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Archives research guide: Reading finding aids

Archivists create descriptions of the records in their holdings in order to make them discoverable by users, and to provide users with additional information so that they can better understand the records' contents and context of creation. Archival descriptions are called finding aids, and they should be the first place you go to begin your research and find relevant archival sources. Once you've used finding aids to identify records that may be relevant to your research, you're ready to request access to them and visit the Archives and Special Collections.

Finding aids that describe the holdings of the Mount Royal University Archives and Special Collections can be searched and viewed online in Archives Search, our descriptive database. Before you start searching, it's important to know how the information in finding aids is structured and formatted so that you can better navigate and understand them.

How are finding aids structured?

Most finding aids created in Canada follow the Rules for Archival Description, a national standard that dictates which information elements finding aids should contain and how they must be structured. This standard ensures that finding aids across Canada have the same general structure and contents, making them easier to share and understand.

Unlike library catalogue records where published sources are described individually, finding aids have complex hierarchical structure of multiple levels that reflect the arrangement of the original records. Each fonds (the records of a single creator, whether a person, family, or organization) can consist of multiple lower levels, including series, files, and items:

Diagram of fonds components

It is important to note that this structure is purely intellectual and does not reflect the physical arrangement of records in boxes. From the diagram above you can see that the higher levels of description (fonds and series) are made up of lower levels (files and items). Each higher level of description thus summarizes the lower levels which it contains. For example, a file containing individual letters (items) dated 1913, 1914, and 1916 might have a summarizing title like “Correspondence” and the date range 1913-1916. Each level may contain any number of lower levels.

Here's an example of how the structure of an actual fonds might look:

Example of fonds structure

The title of fonds are always based on the name of the fonds’ creator, that is, the person, family, or organization that created the records. The titles of series, files, and items are the titles given to them by their creator, although sometimes with extra information or explanation provided in square brackets by the archivist. If the creator did not provide a title for a series, file, or item, the archivist will supply one that provides a succinct summary of its contents.

Each fonds or collection has a finding aid that contains a descriptive summary of the entire fonds/collection, as well as descriptions of each constituent lower level including series, files, and items. If you've searched in Archives Search and found the description of a item, it's important to read the descriptions of the file, series, and/or fonds containing that item, as each level of description will provide you with more information.