Library:Guide to archival research

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Definitions

What are archives?

“Archives” or “archival material” refers to the primary source documentation that is created by people or organizations in the natural course of their lives or business. Archival material can include many different types of documentation: correspondence, photographs, diaries, research notes, audio/visual recordings, artistic proofs and more. Archival material is kept in collections according its provenance, or the person or organization that created it.

The word archives can also refer to an archival institution which collects archival material. Rare Books and Special Collections and University Archives at UBC Library are both examples of archival institutions. Both of these divisions are found on the first floor of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre.

What is a fonds?

The word "fonds" is used to describe most archival collections in Canada and also in many European and Latin American countries. Fonds simply means the documents in any media or format created or received by a person or an organization in the course of their personal or professional activities. For example, the "John Smith fonds" would refer to the records created and received by John Smith.

What is a finding aid?

A finding aid (sometimes called an “inventory”) is a document which helps you understand both the content and context of an archival collection. It will typically give a biography or history of the creator of the archives, and list by box and folder the contents of the collection.

What is ephemera?

Another kind of material you will often find in an archival institution or rare books library is “ephemera.” Ephemera is published documentation that was created for a specific purpose but was not meant to last. Examples of ephemera includes posters, pamphlets, theatre programs and postcards. Ephemera can be very useful for your research because it provides insights into events, culture, politics, and everyday life in another time period.

Finding archival material at UBC

Rare Books and Special Collections

Rare Books and Special Collections is a division of UBC Library which collects archival material, rare books and maps on the subject of the history of British Columbia. You can find archival material in three ways:

1. Search the library catalogue. In a “Guided Keyword Search” choose “Archival/mixed collections” under “Type”. The library catalogue will give you a brief description of the collection as a whole, and will provide a link to the online finding aid.

2. If you know the name of the collection you would like to use, the finding aids for archival collections are listed by alphabetical order on the RBSC website.

3. You can also do a search of the Rare Books and Special Collections website to find keywords within finding aids.

Once you have located material in a finding aid that you are interested in using for your research, make a note of the name of the collection, and the box and file numbers. The material can be requested for use the Rare Books and Special Collections reading room.

University Archives

The University Archives division of the Library collects archival material about the history of the university. This includes documents that come from departments of the university, as well as the archives of people and organizations affiliated with the university. Similar to Rare Books and Special Collections, you can search for archival material in three ways:

1. Search the library catalogue. In a “Guided Keyword Search” choose “Archival/mixed collections” under “Type”. The library catalogue will give you a brief description of the collection as a whole, and will provide a link to the online finding aid.

2. If you know the name of the collection you would like to use, the finding aids for archival collections are listed by alphabetical order on the University Archives website.

3. You can also do a search of the University Archives website to find keywords within finding aids.

Chung Collection

The Wallace B. Chung and Madeline H. Chung Collection (commonly referred to as the Chung Collection) is part of the holdings at Rare Books and Special Collections. It covers three main subject areas: early British Columbia history, immigration and settlement (especially the experience of Chinese-Canadians from 1850-1950) and the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. It includes a diverse array of primary and secondary sources, including archival documents, photographs, artifacts, maps and books. It has a separate website with a database to search using keywords. Much of the collection has been digitized (see Digital Collections, below).

Digital collections

UBC Digital Collections

UBC Library has digitized a number of documents, photographs and autographs from its own unique and rare collections. These can be searched through the Digital Collections portal, and you will also find results from these collections when you do a search using Summon.

Licensed collections

UBC Library also subscribes to a number of databases which contain primary source and archival material digitized at other archives and libraries around the world. For a list of available database with this kind of material, use our Archival Material research guide and look under “e-collections.”

Extra help

Tips for archival research

Here are a number of tips for using archival material in your research:

1. Budget more time than you think you will need. Unlike books and databases, there is no table of contents, index or full text search for archival material (unless it is digitized). It may take you more time than you think to find the documents that support your research.

2. Remember that most documents contained in an archival collection were usually created for a specific purpose, not to create a historical record. You may find it helpful to “think backwards-“ what kind of document would contain the kind of information you are looking for? For what purpose would that document have been created? This can help you narrow down which boxes and files to request for your research.

3. Taking digital photos of archival documents is a great tool to use when researching, but you must check first with the reading room staff to be sure you are allowed to do so without infringing on copyright law. It is also important that you take careful notes so that you remember which collection, box and folder you found the document in.

4. Related to the point above regarding digital photographs, you do need to cite archival material properly when you use it for your research. Otherwise your research may not be considered valid. Please see the section on citing archival sources.

5. Ask for help! Using archival material is very different from doing research with books or journals, and we want you to feel supported and confident when doing your research. You can always ask questions at the desk in the reading room and Rare Books and Special Collections has librarians and archivists on reference duty from 10 am – 12 pm, 2 pm -4 pm Monday to Friday, and during the school year, from 12-5 on Saturdays. You can also call or email the RBSC archivist for help.

Research Guides

There are a number of research guides that UBC Library has created that may help you in your research:

Other websites and tutorials

Online you can find a number of tutorials and extra help for doing archival research: