As the City of Coquitlam Archives celebrates its tenth anniversary we thought it would be good to go back to basics and offer up an Archives 101.
So you’re interested in doing historical research but not sure where to begin? Wondering how to access archival records? If you’ve never visited an archives before, the process can be a bit intimidating. In this exhibit, we will explore the concept of archives and their significance, as well as provide practical tips on how to access records at the City of Coquitlam Archives.
The term “archives” refers to two different things: a group of unique and authentic historical records as well as the repository that holds them. Archives can be found in various institutions, including universities, all levels of government, and private organizations. The records can include many different formats such as manuscripts, photographs, maps, art work, and audio-visual recordings.
Archival recordkeeping is a practice that human beings have engaged in for thousands of years. But the concept of a modern archives comes to us from the French Revolution. In an effort to consolidate power in central France, archival documents were gathered at an institution that eventually became the Archives nationales. Up until that point, the main body of archival records kept in France were the tresor des chartes, a record of the holdings of the French monarchy. The goal of the newly formed archive was to allow the public access to these ancient records as well as to collect the records of the New France.
Archives perform several important functions in society. The main goal is to preserve the historical records of a community for current and future generations. Along with preservation, archivists provide access to those records. In order to do that, archivists have to process records and make them discoverable to the public. For an excellent overview of archival processing, take a look at From Accession to Access: The Art of Archival Processing.
An archivist is a trained professional who is responsible for managing and preserving historical records. Archivists, like librarians, are required to have a Master’s degree in order to work in the profession.
So what does an archivist do in a day? So many different things! On any given day an archivist may be appraising records, arranging and describing records, liaising with donors, answering reference questions, helping a researcher in the reading room, or working on an outreach project.
If you’ve never visited an archives before, or searched the archives holdings online, you may be unfamiliar with the terminology used. The terminology used by archives is French, because, as mentioned earlier, the roots of modern archives began in France.
The main word that researchers may be unfamiliar with is the word “fonds”. The word “fonds” is French and simply means “records group”. Fonds and collections are groups of archival records that are held by the archival institution. They are named for the person or organization that created them. The City of Coquitlam Archives currently has 78 fonds and collections, with new material being added all the time.
If you’ve ever searched the holdings for an archives online, you may have found it difficult to find what you were looking for, or even to understand the description you have found. You’re not alone! Archival descriptions can be a bit mysterious!
The first t important thing to understand about searching the holdings of an archives online is that not all the material has been – or will be – digitized. You won’t find it all on the internet. Rather, you often have to visit the archives in order to view the records. This can be for several reasons: the record is under copyright and therefore can’t be digitized; the record contains personal or sensitive information; or the record is ready to be digitized but hasn’t been yet.
The online portal for the City of Coquitlam Archives is called Quest.
There are two ways to search the archives holdings. The first is the way that most people are familiar with: entering keywords into a search bar.
The search bar for Quest is at the top of the page and looks like this:
You can use the search bar the same way you would use any search engine, by entering a search term.
For example, if you entered “Como Lake” you will get 507 results:
From there you can click on the various search results and see what you have found.
Remember, not everything has been digitized.
For example, this record has been digitized:
But this one hasn’t, which means you will have to visit the archives to view the record:
You will notice at the bottom of the record there is a description that reads “Part of School District No. 43 collection”. You can click on the linked portion of that phrase to see the rest of the School District No. 43 collection. It will appear like this:
Another way to search the archives is to look at the various fonds/collections in their entirety, drilling down to the various levels of description.
For example, say you were interested in viewing all the material in the Riverview Hospital Historical Society Collection. This is one of the largest collections in the City of Coquitlam Archives holdings.
First, navigate to the Riverview Hospital Heritage Society collection. You can do this one of two ways: by entering Riverview Hospital Historical Society into the search bar, or by clicking the link in the upper left hand corner of the portal that reads “Archival descriptions”:
This will lead you to a complete list of all the collections and fonds in our holdings.
When you click on Riverview Hospital Historical Society and this is what you will see:
This is what is referred to as the “arrangement tree”, with the “trunk” of the tree representing the largest level of description (in this case a collection), with the “branches” representing the lower level descriptions such as Series and Files. Archivists arrange archival records in a way that they think will be easiest for researchers to find what they are looking for.
You will notice that there are plus signs beside each of the Series descriptions. If you click on them the description will expand to show you lower levels of description:
You can continue expanding the record descriptions in this way until you reach the lowest possible level. If the title of a record sounds like something you might be interested in, you can find more information about it by looking at the description that appears below. This will give you information such as how much material there is (the Physical Extent area) or a more in depth description of what the records are (the Scope and Content area).
If you have never visited an archives before, you may not know how it works. Unlike a library, where you can wander through the open stacks to see what the library holds, the archives operate a little differently. At the archives the records are kept in a vault with closed stacks. The vault is temperature and humidity controlled, to help preserve the records for a long time. This ensures that the records will be available for future generations.
Interior of the vault at the City of Coquitlam Archives
In order to make your visit successful, you’ll want to have a sense of what records you want to use for your research. You can do this by looking through Quest and following the steps outlined above. Be sure to note the Fonds/Collection number, the Series number, the File number, and item number (if there is one) of the record you would like to view.
Once you’ve identified what you want to look at, get in touch with us by email or calling 604-927-3900 to set up a time to view the records. We also have drop in hours Tuesday to Thursday from 12 to 4pm, but it’s best to let us know before you arrive so that the archivist can have the records ready for you when you visit.
When you arrive you will be greeted by the Reference Archivist, who will ask you to sign in and to fill in a Researcher Registration form and show ID.
Next, the Reference Archivist will bring the records out to you on a book truck. You will be asked to look at one item at a time, and you will be given bookmarks to mark your place within the records if necessary. If you are handling photographs, you will be asked to use gloves. Unless the material is restricted, you will be able to take photographs. The Reference Archivist can also scan records for you if needed.
Archival records on a book truck
In conclusion, the Archives are a place for everyone. We hope that this exhibit will make them a bit easier to navigate. Please get in touch at any time if you have questions. We’re here to help!