Administrative records, Archives, Historical documents, Historical research, Library, Record keeping, Records management, Research

An Archive is not a Library


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“A collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people”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.



Archives, Historical documents, Historical research, Library, Novel excerpt, Research

The Journey Begins

The past is a different place – as different as any unfamiliar part of the world. Think of ancient China or Egypt or Greece.

The food people ate, the way they lived, the games they played, and the politics and economic systems that sustained them. All are different and foreign even to those of us who live now in those places.  Yet human nature – our capacity to love, worry, hate, and fear are universal and follow us across time and across oceans.

This is a blog for people who don’t consider themselves as historians but find they have a historical project in mind or need to carry out some historical research in the course of their work; people like writers, realtors, community developers, artists, and genealogists.

I’ll write about how to navigate in the rarified world of archives and how to track down obscure documents, trying to eliminate as much jargon as possible to streamline your research.

And I’ll take you on a winding journey as I share some of my own discoveries while researching the historical novel and short stories I’m currently working on set in early Vancouver of the late 1800’s.

Things like the likelihood that there would be wallpaper in the house of my protagonist in 1885. Or how long a wagon ride took from New Westminster to what later became the city of Vancouver and  how often they went.  Or the history of typewriters and if there would have been any to buy in Vancouver by 1890. Or which streets had sidewalks and how far they went before petering out into dirt, mud, and skunk-cabbage.

Before I can put my own imagination to work to place my characters in a setting or have them  interact to best build my plotlines, I need to think about the weather, the built environment, the clothes, animals, pests, illnesses,  timing of events, and all sorts of other details.

And although I initially carried out deep research to give me the historical framework for my story, it is during the writing process that I discover the gaps.

Then it’s off to the archives, or a library whether virtual or physical, into google search, maps, images, youtube, and blogs, down to museums, or union halls, the police station, or anywhere else I can think of to track down people or documents or artifacts that might give me the information or background I need.

As a writer, archivist, and community activist I spent many years helping others and contributing to local historical projects and publications and now I’d like to help you.

So pack your bags, grab your passport, and jump aboard as we travel together, back in time.


Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton