Terms & concepts

A glossary of some archival principles and terminology

Most people are more familiar with libraries than with archives. Both have material people can use to do research, to uncover history, or simply to learn something new.

But libraries and archives are different kinds of resources. They have different purposes. They hold different kinds of material. And they record and arrange their material in different ways.


  • Libraries generally contain published material -- books, magazines, etc. Some published items may be rare, but very few are one-of-a-kind. For instance, other libraries will have copies of some of the same works held in the Archives' James Fraser Library.
  • Libraries usually catalogue books by title, author, and subject, and physically arrange them according to a system also based on subject. Periodicals are usually arranged by title. Some are indexed in directories or other bibliographic sources that offer access to individual articles by author, title, or subject.
  • Archives specialize in material mostly unpublished -- the non-current records of organizations, institutions, or individuals, kept for their ongoing value as historical evidence. Much of this material -- diaries, correspondence, memos, etc. -- is unique. An archival "copy" of an item is seldom a copy at all, but an original, with no copies existing anywhere else.

The Archives' James Fraser Library arranges and catalogues books and periodicals much as any library does. But our archival holdings -- all the material not in the Library -- are handled differently. They are not arranged or recorded by title, author, or subject. Instead, some quite different organizing principles apply.

Here are some key archival concepts -- for historical reasons, all of them referred to in French:

  • Provenance: The source from which material is received by an archives -- a person, group, institution, company, etc.
  • Fonds: All material produced or gathered by that person or organization over time. (The word "fonds" is both singular and plural.)
  • Accession: A distinct body of material received from a single source at any one time. (A single fonds may have many accessions, received at different times.)
  • Respect des fonds: The order in which material was arranged by the person or organization from which it came.

Note the emphasis above on source and order. Both tell a story. They say who produced or gathered the material -- and they say how that person or group organized it for their own use. These facts, in themselves, are evidence of a distinct history. Preserving that evidence means treating the material as a unit, clearly identified with its source, and rearranging things only if material arrives in no apparent order at all.

Archives resist separating out items and filing them somewhere else by subject. That would obscure the source and destroy the original order. Instead, archives receive accessions which -- applying the principle of respect des fonds -- they leave in their original order. Each accession becomes all or part of a fonds identified with a particular provenance. (Got it?)

The physical arrangement of material in the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives is by accession. Accessions are shelved essentially in the order in which they arrive. Different accessions that are part of the same fonds may come in years apart -- so all material in a single fonds may not be together in the same place.

The Archives keeps track of material -- and where it is on the shelves -- by maintaining an accessions list. Entries in this list identify each accession with its provenance, and briefly describe the scope and contents of the material.

Each entry is also assigned a distinct accession number. (In our case the first two digits indicate the year an accession was received.) If an accession takes up more than one archival storage box, each box is also given a number. Individual folders in boxes may also be numbered.

So the key to the physical location of specific material in the Archives is its accession number. This may include a box number and folder number. Here's an example:

90-001 / 06 (11) -- i.e., accession 90-001 (the first accession received in 1990), box 6, folder 11.

The Archives accession list is now an electronic database. In time, parts of this database will be accessible for online searching via this site.

Archives also produce inventories of some fonds. These usually offer more details on the scope and contents of the material, historical background on its provenance (its source person or organization), and lists -- often arranged by type of material or subject -- showing the location of specific items by accession number. Many inventories (and other guides -- we've used the term "inventories" generically for all of them) are noted on this site. Some are available here online.

In using inventories -- or online search options when they're available -- always note the full accession number of any material you may be interested in. That will help us find exactly what you're looking for.

National Portrait Collection