An archives is, often and strictly speaking the records created in the course of the daily work of a business, society, church, club, or government agency or department.
These records include documents such as letters (correspondence), minutes of meetings, work-flow documents, registrations forms, records of employment. cemetery registries – all that kind of stuff.
They are the tracking, book-keeping, and monitoring documents created by, for example finance department could know who to send the property tax assessment to. Or so that plots in different parts of the cemetery were assigned to the next person to be buried there. Or so that the health inspector knew who the owner was if a customer complained about the cleanliness of a restaurant. The department or organization that created these records probably had no thought to researchers of the far future who might use them as a means of tracking down relatives, figuring out the comparative value of land over time, or compiling stats on tuberculosis deaths in a given year.
They collected information and instructed their staff to manage it based on what that administrative department found most useful or pertinent at the time and for the purpose the records were intended.
They would have been compiled in a way that made sense at the time based on their needs and uses, something that may be unclear or even illogical to a present-day historical researcher.
Documents could have been organized according to address, legal address, or name of an applicant. They could be in chronological order based on the date someone applied for a building permit. Or they might be arranged in some combination of these.
If you realize you’re at a point in your research that you need to use an archive the first thing you need to do is figure out which, if any archive, will hold the records you need.
Because archival collections are, strictly speaking, collections of one-of-a-kind, original documents (artefacts), it follows that they’ll only be found in one place (with a few exceptions of copied artefacts).
This post is the first one to help you figure out which archive to go to for your research, starting with an overview of areas of responsibility between municipal, provincial, and federal jurisdictions in Canada. And since I’m most familiar with the archives in my home-town of Vancouver and my province of British Columbia (BC), I’ll be using many examples from these repositories.
I’ll try to make this as simple as I can 🙂
The majority of archives fall under the jurisdiction of some level of government – whether municipal, provincial, federal in Canada – or some other division of power in the country whose records you are seeking.
You’ll need to know which level of government is responsible for what in order to know which archive will hold the records you want to look at.
For example, you’ll find the administrative documents that were used to run the various departments of the Vancouver’s city government from the date of incorporation (April 6, 1886) at the city of Vancouver archives.
These will include records created by the city’s departments, committees, and councils including police, fire, planning, engineering, parks, city manager, etc.
At provincial-level archives you will find administrative documents that were used to run all the various councils, committees, and departments of the provincial government from the date of formation of that province.
In British Columbia the provincial archives is now officially called the British Columbia Archives and Records Service (BCCARS) .
The records at BCCARS includes those created by departments that have carried out responsibilities that fall under BC provincial jurisdiction, as determined, with some exceptions, by federal law.
In a nutshell, here are the areas of responsibility of provincial governments in Canada. Bear in mind that division of responsibility have changed over time so you may need to do some preliminary research to ensure you are looking in the right archive for the time-period you are researching.
But here they are, currently; with some exceptions depending on the jurisdiction (particularly Quebec)
taxation for provincial purposes
municipalities (in BC, Vancouver is its own legislative entity called the Vancouver Charter). Other municipalities in the province have their powers and responsibilities but these are legislated under the BC Municipal Act.
property and civil rights (their largest area of responsibility)
administration of civil and criminal justice
penalties for infraction of provincial statutes
celebration of marriage, provincial civil service (aka vital stats)
local works and corporations with provincial objectives
For federal government records, on the other hand, you will need to consult with the National Archives of Canada (officially called Library and Archives Canada) to find records that fall under Federal jurisdiction.
Here are the general areas that the Canadian federal government is currently responsible for:
trade and commerce
direct and indirect taxation
the postal service
census taking and statistics
the federal civil service
Aboriginals and Indian reserves
marriage and divorce
interprovincial works and undertakings.
If you (brave researcher) want to delve further into this, here is the link to an article from the Canadian Encyclopedia about the division of power between the Canadian federal government and the provinces.
For countries other than Canada – comparable divisions apply but you will have to determine that from your own governmental websites.
Ok – so you’re doing historical research on an issue, person, building, or place and realize you need more specific or unique information than you’ve been able to find in books and on the internet.
It’s probably time to find out if there’s something in an archival collection that would help.
But what the heck is an archive?
The Oxford English dictionary defines an archive(s) as:
1) A noun
“A collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people”
2) A verb “To place or store in an archive”
Archives used to have a very specific meaning – though still obscure and unfamiliar to most people – and referred to a physical place where original one-of-a-kind physical documents were kept.
But in the past 20 years or so, the term has become muddied because old or obsolete electronic documents are now frequently found within an archives section of webpages, databases, and other digital sites and can refer to past issues of newsletters and magazines, old or historical emails, databases, websites, and other digital material.
This post, however, is about original kind of archive – the physical place where original (mostly paper) documents are kept.
Of course the definition of an archive doesn’t necessarily make it easier to understand so I’m going to make a few comparisons with libraries that I think will help make it more clear.
A library is something that most of us are familiar with and have been going to since we were kids – a place to get information about something we’re curious about or need to research. But that’s about where the similarity with archives ends.
A library contains mostly books that have been published which means that there are probably thousands of copies of most books available throughout the world.
You can go to a local library and find the kind of books you want by looking up the author, title, subject, keyword in the online catalogue, or by browsing the shelves within the non-fiction part of the library where other books on a related subject are shelved using some kind of classification scheme.
You can usually go right over to the shelves and help yourself to the books you’re interested in. You can take as many as you can carry to a table to look at at one time. And you can take most if not all of them home to borrow for a few weeks.
And there isn’t generally a problem with keeping your purse or bag or backpack with you in the library or with using a pen to take notes.
But mostly, you cannot do any of these things in archives.
So now that you have an idea about what an archives isn’t, I’ll delve into more into that in the weeks to come.