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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 ($).


Approaching the Archives

It is important that researchers approaching any archive prepare themselves for the visit. The interaction which we face in archives consists of three elements: the records, the archivist and the researcher. We are dismayed when we visit archives and find the records are disorganized and uncatalogued. If the archivist has no training or special knowledge of the collection, we know we are not receiving the service we expect. By the same token, the researcher should be ready to be as efficient as possible.

The genealogist should do the following:

  • have some knowledge of how archives in general work
  • have some knowledge of the collections and practices of the particular archives of interest
  • know what information they expect to find in the archives
  • keep an open mind on all three above to allow for novel circumstances
  • if sufficient information is available, prepare requests for materials before visiting the archives in person

Many archives have a website of some kind which will provide information about location, means of communication, services, rules or guidelines, and possibly even collections. Consult the website carefully to see what possibilities and restrictions there are.

It is always better to contact the archives before visiting to ensure that they will be open on the day you visit, that the materials you want will be accessible and that there is a seat available. Public holidays vary from province to province: did you know the Nova Scotia Archives are not open on Natal Day (early in August)? Institutions put up with renovations, off-site storage and material which is away being microfilmed. Some small archives require appointments.

It may be possible to consult with the archivists about your research before you go. If so, make your question brief and specific. The provincial archives and Library and Archives Canada will accept questions by phone, fax, letter, email (or in person), but increasingly email is preferred because of the ease of receiving and sending, and the fast turnaround.

There may be a delay in replying because of the huge number of questions received, especially in large institutions, so do not make arrangements on Monday for your Wednesday visit and expect to be able to make plans with the archivists on such short notice.

Be sensible about the amount of work you intend to do. If your visit is for one day only, do not bring a hundred questions with you. It is wise to have prepared a good number of questions, which might reflect a day’s work, and then add a few more in case some of the others are disposed of quickly. You may find that you can answer something in a few minutes, or that another cannot be answered at all because the document you counted on consulting doesn’t exist.

It is a good idea to create a worksheet for the questions you want to examine, one sheet for each question. Give the information you know already, the sources you have already consulted, and then leave plenty of space (including a blank back of the sheet) for making notes. This technique works because you have all the information you need to answer the question at hand, you can note your progress as you go, and you can file the sheet away in your notebook or file folder once you have answered it or completed the search.

Some further considerations before visiting specific archives:

Outside Arrangements

Before you travel, make sure you know the situation regarding a place to stay (if you need one), parking and eating. It may be possible to bring a lunch, but unlikely, and you won’t be able to bring it into the reading room while you are working anyway. It does no good to complain to the archivists about parking convenience or costs; they have no control over the matter. Also, if you decide not to consult a map, but still drive into town and park and then set off wandering while looking for the archives, do not blame the institution when you get lost. They can provide you with directions (perhaps even a map on the website) ahead of time.

Being diabetic is not a reason for eating cookies in the reading room. No food or drink (including water) can be allowed there. Remember, the primary purpose of the archive is the protection of the documents.


Most archives now require you to register, and may ask that you produce your reader’s card each time you visit, or even each time you enter the room. You should know ahead of time what form of identification will be required to register. It may be a routine photo-ID or it may need to have your address on it. There may be a fee. Even if you determine the requirements for a reader’s card a few weeks ahead of your visit, verify them immediately prior to leaving. Requirements can change on short notice and you do not want to find yourself many miles from home without the necessary documentation to allow you access to the archival records you are seeking.

What Can You Take In?

Most archives now restrict what can be taken into the reading room. These regulations are made up with the protection of the documents in mind. You should leave your coat, umbrella and briefcase outside; a locker or other security system is probably available. You can take your notebook and worksheets and a pencil inside. Pens can damage documents with a single inadvertent swipe. You may be able to get a tiny pencil from the reading-room desk, but prepare yourself by getting a couple of good ones to take along. If you have the old-fashioned wooden kind, there will be a sharpener in the room; the more luxurious automatic ones with extra leads available at a click are also good.

Check with the archives you will be visiting to determine if they allow items such as laptops, cell phones, cameras and hand-held scanners if you are thinking of taking them. Most archives will have specific regulations about these items. Regardless, be sure you understand the copyright laws surrounding making copies of any documents held by the archives.

What Are the Rules?

If there is a sheet of rules, read it thoroughly. It is likely that the rules will be published on the website, so you can review them ahead of time. Whatever the regulations are, they have been formulated for the protection of the documents, the smooth running of the reading room and for your benefit. It does no good to argue with the archivists about them. These may include the wearing of white cotton gloves while you are handling documents (you get used to them quickly), the use of pencils rather than pens, and how to order documents.

There will probably be a form to use for ordering, and you may need to include your registration number on it. Orders may be taken only at certain times (once an hour, for example) and you may have to be careful when last requests can be made. Some archives can arrange for you to request materials ahead of time, which is a good idea because you can start work immediately on arrival. You may also be able to store materials in a locker overnight for use the next day, as at Library and Archives Canada. This is also a good idea, if possible; however, some archives empty all lockers each night so be sure you know the rules before leaving anything.

It is not uncommon for a collection to have restricted access. This may be because some legal embargo is on it (as with so many vital records or, for example, many coroners’ reports) or because the donor did not want the collection to be freely available to anyone who asks. If you know you want to use a particular fonds before you arrive, make a point of asking if there are restrictions on who can see it. It may be necessary to obtain permission to use the fonds from the donor, and that you will need to do ahead of time.

Note how returns should be made. This is especially important for self-service microfilm, because every place has its own arrangements. The Nova Scotia archives supply wire baskets for the purpose, in Prince Edward Island you should put them on top of the cabinet, but at the Archives of Ontario you are expected to replace them in the drawers where you found them.

However original documents are to be returned, ensure that you treat them gently and place them on the returns cart/lift/shelf so that no item is in danger.

Talking to the Archivist

The role of the archivist varies from archive to archive. In the best situation, the sheet of rules will tell you what that role is, or it may be on the website. Note the verbs used. At the Newfoundland archives, they can discuss, refer, instruct, or provide information on services. The Prince Edward Island archivists will introduce, demonstrate, instruct, offer direction. You can expect them to discuss, explain, suggest, introduce in Saskatchewan.

The really useful one here is ‘discuss’, which means you can expect some enlightenment about your question, and ‘suggest’ is also welcome because the archivist can offer you some of their own expertise. There will be more examination of the reference interview with the archivist later.

It is important not to spend too long with the archivist. Researchers must not tell their own life story or their family history. State the question and discuss it. Then get started on your work and let the next person have their turn.

Handling the Documents

Great care must be taken when using any records in the archives. The preservation of the documents is a primary function of the archives. Someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to ensure the records are there for your use; equally so, you and the current staff must leave them in good shape for people who come along in the future.

Do not lean on the document; do not place your notebook on top of it; do not touch it except with the white gloves. Tracing maps or illustrations is not allowed.

It is possible there will be a limit on the number of documents you can have at a time. When you are dealing with materials in a box or file, ensure you keep them in the same order that you received them; the order of documents may be part of their archival value. At any rate, they will be listed in order in the finding aid and changing the order will be confusing for the next user.

One of the elemental ideas in archival work is that collections of materials should reflect the way the compiler left them, if possible. Thus, the order of documents in the collection is important. This is why the order of the documents may reflect part of the archival value of the collection.

It is unlikely that there will be a self-service photocopying facility. Few of the original documents can be photocopied (the bright light is unhealthy for them). Some things may be copied through a reproduction service; the fees and arrangements will be spelled out on an information sheet or the website.

Some places will allow you to photograph, videotape or scan documents under certain circumstances. If you intend to bring a camera or scanner with you, let the archives know ahead of time in case you need to make special arrangements. Scanning is an area of great growth in the technology industry, and the tiny pen-size scanners we now see on the market may make visits to archives easier in the future.

However, copyright is a thorny issue in archival circles in Canada, with the law being very complex and the subject of much discussion. You will find that most archivists, for their own protection, will take a narrow view regarding the right of people to copy many items. For a more detailed discussion of this subject, see the Staff Guide to Copyright (1999), available from the Canadian Council of Archives; Demystifying Copyright: A Researcher’s Guide to Copyright in Canadian Libraries and Archives, by Jean Dryden (OGS, 2002); Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors Lecturers and Librarians by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Com, 2001); and Genealogy and the Law in Canada, a presentation by M. A. Wilkinson at Western University, Ontario, 2011. These books can be accessed through interlibrary loan if not available locally or on Google Books. As well, the National Institute for Genealogical Studies offers an advanced level course entitled “Genealogy and Copyright Guidelines”. Please be aware, as well, that copyright laws vary by country and state/province level, depending on the archives you plan to visit.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses

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 

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

  • This page was last modified on 12 November 2014, at 19:40.
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