While most family historians are comfortable—or at least familiar—with libraries and their filing systems, archives are very different matter. Many of us will have never visited any archives before we became family historians.
Libraries, museums and archives have complementary roles. Generally, libraries collect published material (books, microform, published sound and visual recordings, and digital publications). Museums collect artifacts, and archives collect unique documentary material (manuscripts, photographs, artwork, sound and visual recordings). We must acknowledge the fact that there is overlap—many libraries hold some archival material and perhaps artifacts; museums often hold some documents and published material that supports their collections of artifacts; and the Archives of Ontario, for example, has a fine library and quite a few fascinating artifacts.
How are archival records organized?
Because of the diverse nature of their collections—and the varied users who need to access them—archivists deal with records quite differently than librarians.
Librarians work with published material, written or compiled by an author who has given the item a title, and probably explained the contents in an introduction. The library catalogue must include the title, author, publishing information, and some subject listings drawn from the book itself.
But an archivist may have none of these things. They must come up with a name for each collection of material or “fonds”; determine what person or organization created the records and when they were created; understand and evaluate the different types of records within the fonds; and, finally, decide how best to make the material available and useful for researchers. Almost like the author of a book, the archivist creates what amounts to a title, author, chapters, a table of contents, an introduction—and in the right circumstances, an index.
Rather than cataloguing, like a librarian, an archivist “describes” records. And it is important to consider this process to understand the best ways to locate just what you want.
The collection of records from one creator—an individual, a family, a business, an organization, or a government body—is designated as a “fonds”. It is given a name, usually that of the creator or collector, but sometimes more descriptive of the fonds’ contents. The archivist then writes a general description of the fonds and its creator. If the fonds is small, or consists of all the same type of document, the “description” may stop there. Many fonds at the Archives of Ontario have only a “fonds-level” description.
Most fonds, however, must be described in greater detail. For instance, a fonds created by a business might contain accounting records, correspondence, catalogues, and personnel records. Each type of record within a fonds is called a “series”. If a series is large or varied, it also may be broken into a number of logical “sub-series”. Many fonds at the Archives of Ontario are described to the “series level”.
A series (or a sub-series, if it has been broken down) is made up of “files” or “items”. These can be as small as a single page or as large as a 300-page ledger. A group of papers kept together in a file, for instance, would also be considered one item. A relative few fonds at the Archives of Ontario are described at the “items level”.
To summarize, every collection of documents at the Archives of Ontario will be described at the fonds level. The majority of those fonds are further described at the series and sub-series levels. Many fewer fonds are described at the “files and items” level.
What’s in the Archives of Ontario?
The collection includes more than
- 105,000 metres of paper records
- 4.4 million photographs
- 5,000 documentary artworks (paintings, drawings, caricatures, and posters) from as early as the 1790s
- 2,500 original works in the Government of Ontario Art Collection
- 350,000 architectural drawings
- 85,000 maps
- 30,000 hours of film, video and sound recordings including government films, home movies, and oral history recordings
- more than 1,500 gigabytes of electronic records
The Archives is a part of the Government of Ontario, and its main purpose is to look after the records of government. Approximately 70 percent of the holdings are Ontario government records. These government records are designated with a fonds number prefaced by the letters “RG”. Some of the most important fonds for genealogists are RG 80: Office of the Registrar General, RG 22: Court Records (which includes estate files), and RG 1: Crown Land Department Records.
The other 30 percent are private records—“private” by this definition meaning simply not generated by the Ontario government. These include records created by individuals, families, businesses, organizations and municipalities. The Archives of Ontario holds more than 2,600 fonds in this category. Private fonds are given a number prefaced by either an “F” or a “C”. The Archives of Ontario private fonds include an amazing array of material for family historians, depending on the area of the province and time period—including many municipal and religious records.
Beyond government and private fonds, is the “diffusion” collection. These are copies, usually on microfilm, of Ontario records at other institutions. The majority of this material is from Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. Some of the most important items for genealogists are the films of census records for Ontario, and early land records, including the Upper Canada land books and petitions.
And although it does not fall strictly within our definition of what should be in an archives, the Archives of Ontario Library holds about 80,000 books, pamphlets, periodicals and government publications.
How do I find records?
Once an archival fonds is processed, its description is added to the Archives Descriptive Database (ADD), available on the Archives of Ontario web site (www.archives.gov.on.ca). Look for the “Accessing Our Collections” button. Then choose “Archives Descriptive Database”.
You can search the full fonds descriptions in the ADD by keyword (Option 1 on the search page). In most cases, this option will be the best choice to start with. Option 3, “Advanced Search”, will give you three options: clicking “Groups of Archival Records” will let you search the fonds, series and sub-series levels; choose “File/Item Descriptions” to cover those fonds described in greater detail; or search by “Record Creators” to find fonds linked to the creator. You’ll find an excellent orientation linked to the Help button on the main ADD search page.
Your ADD search results will lead you to the location of the records—either original documents or on microfilm. The records have not been digitized. Any records that are not on film can be ordered and viewed in the Reading Room.
More than 20,000 photos, maps, architectural drawings, and documentary artworks are available in the Archives of Ontario’s Visual Database, although this just scratches the surface of the more than five million images at the Archives. The Visual Database is also available on the Archives web site. Look for the “Accessing Our Collection” button. Try the keyword search first, with a few variables, but you may also find the (somewhat idiosyncratic) subject search and the advanced options useful. You can use the Reference Code you find to look for more details (and perhaps more images) in the ADD.
The Archives of Ontario Library is invisible. Researchers can’t visit the Library, but must access holdings through the BiBLION catalogue. You can request material on site, or via email in advance, and you books will be delivered to the Reading Room.
Archives staff members have created many other wonderful research guides, in the form of online and on-site finding aids to specific records, and online exhibits that function as thematic guides. Links on the “Accessing Our Collection” page will lead you to all of them.
This article was written to accompany the lecture “The Archives of Ontario… What’s in it for me?”.
I’ve written a number of other posts about research at the AO. To find them, click on “Archives of Ontario” in the word cloud at the right of this page, or on the tag at the bottom of this post.