Archives | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Archives as RecordsArchives are usually defined as the permanent records.


Archives as Records
Archives are usually defined as the permanent records. In this sense, archives constitute that coherent body of recorded information created or received by a government, corporate body or organization in the course of its business, or by an individual in his or her activities, which is selected for its enduring value and then maintained, preferably in continuous authorized custody, as a record of that business or activity. Given the myriad forms in which information can now be recorded, archives grow correspondingly complex.

Archives today range in physical format from traditional paper files, minute books, ledgers, diaries, letters and reports, to microfilm, photographic images, cartographic materials, architectural drawings, motion-picture film, sound recordings, videotape, machine-readable data files, diskettes and even Web sites. It follows, too, from this definition, that the archival record is not constant but is continually created and augmented. In any modern administrative body, whether a large government or a local voluntary association, information is recorded for some administrative purpose. It may then be kept for reference or for audit and legal reasons. When it is no longer current, the designated archivist of that administrative body selects records of enduring value for preservation and future reference.

Larger governments, institutions and corporations maintain their own archives. The archives of smaller bodies are often deposited under formal agreement with an appropriate public archives, federal, provincial, municipal, or university. Similarly, individuals in any walk of life may create records of permanent value to society. In Canada, such personal collections are treated as archival, complementing the official record and documenting the diversity of Canadian society. Most of the public archives as well as some universities and libraries actively seek out such private materials related to their areas of interest.

Archives as Institutions

"Archives" has yet a second meaning. It refers to the institutions or organizational units responsible for maintaining the archival record. An archives in this sense has 4 functions. First, it appraises recorded information for its value, selects that which is permanent, and acquires this portion through formal transfer. Second, the archives conserves the record, by preserving intrinsically valuable documents in their original physical form or by transferring the information to a permanent documentary form. Third, an archives arranges and describes the records in its keeping. The archival principles of arrangement, "provenance" and "respect des fonds" recognize that the archival record is most appropriately kept in its original order, reflecting the manner and context in which it came into being. The primary value of the record is as evidence of action, decision or transaction and archival principles and procedures are designed to ensure that the permanent record retains its integrity and authenticity. The fourth function of a modern archives is providing public access. Archival services are changing rapidly, seeking to take full advantage of digitization and the Web to make the original sources for Canadian history available to all who may want to draw upon them. The extensive, complex, multimedia holdings of Canadian archives are increasingly described according to the Canadian Rules for Archival Description and these entries, with supporting indexes, file lists and other finding aids are being placed on the Canadian Archival Information Network (

Use of archival material for a wide variety of research purposes, for genealogy, teaching, class projects, media productions, environmental studies, historical commemoration and public policy development is expanding quickly as the full extent of the archival resources becomes better known. Most archives respond to oral, written and e-mail inquiries and provide copies of records at cost to assist research, while some are able to provide extended research hours or engage in exhibition, adult education and publication programs. Many archives now have Web sites offering a range of reference and research materials, including searchable online databases and, in some cases, virtual exhibitions of archival documents as well as digitized documents. On occasion, access to archives may be limited by terms, usually of defined duration, imposed to protect recent confidential information by regulations respecting the protection of personal privacy or by copyright considerations.

Archives in Society

Archives are an essential aspect of contemporary society for several reasons. The ancient role of archives remains: documenting the rights of governments, corporate bodies and individuals within society. Proof of personal property rights and land claims, or eligibility for pension benefits as much as international boundary disputes have rested on the integrity of the archival record. Government, in all its forms, has played a substantial role in the life of every citizen. From the broad development of public policy, to taxation and spending, to government decisions on immigration, conscription, social assistance, development grants, municipal zoning, and a host of other matters affecting individuals, official records show how government has fulfilled the public trust. Similarly, the archives of businesses, churches, unions, voluntary associations and other organizations also document activities that affect society.

In a democratic society, there exists a basic right to have such records appropriately preserved and to have public access to the government's archives. Archives, when linked to records management programs, perform a valuable administrative function. By applying a systematic approach to handling often bulky administrative information, government and corporate archives have reduced the need for office space and records storage equipment, while simplifying reference to previous decisions or policies. The permanent retention and preservation of electronic records, however, has created immense difficulties for archives, and is one of the most challenging of issues facing archivists. Finally, archives form a basic cultural resource. They preserve in the most direct way possible the words, images and even the voices of previous generations. Ideally, an archives mirrors the organization or community in which it is based. Its collections attempt to reflect all aspects of the past and, like any memory, it can be drawn upon in diverse ways, providing the foundation for virtually all historical research activity.

Canadian Archival Tradition

The Canadian archival tradition derives from the dual administrative and cultural roles of archives in society. The natural concern of government to preserve essential records for administrative and legal purposes can be traced to New France, with a proposal for the appointment of a custodian of the archives in 1724 and a suggestion by the intendant, Gilles Hocquart, for a special archive building in 1731. The Legislative Council of Quebec passed an ordinance in 1790 "For the Better Preservation and Due Distribution of the Ancient French Records" to gather records concerning property and "to give cheap and easy access to them." Such initiatives were sporadic and isolated. At Confederation, the Department of the Secretary of State was assigned the chancellery responsibility "to keep all State records and papers." Henry J. Morgan was the first to be appointed Keeper of the Records and served from 1875 to 1883; he was succeeded by Alphonse Audet who held the post until 1904.

The Literary and Historical Society of Quebec was formed in 1824 and began an active program of research and publication, assisted in 1832 by the first of a series of grants from the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada. Members of the society visited Paris, London and Albany, New York, in their efforts to locate and transcribe historical documents relating to Canada. During the 1850s, the Library of Parliament became closely involved in these efforts, extending the search to include records and pioneer reminiscences of Upper Canada, including the settlement of the Loyalists and the War of 1812.

Canada was not the only province interested in archival matters prior to Confederation. The NS legislature approved a motion by Joseph Howe, that led to the appointment of T.B. Akins as records commissioner in May 1857.

Four years after Confederation, the Quebec Literary and Historical Society again took the initiative by petitioning the new federal government to establish an archive to assist "authors and literary inquirers." In June 1872 the government responded. An Archives Branch was formed in the Department of Agriculture and a journalist, Douglas Brymner, was appointed. Brymner, regarded as Canada's first Dominion Archivist, brought extraordinary enthusiasm and zeal to the task.

Until his death in 1902, Brymner pursued his "noble dream," seeking to "obtain from all sources private as well as public, such documents as may throw light on social, commercial, municipal, as well as purely political history." With limited resources, he obtained a large collection of War Office records and acquired or located records, papers and pamphlets and other publications. Brymner extended earlier sporadic efforts with a program to transcribe, by hand, the records of Canada's colonial past in Britain at the British Museum, the Public Record Office and in France, at the Archives nationales and other repositories. Calendars for many of these collections were published in the archives' annual reports. As students and scholars took up the study of Canadian history, they discovered a significant resource in the growing archives and a willing colleague in Brymner.

National Archives of Canada

Following the recommendations of an interdepartmental commission appointed in 1897 to inquire into the state of federal government records, the 2 archival programs, the Records Branch of the Department of the Secretary of State and the Archives Branch of the Department of Agriculture, merged in 1903. Arthur G. Doughty was appointed in 1904 as both Dominion Archivist and Keeper of the Records, with a mandate as inclusive as Brymner's "noble dream."

Over the next 31 years, under Doughty's lively leadership, the Archives expanded in size, scope and staff. The program was recognized by statute in 1912, giving the National Archives of Canada (called Public Archives of Canada until 1987) full departmental status. A fireproof archive building, opened in 1906 and expanded in 1926, quickly filled. The overseas copying program grew more systematic and the search for Canadian materials expanded to other European repositories. The descendants, French and English, of colonial governors, administrators and generals responded generously to Doughty's fervent appeals for historical records. Within Canada, the Archives established offices for a time in Montréal, Québec City, Trois-Rivières, Saint John, Halifax and Winnipeg, locating, copying or acquiring archival materials. Maps, documentary art, photographs and even non-archival museum objects formed part of Doughty's "storehouse" of Canadian history.

Government records began being transferred to the National Archives in quantity. A royal commission in 1912 recommended a more formal records program for the federal government, but the outbreak of war in 1914 postponed the construction of a suitable records storage building. Despite repeated efforts, a formal records management program eluded the Archives until the 1950s. The National Archives continues to play a major role in the management of government records.


Even so, the ever-increasing collection had an impact on the teaching and writing of Canadian history. The advice of historians was sought through the Historical Manuscripts Commission (formed 1907) and in editing a new series of documentary publications. One of Doughty's own dreams for a new approach to Canadian historiography was realized in 1913-17 with the publication of the ambitious 23-volume series Canada and Its Provinces. From 1911 to 1920 scholarships were offered to senior university students to spend the summer at the Archives studying original sources. This was followed in the next 2 decades by a graduate course in Canadian history held at the Archives. For the generation of historical scholars after WWI, the Archives became a summer meeting place to research, exchange ideas, organize the profession, plan new publications and renew enthusiasm before returning to their winter vigils teaching Canadian history, often alone, at scattered universities.

The Archives' programs slowed with the Great Depression. Doughty retired in 1935, honoured by a knighthood, and, at his death in 1936, by a statue. His successor, Gustave Lanctôt, shifted the Archives' acquisition focus to emphasize post-Confederation materials and introduced new documentary media with motion-picture film and sound recordings.

Supported by the obvious magnitude of the postwar proliferation of records and by the strong recommendations of the Massey-Levesque Commission (1951), a new, dynamic Dominion Archivist, W. Kaye Lamb, succeeded in giving the archives a central role in a modern records management system for the federal government. The opening of a federal records centre in Ottawa (1956), followed in recent decades by similar regional records centres across Canada, marked a new era for the Archives. The merging of a multimedia cultural archives and a government record office, begun in 1903, became reality.

The Archives, under Dr Lamb, his successor Wilfred I. Smith, and their increasingly numerous and professional staff, flourished. Canada's Centennial Year provided the occasion for a long-awaited move to an elegant new building, shared with the National Library of Canada. Traditional programs were given new life, as the acquisition of private manuscripts, records and documentary art was placed on a more systematic basis. Earlier efforts were formalized as the National Map Collection, the National Photography Collection, the National Film, Television and Sound Archives, architectural archives, picture division, ethno-cultural archives and conservation services assumed greater importance.

In 1987 the National Archives of Canada Act changed the name of the institution but provided a solid legal foundation for its traditional roles. Dr. Jean-Pierre Wallot, National Archivist from 1985 to 1999, explored the adaptation of new technologies to archival service. In the 1950s microfilm had enabled the Paris and London offices to obtain complete and accurate copies of records series in place of the selective and fallible handwritten copies so painstakingly produced since the 1870s. Microfilm also provided an economical means of duplicating unique records for security or for consultation across the country. In the 1980s and 1990s, Wallot addressed the dual challenge posed by the new information technology, exploring the potential of networks to improve public access while accelerating the Archives' efforts to preserve broadcast archives and administrative records in electronic formats. In 1997, the Archives opened the Gatineau Preservation Centre, a world-class facility for the preservation of fragile documents of all media. More recently, the Archives has committed itself to increasing Canadians' awareness of archives and history by digitizing selected documents, including government and private records, works of art, photographs, maps and film, and making them available on the Web ( These efforts have expanded considerably in the past few years, thus transforming archival services for a Web-based environment. The acquisition of the extensive archives of the internationally known Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh in 1987 added to the Archives' existing holdings of almost one million portraits, and together these will form the basis of the new Portrait Gallery of Canada to open in Ottawa in 2005. The acquisition of the Peter Winkworth Collection of documentary art in 2002, combined with other works gathered by the Archives during the past century, provides the most comprehensive visual record of Canada prior to photography and coincided with the celebration of the Archives' 130th anniversary.

The Archival System

The early example of the Canada's national archives was not lost upon the provinces. Indeed, its achievements and emphases provided a pattern followed by many of our provincial, municipal and institutional archives. Nova Scotia's pre-Confederation archival initiatives were reconfirmed by a statute in 1929 and the opening of an archives building in 1931. Ontario established a provincial archives in 1903 and reinforced its program with an archives Act in 1923. The Bureau des archives du Québec (now the Archives nationales du Québec) was established in 1920 and embarked on an impressive program of acquisitions and publications. In other provinces - BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, PEI and NB - archival activity began in their legislative libraries through the more or less formal interest of their librarians. The BC archives emerged as an identifiable unit in 1908, but for the others, archival activity was rudimentary through the 1920s and 1930s.

The explosion of administrative records both in volume and in physical form, which provided the impetus for the federal archives' growth after the Second World War, has been equally noticeable in provinces, municipalities, businesses, universities and, indeed, in all administrative agencies. To cope with this growth, many organizations have established archives and records management programs. Where earlier archives may have grown from cultural inspiration, administrative necessity has loomed large in the proliferation of archives in recent years.

Archival Legislation

Archival legislation in Saskatchewan in 1945 and 1955 provided a model for others in dealing with provincial records. Ontario, particularly in the decade 1965-75, developed an excellent records management program. By 1968, each of the provinces had established archives and, since that date, each has obtained new or renovated facilities with suitable environmental and security controls (see conservation of movable cultural property). Significant legislative advances have been achieved with the passage of new archives Acts in NB (1977), Québec (1983), Newfoundland (1983) and Manitoba (2001). Only BC remains without archival legislation. The provincial archives have been joined by archives in the Yukon (1972), NWT (1979) and Nunavut. Access to information and protection of privacy legislation at the federal level and in several provinces has also affected archives and has had significant implications for the retention, disposal and preservation of records.

Indeed, the last 2 decades have witnessed a considerable expansion of archival activity. The National Archives maintains regional operations in Vancouver and Winnipeg, while the Archives nationales du Québec has established 8 regional offices in the province. Several larger cities now have significant archives programs (Toronto, Winnipeg, Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, Québec, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa). Most universities have archives to preserve their own records, while a number, either through their archives or libraries, have developed major research collections: folklore archives have been gathered at Memorial, Laval and Laurentian; literary papers at Queen's, McMaster and Calgary; and regional collections have evolved at Université de Moncton, Queen's, Western Ontario, Manitoba, Brandon and UBC. Churches, banks, insurance corporations and oil companies have formed their own corporate archives, while a number of museums, historical societies and libraries have endeavoured to provide archival service to their communities.

A report, Canadian Archives, published by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada in 1980, highlighted the widening interest in archives and the importance of archives to Canadian Studies. While archival activity has increased, so have both the complexity and volume of the archival record and the research demands placed on the system. The traditional scholarly archival clientele is now outnumbered by the genealogists, local historians, heritage activists, teachers, radio and television producers and journalists, all of whom archivists have encouraged. To cope, the 1980 report recommended the formation of provincial networks of archives to share reference information and specialized facilities, supported by various federal services co-ordinated by the National Archives. As a result, the Canadian Council of Archives was established in 1985 to foster the evolution and expansion of the Canadian archival system and to improve co-ordination and co-operation in the archival community, especially in funding of special projects, the development of archival standards and the Canadian Archival Information Network (CAIN) (

The proliferation of archives in recent decades has been accompanied by the emergence of an archival profession. An Archives Section was formed within the Canadian Historical Association in 1956. It encouraged the development of an archives course at Carleton University and began publication of The Canadian Archivist. In 1967 the Association des archivistes du Québec was formed, bringing professional and amateur archivists together in a vigorous association with its own publication, Archives. The Archives Section evolved into the Association of Canadian Archivists (1975), and its journal, Archivaria, has grown in scope and content. Both associations, loosely joined in the Bureau of Canadian Archivists (1976), and provincial archival associations have devoted considerable attention to basic problems: education, training, descriptive standards, copyright, freedom of information and government policies as they affect archives. For entry into the profession, Masters' level programs are offered at the universities of British Columbia, Manitoba, Toronto, Laval and Montréal, in addition to various diploma courses available at library schools, universities and colleges. Canadian archivists have achieved international recognition for their contributions to archival theory and practice. The distinctive Canadian approach to archival service, combining all documentary media from both private and public sources to document society, has been adopted by many countries around the world.

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