Archives and Special Collections

Archival Highlights

The most common archival records in ARCS are textual records and photographic records, but we also have posters, drawings, audio-visual records, recordings, digital records, textiles and artefacts. 

The main research areas are: 

  • The women's movement in Canada
  • The Slovak community
  • French modern literature 
  • Music, history, education
  • UFOs


Archival material (archives):  

Archival materials or "archives" are those that are created or received by a person, family, organization, or business, in the conduct of their affairs and activities. They are usually considered primary sources that serve as evidence of past actions and events. 

Archives act as memory aids that allow us to recall and relive these activities and events, or to re-communicate information about them at some point in the future. They are preserved as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator or because of their enduring value.

Enduring value: 

The continuing usefulness or significance of records, based on the administrative, legal, fiscal, evidential, or historical information they contain, justifying their ongoing preservation.

Primary source: 

A document, book or artifact that was created at the time of an event. They may describe experiences or thoughts about the event and contain direct evidence, first-hand testimony/accounts of a topic or event. Examples include Tweets, statistics, manuscripts, photographs, diaries, letters, interviews, newspaper articles, etc. 

Secondary source:

Sources that cite, interpret, comment on or build upon the content of primary sources ie. textbooks, biographiesmovies, scholarly articles, etc. 

Tertiary source:

Reference texts like dictionaries, databases, encyclopedias that provide summary or background information about the topic.  


The origin or source of something. Provenance is a fundamental principle of archives, referring to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. The principle of provenance or the respect des fonds dictates that records of different origins (provenance) be kept separate to preserve their context.


The whole of the documents, regardless of form or medium, automatically and organically created and/or accumulated and used by a particular individual, family, or corporate body in the course of that creator's activities or functions.

Finding aid:

Descriptive tools containing information that establishes control over records and facilitates their retrieval. 


Documents arranged systematically or maintained as a unit because they relate to a particular function or subject, result from the same activity, have a particular form, or because of some other relationship arising out of their creation or, arising out of their receipt and use. Many series contain groups of related papers that can be grouped under sub-series.


 A group of documents related by use or topic, typically housed in a folder.

Reference number:  

The unique number that is assigned to archival material which allows archivists to locate the unit. 


*Definitions were taken from Glossary of Archives and Records Terminology (SAA) and the Glossary of the Rules for Archival Description (CCA)

What are Archives?

Archives are the records created and accumulated by a person or an organization in the course of routine activities or business and are kept due to their continuing or enduring value (historical, evidential or legal value).  Archives are the documentary evidence of past events and can be used by future generations to understand and interpret history. 

Archives are considered primary sources: they are typically unique, unpublished materials that are created at the time of an event to record the activity. Archives can be found in many formats including textual, sound and video recordings, photographs, electronic and born-digital records, maps, architectural drawings etc. Examples of archival records include reports, meeting minutes, letters and emails, journals and diaries, account books and ledgers, etc.

These records and the places in which they are kept are called archives, and archivists are the professionals who assess, collect, organize, preserve, and provide access to these records.

How to do Archival Research

New users of archives can often feel overwhelmed or unsure of how to access materials.  You can use the points below to help you get started, but if at any time you have questions, ARCS staff will be happy to help you and guide you through the process. 

Getting Started: Developing your Research Question and Defining your Needs

A typical research project begins with a general topic of interest from which a research question is developed.  Ask yourself what you want to study (the topic), why you want to study it (the what/why/how) and then what the significance will be of knowing.  

Once you have your question, consider the scope of your project, the amount of time you have and where you might find background sources.  Before you consult primary archival sources, it is best to begin your research with secondary and tertiary sources of information on your topic. Take note of relevant people, organizations, events, dates and themes that you come across during your research. 


Identifying Archives

Once you have completed your background research and have a firm understanding of your topic and your research question, you can now begin to look for primary sources. The first step is to identify which archival repositories (Archives) are likely to have material relevant to your topic.  Each repository will have a collection mandate and focus and it is a good idea to visit their websites to learn about the collections. Some repositories, like uOttawa's Archives and Special Collections, focus their collecting on specific themes or subject areas, while other Archives are tasked with preserving the history of their parent institution. Many provincial archives associations in Canada maintain a directory of archival repositories in their province. In Ontario, Archeion provides a list of intuitions, their collection mandates and in many cases, descriptions of their holdings. 

Most Archives will have lists of their holdings on their website and in many instances access to full descriptions or finding aids for you to browse.  


How Archives are Organized

Once you start browsing the archival repository websites, you will begin to notice that the lists of their holdings contain names of individuals or organizations. This is one of the biggest differences between how libraries and Archives organize and describe their material. Unlike a library where materials are organized by subject classification, Archives organize material according to the principles of provenance - that is, materials are kept according to their origin; who created or maintained them. The whole of the records of one creator is called a fonds and are never mixed with the records of another creator even if they both relate to the same subject. This is done to ensure that the context of the records creation is not lost. Fonds are often sub-divided in a hierarchical structure consisting of seriessub-seriesfiles, etc. Each of these levels is a grouping of records that relate to each other in some way or are the result of a particular activity or use. 


Reading a Finding Aid

The listing of the fonds available at the Archives will often bring you to a description of all the records. This description is called a finding aid and is made of several standard components. Reviewing the finding aids will help you identify where relevant material to your research question will be located. The first thing to do is to read the Biographical Sketch or Administrative History section of the finding aid. This will tell you about the creator of the records and what their main activities were. Once you know this, you will be better able to tell if their records will be relevant or not. The next section of the finding aid is the Scope and Content. This section provides a short description of the material that makes up the fonds and can give you valuable information about what to expect. It is important to also look at the Dates of the material in the finding aid to make sure it falls in the timeframe of your research focus.  Finding aids will also have information about the types and formats of the material, how much material is available and if any restrictions on accessing the material are in place.  


Using the AtoM Database

At the uOttawa Archives and Special Collections, many of our finding aids have been made available in a searchable online database called AtoM. This database provides a list of many of the fonds in our holdings and also has the added feature of allowing for keyword searching.  If you are unsure of relevant fonds that match your research question, this can be a good place to start. In the search bar, type in relevant keywords and note what fonds the hits are coming from.  The AtoM database can be accessed via the ARCS homepage. 


Coming to the Archives and Meeting with the Archivist 

After reviewing the online finding aids, you find material you want to consult, please note the reference number and the name of the fonds.  Then email to set up an appointment. Unlike accessing resources at a library, archival material is stored in a secure area that is not accessible to the public. Archivists will pull material for you ahead of your visit and make sure it is ready for you when you arrive.  If possible, please give us 1-day notice. One other thing to keep in mind is that archival material can only be viewed in the reading room. You may not take the materials home with you due to their unique nature. Although taking photographs or making copies may be an option in some cases, plan to leave yourself enough time to consult the records onsite.  

If you think that the Archives may have relevant material for your research but you are unable to locate it using the finding aids, contact the Archives and speak to an archivist.  The archivist knows the collections well and will be able to help point you in the right direction.

Finding Aids and Structure of an Archival Fonds

When conducting research at the Archives, researchers will consult the 'finding aids' in order to identify what records are available, to understand the context of how the records were created and by whom, the nature and the scope of the material, and how it can all be accessed.   

The finding aids for ARCS are available as PDFs, on paper in the reading room and are currently being added to an online searchable database called AtoM which is accessible via our website

Finding aids typically consist of several elements and describe the material in a hierarchical structure made up of the following descriptive levels:  


An archival fonds is the entire body of the records of an organization or individual that have been created and accumulated as the result of the functions and activities of the creator. The fonds is the top level in the hierarchy - it is the conceptual whole of the records.  The records of one fonds are kept separately from those of another, even if they are related to the same subject, in order to maintain the context of their creation. 

A collection is a group of records that have been accumulated and brought together by a person or organization based on their subject. 


The series level consists of documents that have been arranged systematically or maintained as a unit because they relate to a particular function, activity or subject. 


An organized unit of documents within a series, that are brought together because they related to the same subject, activity or transaction. 


The lowest level of description. The item is unit unto itself that can be distinguished from a group. Items are usually found within files (note:  typically ARCS finding aids don't have item level descriptions). 


From: Canadian Council of Archives, Rules of Archival Description Appendix D Glossary (

Requesting Archival Records

As a general rule, archival material can only be consulted on site and may not be borrowed due to its unique and rare nature. 

Before your visit, you ideally should know what material you want to consult. Unlike a library, you cannot browse the shelves and access material directly.  Archivists will need to retrieve your requested material for you and this can take some time.  To find out what is available, review the online finding aid database AtoM or browse the PDF finding aids and thematic guides available in this guide. If you are still having trouble identifying material of interest, you can come directly to ARCS and speak with an archivist or email us at

If you do know what you want to look at, please complete a "Request to Consult Documents" form.  You can send the request in advance to or submit it upon your arrival.   

*Don't forget to indicate the call number or reference code, the location, the box number, and file title in the Documents consulted section. 

Handling Archival Material

Archival material requires special care to ensure long-term preservation. Remember that most archival material is unique and irreplaceable. Please follow these simple rules when visiting ARCS :

  • No food or drink in the reading room.
  • Pencils only.
  • Ensure you have clean hands before handling archival records and wear gloves if instructed by archives staff. 
  • No flash photography.
  • Do not hold items in your hands - keep them flat on the table as much as possible. 
  • Keep items in the original order in which they were found (to maintain context).  Folders should be returned to boxes in their original sequence and items should remain in folders in their original sequence. 
  • Use caution when unfolding items and do not attempt to unfurl rolled items without first speaking with staff. 
  • Use book cradles, wedges and weights if required.  

Archives staff are on hand to provide guidance on handling the materials you have requested. 

How to Cite Archival Material at ARCS

As with published materials, archival sources used in research require citing.  You can cite using a variety of citation styles, but regardless of the format you use, you must ensure to include the following key elements: 

Information about the document itself and its location

  • Title (of the item or the file - if one does not exist, give a short description)
  • Name of fonds or collection
  • Reference code 
  • Box number, File number
  • Name of the repository and location 

For the citation of documents held in the Archives and Special Collections, we ask you to add the following after the complete reference of the document:

 [Complete reference of the document according to the chosen bibliographic style], [ARCS Reference Number], Archives and Special Collections, Morisset Library, University of Ottawa. 


Poster for Gay Women’s Festival, "Come as you are…come out!", Toronto, June 30th [1973], 35 x 23 cm, Canadian Women's Movement Archives Collection, 10-001, Posters Series, item 680, Archives and Special Collections, Morisset Library, University of Ottawa.