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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Archival Centres  by Ryan Taylor. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Introduction To Modern Archives

Archives are a collection of records in many forms, original in nature, which preserve and reflect the history of the community that the archival institution serves. The records are original sources; that is, they are the sources from which other written documents (often referred to as derivative sources) are made.

Although we may think of archives primarily in terms of paper manuscripts, in the modern day most archives collect items in other forms as well: photographs, sound recordings, moving images, maps, etc. These are often kept separately from the paper materials because they require special handling, but all can be of use to family historians and hence should be kept in mind.

In the past ‘archives’ meant organizational materials and ‘manuscripts’ meant personal materials, but these terms have come together under the term archives. Researchers may still find the two terms used distinctively in older writings or modern educational materials.

An Important Resource

Archives and manuscripts are a much more important resource than they were a generation ago.[1]  In the past, archivists have had a more restricted view both of the role of archives and of whom it was who constituted their client base. The public view of archives, as a dusty and remote place, perhaps grew out of this self-perception and the public’s lack of need for consulting the archives. The same dusty perception applied to libraries in many ways.

A technical note about language: the word ‘archives’ is plural, although we often use it in a singular sense.

In postwar society, a better-educated public began to find reasons for visiting archives. At the same time, archivists were more highly trained, their own educational requirements more advanced, and holders of archival positions began to view themselves as ‘professionals.’ Initially this view met with some resistance, but has gradually become accepted as time went on.

In the early days of the genealogical boom, there were few published resources and genealogists had to begin by using archival materials which had not been prepared for use by so many people. Furthermore, many genealogical researchers had little expertise in using archival materials or, indeed, in doing historical research at all.

Before the days of Roots (1976), the general view of genealogy had more to do with its snob appeal. Once Roots had demonstrated that family history was something everyone could do (since every family has a history), and that the lives of ordinary folks could be as interesting to trace as politicians and generals, a flood of genealogists began to put their data on family group sheets and hoped to find more.

This caused difficulties in archives, as it did in libraries. The institutions were usually set up to handle only a few researchers, since the scholars or academics who had been the primary users earlier came in small numbers.

Archivists View of Genealogists

The archivists viewed the genealogists with distaste, thinking that their research was frivolous and unimportant, and that their lack of historical background should bar them from the institutions. However, the flood of genealogists continued. During the 1980s this difficulty crested. Part of the reason was the archivists’ ongoing uncertainty about their ‘professionalism.’ There was a feeling that the professional should not have to deal with the untrained researcher. As late as 1984, the uneasy feeling in the archivists’ minds can be seen in an article called “That we shall truly deserve the title of ‘profession’.” [2]

Gradually the situation changed, making itself felt in local, provincial and national archives which were in the front rank in dealing with genealogists. It spread into more specialized archives. A university archivist who in 1981 felt comfortable publicly making slighting remarks about genealogy and stating categorically she did not want any genealogical resources in her institution could be found in 2001 welcoming a large genealogical research project’s records to the same archives. It would be difficult to find any sensible archivist at the managerial level today who did not realize the value of their genealogical clientele.

Why is this? The primary reason is that the last two decades of changing fiscal attitudes have made most public institutions very conscious of needing to prove their worth. One way to do this is to indicate a large user base. Most archives have found that genealogists now make up a significant percentage of their users, perhaps in some cases even a majority of them.

Also, institutions found that genealogists could be valuable friends. If funding was threatened, genealogists, both individually and acting through their societies, could be counted on to lobby for a continued flow of cash. They would help run ‘Friends’ groups, make donations either of collections or money, and work as volunteers. If an index was required, a genealogist could be found to do it.

Advent of Personal Computers

With the advent of personal computers, the creation of databases from archival material escalated; these could then be placed on the Internet when it became common currency. Someone is needed who can input the data and supervise the digital process. Since it is universally acknowledged that the future of much archival material lies in its digitized form on the net, these workers are vital.

Another shift came as a result of the opening of society which occurred during the upheavals of the 1960s. Historical and social studies in the past concentrated on the elite and large institutions, but social history is now more to the fore, with the lives of ordinary citizens taking their place as a focus of interest.[3] A pioneer of this aspect of archival practice was the Saskatchewan Archives Board, whose records policy was established by the CCF government of Tommy Douglas in 1945. At that time, it stated that it is “important to document the lives of ordinary Saskatchewan people as well as those of the political, social and economic elite.”[4] Although this was meant politically at the time, it has become an accepted idea everywhere now. Currently the mission statement of the Saskatchewan Archives Board includes as its first statement: “To acquire, manage, preserve and make accessible records of significance that reflect the rights and activities of Saskatchewan’s people – those of public and private organizations and those of individuals.” [5]

Another aspect of this idea was the rekindled interest in ethnic groups and their background, folklore and customs. This trend, which predated Roots, was more acceptable to archivists and librarians because it represented a social transition.

The genealogy movement must be seen as a populist and democratic happening, which fits the direction taken by the rest of society. It is also an opportunity for education and self-fulfillment through that knowledge. All educational institutions (among which libraries and archives must be included) must, by their nature, promote this.

The result is that archives, especially those run by governments or other ‘public’ groups (such as churches), now welcome genealogists and many of them create websites, brochures or finding aids specifically with their genealogical clientele in mind.

When Ian Wilson became Archivist of Ontario in 1986, it is said that he gathered his archivists together to point out that genealogical queries were now more than fifty percent of those asked in the reading room. He announced a policy change which would focus more on serving this group of users.

Whether this story is true or apocryphal, it caused a sensation in the genealogical world at the time, and resulted in a new and happy relationship between family historians and the Archives of Ontario. This relationship has gone from strength to strength since then, with a genealogical desk in the archives and a ‘Friends’ group which actively promotes the Archives of Ontario’s needs. This is typical of archives across the country.


  1. Grigg, page 20
  2. Jacqueline Groggin, American Archivist, v. 47, no. 3 (Summer 1984), page 243.
  3. Joyce, page 128.
  4. Saskatchewan Archives Board 2001-2002 Annual Report, Saskatchewan Archives Board website.
  5. Saskatchewan Archives Board 2012-2013 Annual Report, Saskatchewan Archives Board website.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Canadian: Archival Centres offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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