Using the Archives

Introduction to Archives

Getting Started with Research

Advanced Research Questions








Introduction to Archives

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Where are you located and how do I get there?

University of Alberta Archives (UAA)
Research and Collections Resource Facility (RCRF)
6304-115A Street NW ● Edmonton, Alberta ● T6H 3P8

Patrons are encouraged to take the LRT to South Campus/Fort Edmonton Park Station, where it is a short walk to the RCRF. We are just steps away from the Saville Community Sports Centre. There is no parking directly in front of the RCRF. Patrons are encouraged to park on North Campus and take the LRT to South Campus or to street park in neighbouring residential areas. The RCRF has Accessibility Parking on site.

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When are you open?

We are open to researchers Tuesday to Thursday from 9am-4pm. We are a by-appointment facility and are not open to walk-ins. Please contact us ahead of time by email at archives@ualberta.ca or by phone at 780-248-1300 to make an appointment.

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What is an archive, anyway?

An archive is both the physical place where materials are stored as well as the materials themselves (i.e. someone’s personal papers are their archive). The other word we use for this is a “fonds.” A fonds or archive are materials created organically in the everyday life of a person or organization. This is in contrast to a collection, which is subject based. Archives may be very old or quite recent. They are mostly unpublished and primary sources, though not exclusively.

When we say we are going “to archive” something we mean we are going to preserve materials and provide access to them. These concepts are related: materials must be preserved to continue to provide access to them and preservation is for the purpose of access. Access can mean lots of things , including writing finding aids, having a Reading Room where people can come look at materials, being involved with exhibits, providing information on what are archives are and how to use them, and so on.

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How do I know if I need to do archival research?

Archival research takes a lot of time. No one document is going to provide a complete narrative of your exact research question. Which also means archival research is often not where you want to start your research if you have a big question. Secondary sources will help to provide you context to better understand the documents you will see in the archives as well as giving you ideas for where information might have been recorded. The more information you already have on your topic, the more effectively you will be able to spend your time in the Reading Room. Archives are especially good for when you are looking for alternative perspectives on well known events, information on obscure people, and official records of the University.

Archives are the perfect place to look for lots of different kinds of information that will not be found anywhere else. If looking for an original campus plan, the University’s official statement about an event, or photos from the 1960s of Old Arts, the Archives is absolutely where you want to begin your research.

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I’m looking for information about my relative who went to the University of Alberta...

Some information about your family member may be available online if they appeared in the Evergreen and Gold yearbook, the alumni magazine New Trail or History Trails.

If you are unable to find the information you're looking for online, please email the Archives at archives@ualberta.ca and provide as much information as possible about your relative's relationship with the University. Please include full name (maiden and married), relationship to the University (student, staff, faculty, etc.), the department or office if s/he was employed at the University, or the program of study, dates of attendance, and year of graduation if your relative was a student at the University. If specific dates are unknown, please provide a general time period for which your family member was involved with the University.

Due to privacy concerns, some information about staff and students of the University may not be available.

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Who can use the Archives?

The Archives makes records available to a variety of users. First, it serves the University administration. Second, it makes records available to students and staff for research purposes. Third, it is open to the general public. In serving these constituencies, the Archives carries out the administrative, teaching, research, and outreach functions of the University.

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How do I request to see materials?

Researchers visiting the Archives are required to complete a registration form and read the Use of Research Facilities and Materials form. The researcher is asked to indicate the subject and purpose of his/her research. This information will help Archives staff to provide assistance to the researcher for the specific information requested. Archives staff will assist users in undertaking research by explaining how the reference services of the Archives operate, and how to use the finding aids. Once the Archives user has identified relevant sources for research, the staff will retrieve any non-restricted materials. If access is restricted, Archives staff will indicate where access permission may be obtained. Restrictions may apply due to preservation risks, privacy concerns, or stipulations required by the donor.

For researchers who know the collection they wish to see: Contact the Archives by email at archives@ualberta.ca indicating the specific material (accession number/box number) and the date they intend to visit.

For researchers with general inquiries: Contact the Archives by email at archives@ualberta.ca. Provide as much information as possible about the nature of your research. Archives staff will conduct a preliminary search of the relevant holdings and respond with potential accessions matching your search. After consulting with the Archives staff and reviewing accession inventories, inform the staff that you wish to make an appointment and indicate the specific material you wish to see.

Please note that at least 48 hours advance notice is required for material retrieval requests. Access to material is by appointment only.

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What kind of materials are in the University of Alberta Archive?

The University of Alberta Archives is the official repository for the permanently valuable records of the University of Alberta and its affiliated institutions. Our holdings consist of material that is of continuing administrative, legal, or historical value, including University publications. The Archives contains the records of many notable individuals and organizations relating to Alberta and federal politics, the oil sands, theater, education, and western settlement.

Materials may be textual documents from handwritten letters and ledgers to meeting minutes and original publications. Materials may also be photographs, audio recordings, and video. Materials date from the late 19th century to the present.

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Where do materials in the University of Alberta Archives come from?

Materials come into the UAA from two different sources. The first are internal records. These are records of the university as an institution and are transferred to the Archives in accordance with retention schedules. These materials are subject to FOIP. Secondly, we receive donations from individuals and groups who are not considered to be part of the institutional structure of the university. These materials may be private papers from people/groups who have done or been involved with interesting things or they may be materials from what we call "quasi university" sources, such as student clubs and professors’ papers. Private donors sign donation agreements that outline any conditions on the materials, such as restrictions .

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Where can I find out more about archives and archivists in Canada?

Check out Canadian Archival Resources for a comprehensive listing of all the Canadian Archives on the web, on the University of Saskatchewan Archives website.

Find out more about archivists in Canada on the Association of Canadian Archivists and Canadian Council of Archives websites.


Getting Started with Research

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What are my first steps? How do I begin my Research?

The first things you need to do are: Determine whether you need to do archival research. Determine whether the materials you need are located at the University of Alberta Archives.

Archives are organized differently than libraries and Google, so figuring out how to translate what you are looking for into a question archival material can answer is important. You need to identify where the information you are looking for would have been recorded, who would have donated it to the archives, and thus identify what you are looking for. It can take some time to fully get in the swing of how to identify relevant materials in an archive. If you're not sure, you can email us at archives@ualberta.ca.

When you contact the archives make sure to include:
what you are looking for
what your research is about
What your research is for, i.e. personal use, publication, research project, etc.

We will either ask some follow up questions to better understand what you are looking for or send you a few finding aids we think might be relevant. You then read through the finding aid(s), identify some material you think would be useful, let us know what materials you want to view and make an appointment to come to our Reading Room. That’s it!

Pro-tip: always keep track of citations for everything you take note of. It is impossible for us to know what file any given piece of paper came from. If you come back six months later and ask us to figure out where you got a piece of information from so you can cite it in your essay/article/blog post/documentary/advertisement we are not going to know and do not have the time to track it down. You would have to come back in and go through it all again. Doing it right the first time saves time in the long run.

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What should I know about using your Reading Room?

The Reading Room is where people can access physical archives materials. Read the Researcher Rules and Responsibilities Form before your visit and bring photo ID to sign in.

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How do I know if your archive has the materials I’m looking for?

The scope of the holdings in the University of Alberta Archives consists primarily of official University records as well as private records from members of the wider University community. If your research pertains to the University or could have been donated privately by staff/alumni it is more likely that we may have what you are looking for. You can search our holdings on Discover Archives or contact the Archives for more complicated questions to consult with an archivist. After a consultation, Archives staff will help you identify materials with possible connections to your research.

For research on topics further reaching than the University and its affiliates, you may also consider contacting the Provincial Archives of Alberta or the Edmonton Municipal Archives.

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How do I search your collection?

You can search our holdings on our database, Discover Archives. This contains all of our accession records (these are the descriptions of every donation of material we have ever received) as well as finding aids for some of our fonds. Not every accession or fonds has a finding aid. Always remember that Archives are organized in such a way that locating information is a bit different.

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So how do I figure out where the information I need is?

The challenge of archival research is that is requires a completely different approach than most other research because it is fundamentally organized differently. There is no full text search on boxes of textual records. Every piece of paper is also not subject catalogued because there are simply too many subjects to cover and it is very context dependent. Instead of diving right in with your research question, you have to think “where would the information I am looking for have been recorded? Who would have written it down? In what form? Why would they have written it down?” Every document is also written by a person, which means it has a perspective and an opinion. Someone looking for information about student protests in the 1970s, for example, would find very different information about student protests in the records of the student union and in the records of the Office of Campus Life. Both would help to paint a complete picture of the issue. Making sure you also have the right time period and location are also key. Finding information about student protests in the 1990s in Calgary is not going to be relevant. If you are not sure where to start or need some help figuring out who would have been involved and how, please do not hesitate to contact the Archives and ask. That is what we are here for!

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How are materials organized?

Archives arrange material by creator rather than subject. This is also known as provenance. A creator may be a person, department or unit, or an organization of some sort. We keep records in the same organization as their creators did. If you can imagine your own papers, which may include materials from your schooling, your job, your family, hobbies, etc., everything from essays to Christmas cards, they cover a really broad range of topics. In a single letter to a friend someone may cover five or more topics. Organizing materials based on creator rather than by trying to impose subject order to idiosyncratic items helps to maintain the context of a record, who created it, when, and why, as well as information about how much authority a record has. For example, the opinion of someone entirely unconnected to a project may not be as informed as the opinion of someone who was very involved with a project. Meanwhile someone involved may not have the same understanding of the impact of the project on the community as a community member would have. Context matters.

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I’m looking for something specific...

If you know what you are looking for, you can search our holdings on Discover Archives. We also offer search tips and prompts to help you make better use of our database. Remember that archives are arranged by creator and not by subject. Identify the accession and box or file number you want to view and then contact the Archives to schedule an appointment in our Reading Room.

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I have a research question or project...

Identifying where to find the information to answer your research question is the first step to conducting archival research. All of our holdings are described in accession records and some additionally have inventories, finding aids, or are identified in Subject Guides. You can always contact the Archives for guidance in navigating these sources and our collections.

For inquiries and further information, please contact the Archives at archives@ualberta.ca

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What is a finding aid? How do I read it?

Finding aids are descriptive inventories of archival collections that help to facilitate research and guide you through material. They are literally an aid to help you find things. They address the who, what, where, when, and why of an archival fonds. This includes information about the volume of material, the media type and format, where the material came from, where the material was created, the time period the materials are from, whether there are restrictions on accessing the materials, and so on. Contextual information about materials (where, when, who) are important to establish both relevance of materials but also authenticity and authority. Finding aids are hierarchical descriptions. That means they describe the entire body of records first, and then break down the records in subsections. There may be more specific descriptions at this subsection level that gives additional details about that portion of the materials. Information that is the same at the subsection level as it was at the level of the entire archival fonds is not repeated. Information that is more detailed or more specific, is. When identifying whether materials are relevant to your research, the key part of the finding aid is called the “Scope and Content Note.” This will include information about the topics covered and what kind of documents the topics are discussed in. This is important for identifying whether information is relevant to your research. Finding aids provide the context for the records. Individual items may only provide part of the story whereas items in context with supporting documentation give broader nuance and support for any conclusions that can be drawn.

Once you have accessed a finding aid:

  1. Read the scope and contents/biographical information to get a sense of what the collection is about.
  2. Note the high level series for the collection.
  3. Review the item inventory under the relevant series.
  4. Note that each item will have a record number. This includes the accession number (year and order of acquisition - e.g., 2000-030) followed by a box or item number. Provide this number to Archives staff when making your material request.

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What is an accession record?

An accession record is documentation of the donation of material to the Archives. It is a high level overview of each donation and includes information such as the media types (textual records, photographs, audio recordings, etc.), the creator, the donor (if different from the creator), any access restrictions, the date range of when the materials were created, and a broad description of the materials. A fonds may have multiple accessions, or a single accession may be the entirety of a fonds.

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What is a Subject Guide?

A subject guide details all accessions and fonds related to a topic. Subject guides only exist for a limited number of subjects. They are typically quite broad, such as the subject guide to Native Peoples. They are useful as a starting place to identify relevant fonds. Subject guides typically arrange fonds into those that are predominantly focussed on the subject and those that reference the subject. Subject guides usually contain an introduction that give information about how the subject guide was written and how it is organized.

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How do I cite archival material?

Whether private records or university documents, all archival records carry a set of potentially complex unique characteristics that make their citation more difficult than published library material. To capture the precise provenance details for an archival citation may require additional research. In general an archival citation progresses from the specific to the general. A full item-level citation requires a title and date of the item, the name of the series (if appropriate) followed by the name of the fonds and its identifying number ending with the name of the institution.

For example:
Dr. H.M. Tory to C.S. Burgess [ca. 1913], Correspondence, Accession 1971-213-1-6, C.S. Burgess Fonds, University of Alberta Archives

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Can you do the research for me?

Staff use their understanding of the holdings of the Archives to help researchers navigate the collections and identify materials with potential relevance to your research question. The Archives may provide the researcher with accession inventories, if available, which can facilitate the research process, however, staff will not provide research services on behalf of researchers. We can help get you the right boxes but it is up to you to go through the boxes.


Advanced Research Questions

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How do I handle archival materials?

  • Archival materials must be handled with clean, dry hands. Researchers are asked not to use lotions or any product that may leave an oily residue on documents.
  • When photographic or audiovisual materials are handled, researchers may be required to wear cotton gloves to protect against fingerprints. Cotton gloves will be provided by the Archives.
  • Archival materials are very delicate and prone to damage during handling. Please take care when turning pages and when placing papers back into their folders.
  • Many archival materials are housed in protective sleeves or enclosures. Please do not remove these materials from their protective housing.
  • When handling archival materials please remove only one folder at a time for research and return it to its box prior to removing another folder.
  • Ensure that the original order of items in folders and boxes is maintained. Immediately inform Archives staff if you believe something is out of order or missing.
  • Ensure that no paper edges are exposed that may tear or chip when placing the folder back into its box.
  • Researchers working with archival materials will not be permitted to take their own paper or notebooks into the Reading Room, but they will be provided with coloured notepaper to use because it is easily distinguished from archival materials.

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Can I take materials home with me?

Archival materials are non-circulating and must NOT be removed from the RCRF. The Archives reserves the right to inspect folders when leaving the Reading Room. You usually can, however, take pictures of the materials you are using to read more thoroughly later. Make sure to follow the rules of copyright and citations.

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Can I take pictures of materials to continue my work at home?

Digital reproduction of archival materials may be allowed for research purposes. A digital scanner is available in the Reading Room for researchers to make digital reproductions. Alternatively, researchers may use digital cameras or hand-held scanners to duplicate records. Note that flash photography is strictly prohibited in the Reading Room. Pictures taken for research purposes may NOT be published in print or online.

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How do I get a copy of an archival document?

The Archives can provide digital copies of most materials for publication and reproduction. Please read our Application for Use of Research Facilities and Materials. To request a reproduction, please fill out the Digital Reproduction Order Form. Note that all reproductions must be properly cited.

The Archives reserves the right to deny the reproduction of any of its holdings due to preservation concerns for a particular item. Legislation concerning personal information, copyright, and individual donor restrictions may also restrict reproduction of certain items. Each original format holds unique preservation and reproduction requirements; because information technology continually evolves, formats, policies, and procedures are manifold.

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How does copyright apply to materials in an archive?

Copyright applies to materials in the Archives the same way it applies to other University and private materials. The Archives does not assume copyright over donated materials. Please contact the Copyright Office with specific questions.

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Can I use a photo or other document on my website? In a publication? In a conference presentation?

Any images or documents you would like to use in a publication that comes from the Archives’ holdings, must be digitized by the Archives. Cell phone pictures, images from hand scanner, etc., may only be used for research purposes and may NOT be reproduced.

Use of records for purposes of publication are subject to the rules of copyright. Questions concerning use of archival material for publication, or for any other purpose, should be directed to the attention of the University Records Archivist. All materials must always be appropriately cited.

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What are restrictions? What materials are restricted?

The records held by the UAA are subject to the Alberta Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Access to the donated private material of individuals, institutions, and organizations is subject to specific donor agreements.

While most of the archival records of individuals, institutions, and organizations in the UAA are open for research, access to some privately donated material is restricted. These restrictions vary according to each donation. Access to certain series of records are restricted for specified periods of time. For restrictions concerning specific record groups, researchers are encouraged to contact the University Records Archivist.

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What is FOIP?

FOIP is the Alberta Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The Provincial Archives of Alberta’s Understanding FOIP page explains the origin of FOIP, what it applies to, and how it impacts archives in Alberta.

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How do I assess materials protected under FOIP at the UAA?

In the event that the Archives is unable to disclose records to you due to provincial FOIP legislation then please forward your request to the University of Alberta Information" and Privacy Office. Please direct any questions about FOIP and the UAA to archives@ualberta.ca

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I have materials on my topic. Now what?

Once you have materials on your topic, you need to parse out relevant pieces of information. Interpretation of archival materials is a big part of that. Interpretation relies on being able to identify information about an item:

  • People involved - Is it signed? Is it addressed? Are there any other names references?
  • The context - Is the item in response to something else? Are there any references to other people, places, or events? Is this the only item on this topic or are there lots? What is being said in other items in the same archival fonds? What is being said in other items from that era?
  • Date - Is it dated?
  • Where the item originated - Is there a header? Is there any information with the signature?
  • Additional contextual information, such as materials referenced in the item or attached to it - If it is correspondence, are there enclosures? Are there references to past meetings or discussions, reports, events, etc. and do you know what they were?
  • Additional information about what someone thought about the information - Are there any marginal notes or highlighted text?

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How do I interpret archival materials?

Once you have some of the information about the materials you are reviewing, you can better interpret the materials themselves. Things to look for and think about:

  • Content - Are there relevant facts and adequate evidence to support a conclusion? A single document that states something contrary to all other evidence may be a mistake rather than a smoking gun.
  • Context & Credibility - Does the account of events line up with other sources? What qualifications does the author have for knowing this information? Would the author have had access to relevant information and complete information when writing this document? What is the author’s social perspective? Are they in a position of power? Are they negatively affected by this information? Are there any conflicts of interest for why the author may have been misleading or omitting information? Is the document internally consistent or are their holes in the story? Is the story believable?
  • Authority of Source- What are the credentials of the author? Are those credentials relevant for the information? Is there expertise in what the author is saying or is it layman’s knowledge?
  • Integrity - What is the completeness of documentation? Is it real, original, and unedited? Or has it been fabricated, altered or censored?
  • Truthfulness - Just because something is in an archive does not make it true. Everyone, including the author of an archival record, is fallible. Context of a document (who wrote it, why, the intended audience, etc.) matters as much as the content. People make mistakes. People do not always have all the information. Every record has a perspective and bias. Everything was made by a human. Materials do not exist outside of people or context.
  • Language - Documents will use whatever terminology was common at the time of their creation. Archivists do not change the terms used in documents. It will be offensive sometimes. Keep in mind context and truthfulness; the perspective of a document matters.