Why are Archives Important?
Archives ensure that the records of today are preserved for future generations. People can then use the records to study and understand the life, ideas and thoughts of their original creators, linking the past, present and future.
- Archives ensure that historically significant records are systematically described and, wherever possible, available for a variety of research uses, including teaching purposes, building plans, publications, television and radio programs, plays, and legal proceedings;
- Archives serve as society’s collective memory. They provide evidence of the past and promote accountability and transparency of past actions;
- Archives help people to understand their history and the role of particular organizations, individuals and movements in shaping that past. Knowledge of the past creates a better future;
- Archives help to foster and promote a sense of community and identity;
- Archives safeguard the rights of individuals within a democratic country and provide a vehicle by which to measure government accountability through maintaining vital records created and received by that government.
Archives as Place
All archives have their own systems for providing access to the records under their control; however, there are some general principles which apply across archives and which individuals will need to follow. Generally, archival holdings can be viewed in person, over the internet or through a copy requested by internet or post. In some institutions, professional researchers are available for hire at a nominal fee.
In order to receive access to the records upon your first visit, you will usually need to register with the archives as a bona fide researcher. This may require a piece of identification. In many cases, an Archivist will be available to help you use the search tools to find the records that would be of interest to you, but it is always best to make an appointment to ensure their availability.
Internet exhibitions of archival materials (often called “digital collections”) have become increasingly popular in recent years. Such archival exhibitions are often organized around a particular theme – for example, family history or genealogy, the famous Dionne quintuplets, New France, homesteaders, etc. What is available on-line is rarely the whole collection of material related to a particular topic – instead, it will often reflect the more popular holdings, with references to other sources for information.
Some archives also place their descriptive records and the accompanying finding aids on-line. It is important to note that all the material described in the finding aid may not be available on-line as archives can contain many kilometers of records and it is not usually possible to make them all available in this manner.
If you find a particular item or file of interest, note the accession number and file title and send your access request to the archives. Keep in mind that all records in an archives are not always immediately accessible. Sometimes access restrictions are placed on materials due to conservation concerns, government legislation or donor agreements.
Do you know you have your own archives at home? Find out how.