information, the scope and content, the source of acquisition, the language of the documents, and other such information. After these descriptions you will find an inventory of all the items in the fonds, which may be organized into sub-fonds, series, boxes, files, and items.

The inventory is the meat of the finding aid; it lists which items are actually available and where they can be found. Here is an example of a pretty standard example from the ARCC at Western University: the finding aid for the local Royal Canadian Legion’s Fonds – Supposing you only wanted to know what the Legion was up to in the 1950s, page 7 of the finding aid tells you that you only need to order File 1 from Box 562 which contains the minute books from 1947 to 1959. A quick look through the remainder of the finding aid tells you that the holding does not contain much else that predates 1960, which might tell you to look elsewhere for sources from the Legion during the 1950s. That’s basically how the finding aids work. It gives you an idea of how much material is available, what it covers, and how to order an item. Ideally, this is the information you want to have when you walk into the archives: the exact location of the items you want to look at.

The problem you may run into is that a lot of archives in Canada do not have finding aids available online, or at least not in their entirety. In a lot of cases, like if you’re visiting Library and Archives Canada, you will only be able to access the complete finding aids once you arrive on site. Luckily, most archives will have at least part of their finding aids available online and you can use this information to do part of your research remotely before you get to the archives. Remember – time in the archives is precious, do as much of the legwork as possible before you enter the archives.

2. Understanding how archival search engines work

Digitizing the Finding Aids: Results may vary
Digitizing the Finding Aids: Results may vary

This is going to be a bit vague because not all archives have created their online search engines equally. Basically, what you need to figure out is how the archives you are visiting decided to turn the analogue finding aid into a searchable online document. Knowing how the analogue finding aid was turned digital will tell you roughly how effectively you will be able to conduct your preliminary research from home. Probably one of the best examples of a search engine that mimics the old-school finding aid is the City of Vancouver Archives search engine. Take the finding aid for the IODE: . On the right is the usual descriptive information, and on the left is the inventory of all the files within the fonds. Clicking on a file will reveal details about the contents. The information might be sparse, only stating that the file contains the minutes from the Flanders Chapter of the IODE from September 1917 to October 1928, and that the file is located in Box 515 folder 7. This kind of online catalogue is ideal because it provides as much information as anyone can expect from a file description, online or otherwise.

Another example of a search engine is the one used by the Glenbow Archives in Calgary. They have search engines that scour the main catalog or you can search the list finding aids by title You can also limit your search to some specific collections like photographs or sheet music. I use the examples of the City of Vancouver and the Glenbow because there are some big differences between the two. The Glenbow’s search engine only finds the keywords as they appear in the fonds description, while the Vancouver City Archives searches the descriptions and the inventories. Why do these differences matter? Suppose I’m doing research on patriotic groups during the First World War (because I am), and I type ‘patriotic’ into the Glenbow’s catalogue search engine. The result? Two fonds: the Canadian Club of Calgary Fonds – because under ‘history’ the organization is described as ‘patriotic’; and the Leonard D Nesbitt Fonds – because ‘patriotic’ posters are listed in the fonds’ ‘scope and content’. But I know for a fact that the Glenbow has a whole fonds dedicated to the IODE, and the IODE was nothing if not a patriotic organization. But because the archivist who wrote the finding aid didn’t use the word ‘patriotic’ when describing the fonds, the search engine doesn’t pick it up. Conversely, typing ‘patriotic’ into the City of Vancouver Achives’ search engine leads me to a number of items, mostly pamphlets from wartime rallies, but again it did not lead me to that most patriotic of organizations: the IODE. In this case, it’s because the City of Vancouver Archives’ online catalog doesn’t have much in the finding aids’ descriptions. So while the search engine is able to scour every individual file in the archive, it isn’t very effective in searching the fonds-level descriptions because there isn’t much of a description to be searched.

This example certainly wasn’t the most effective way to find what I was looking for, but it serves to show different archives’ search engines produce different results. To realize what an archives’ search engine is actually doing, you need to know what a complete finding aid looks like and compare that to what the archives search engine is finding. Is it looking through the descriptions, just the file names, or just the names of the fonds? Some search engines, like the Archives of Manitoba, can search all of those but you need to experiment a little to figure that out. You can try endless combinations of keywords and booleans that might drum up a hit (some search engines allow you to browse their holdings by date-range). This guessing game is slow and tedious, but it is worth spending the extra time doing this ahead of time so you can make the most of your time in the archives.

Once you have an idea of how the search engine of the particular archive you are visiting works, you can understand the limitations of your search. Use whatever information is available online to compile a list of the items that you want to look at during your visit so you have that information ready when you arrive at the archives. Sometimes it won’t be possible to look at inventories remotely, but whatever list you are able to build should give you an idea of how long your research will take and how to budget your time on arrival. Having a detailed list of what you want to look at ahead of time is a huge step toward saving time in the archives. A list also helps keep everything organized if you plan on visiting more than one archive during your trip, or it can just act as a checklist to make sure you don’t forget to look at something. But not all can be planned ahead of time.

3. Go beyond the search engine. From the two examples you can see that if I want to find the IODE fonds at the Glenbow or at the City of Vancouver Archives, I need to type IODE into the search engine. I need to know exactly what I’m looking for. The list organizations that I am looking for is based on existing knowledge, which means searching for their names in archival databases is not going to help me discover some obscure patriotic group. Unless the archivist or volunteer thought to use the word “patriotic” while they were typing out the finding aid for the records of particular organization, nothing will come up when I enter such an adjective in the search engine. Furthermore, entering the metadata for every item in an archive is an ongoing process, and some items may not even be visible on search engines. Because of all these reasons, it is important to recognize the limitations of electronic search engines or finding aids when searching through archival collections.

Luckily, there are other ways to discover things in the archives – they just haven’t been digitized yet. Remember that archives predate computers and research had to rely on things like card-catalogues and indexes to find what they were looking for. Card catalogues and indexes usually are not available online but they will most likely be waiting for you in some dark, forgotten corner of the archives. Ask the archivists where they are kept and invest some time going through these. It is also worth taking a look through the hard copies of the indexes to the archives’ finding aids because, as mentioned above, items or holdings might not yet have been entered into the search engine’s database. These non-digital searching aids can yield valuable serendipitous results. Understanding that the search engine does not actually search all can help you budget time for your research trip.

If you only count on viewing the items you’ve found online during your preliminary research, you may be missing out on some great nuggets of information that can only be found by consulting non-digital finding aids. If those nuggets are invisible online or in the secondary literature, then you have all the more reason to try to flush them out the old-fashioned way. That is my top-tip for preliminary research: understand that there are a number of blind-spots when using online search engines. Plan ahead but don’t expect to find everything, and leave yourself enough time to do some discovering when you arrive at the archive.

Fun Facts about the IODE I use the IODE in my examples because this organization has been a pretty big part of my research in Canada so far. If you’re not familiar, the IODE was a patriotic women’s group founded in Canada during the Boer War. IODE stands for Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, although the full name was dropped in the 1970s and the group’s official name was reduced to its acronym: IODE.  The group devoted itself to promoting imperial sentiment in Canada, particularly by providing content for school libraries that focused on promoting the study of British history. The IODE makes for an interesting study of the duality of English-Canadian identity because it moved between imperial and nationalist impulses. Katie Pickles wrote a great book about this:

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