Introduction to Special Collections and Archives Research

Bruce Peel Special Collections and University of Alberta Archives house a broad range of archival materials that pertain to the people, cultures, and institutions that form the University of Alberta, the city of Edmonton, the province of Alberta, and the Canadian Prairie Provinces. Rare books held by Bruce Peel Special Collections can be found in the University of Alberta’s online catalogue. Archival materials at the Peel library and Archives have been collected by the university for over 50 years and can be searched on this site called Discover Archives.

Special Collections and Archives contain mostly unique materials that are either unpublished or extremely rare. These items are also often primary sources, meaning they are written or recorded by people with first hand experience of events. Since the materials are idiosyncratic, they cannot be catalogued and described the same way as published books. They contain diverse types of documents, media, and subject matter. Materials are described two ways in this database: by finding aid or by accession record.

Finding aids describe archival records and collections. They have lots of different information in them, like dates, media type, volume, document type, and subject matter, among other things. For example, a finding aid may describe materials as meeting minutes documenting business decisions, a press release announcing a project, or a scrapbook showing vacation photos.

Archival records are generally described by fonds, which means all records with the same creator (whether an individual, department, or institution) that were organically created by day to day activities. Collections are brought together from many different sources, usually by a researcher or collector, based on subject matter or theme. The actual materials are quite similar, but they are contextualized differently. Both fonds and collections are described from the top down, which is to say that a broad description is created for the entire fonds or collection and then subsets of the fonds or collection are described in more detail and so on down to the file, or even item, level. Each level of description inherits the descriptions of the broader, higher levels so that information is not repeated. For example, the donor of a fonds is included in the top most general level of description but applies to all the parts of the fonds without needing to be repeated in the descriptions for each series or file.

Fonds and collections are usually broken down into parts, called series. A series can be defined in many ways, but usually by subject or type. A fonds may have only two series, such as professional and personal, or may have many, like an office that divides its documents into administrative records, financial records, project files, and so on. Each series may also be internally arranged; for example, administrative files may be alphabetized while project files are in chronological order. In an archive, the materials are not rearranged, but are described in the same way the creator filed them. This helps to maintain the context of a file as well as how the creator thought about the records. Collections may or may not reflect or represent the activities or interests of a single individual. In fact, many individuals contribute to collection development. Librarians and library assistants maintain a collection and fill its gaps, and with sufficient quantities of time, effort, and funding, they can develop great subject collections. Passionate collectors also invest significant time and money to build great research collections, and some choose to donate their collections to willing institutions. Finding aids provide basic descriptions and subject analyses of collections, and they frequently describe materials at the item level.

The other main way records are described is through what are called accession records. Accession records are created by the Archives to track the individual donations they receive. Accession numbers describe the year that the materials came in as well as the order that they came in, and they also locate the position of physical materials in archival storage areas. Accession records are usually very broad and contain only basic information. An accession may be part of an existing fonds or collection that the donor has given over the course of multiple years. These materials would then be described in their respective accession records as well as a common fonds or collection finding aid. For materials that are not yet fully described in finding aids, the accession record may be the only way to locate appropriate materials.

For university records at the University of Alberta Archives, materials are arranged into Record Groups by university unit or office. For example, there is a Record Group for the Board of Governors, one for student groups, and another for the Faculty of Arts. This system is used partially because the volume of accessions received from the university would make keeping finding aids up to date nearly impossible. Descriptive information exists for the Record Group describing what the unit does, when it was founded, who is the unit head during what time periods, and so on. The records themselves are then primarily described in the accession record.

When requesting to view materials from either Special Collections or Archives, the “reference code” will need to be supplied to the repository when making an appointment to view the material in the supervised Reading Room. A reference code is typically a Library of Congress call number at the Peel library (sometimes followed by other details noting the box and file number) and an accession and file number at the Archives. Retrieval requests can be made to the Peel library using the Retrieval Request Form and to the Archives by emailing us at