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Introduction to Archives

The educational website for Senior 1 (Grade 9) is quite extensive. Select those activities and questions that you feel best demonstrate or augment issues contained in the current curriculum.

Most students are not familiar with archival documents. Their knowledge of history is generally gleaned from secondary sources such as textbooks, the Internet, and video. It is important for them to be able to recognize archival documents and their use and value to the study of history.
University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections

Students will need some direction in how to analyze archival documents. It may be helpful to take them through the following steps using an example of an archival document such as a letter or photograph.

1. What kind of document is it? For example, is it a government document or record, personal correspondence, record of a business transaction, interview, personal photograph or something else?

An interview will only provide information that the interviewer or interviewee find interesting or important. Many pertinent details may be omitted from such a document.

2. Who created the document and for what purpose? Is the documented dated? If not, are there clues to who created it, its purpose and date, ie. mention of a dated event in the letter?

If a document is not dated or if the creator of the record is not immediately known, the student will be unable to gain insight into the context of the record's creation and its history and will be unable to fully understand the document's worth.

3. Is the document one of a kind or part of a larger collection or series?

If the document is one of a kind, comparisons with similar documents to prove or disprove the document's reliability or authenticiy may prove difficult.

4. Is the document formal or informal?

Perspectives on the person, place, or event described in the document may alter depending on whether the document is formal or informal. For instance, formal government reports and informal soldier diaries will contain differing accounts of a military battle.

5. What is the physical condition of the document?

The physical condition of the document can provide valuable clues about the history of the record. For instance, if a document is tattered or torn around the edges, one can assume that it has been handled and used frequently. Conversely, if a document is in pristine condition, one might assume that it is of great value since it has been handled carefully.

6. What is the document “telling” you about an event or period of time? What clues can you find in the document that reveals important information?

Clues such as a sign in the background of a photograph or the address and date of a letter may reveal important information about the content of the record.

7. How reliable is the document? Is the information it provides accurate?

If a document is unreliable or the information that it provides is inaccurate, the document's value as a historical source can be called into question.

8. How valuable is the document as a record of a past event or period of time?

The student must ask him or herself if the document and its content is reliable and authentic enough to serve as a record of a past event or period of time. If the answer is "no", then alternate sources should be consulted.

As students work through the documents in this collection they should be encouraged to keep these questions in mind. A thorough examination of not only the content of the record, but also its structure and the context of its creation, ie. type of record, date of creation, physical condition, relation to a larger series of records, etc., will allow the student to gain a broader understanding of the record and its history and will assist in establishing the record's authenticity and reliability.

Using the documents suggested, have students work through the steps in the two activities outlined below. Discuss their responses afterwards.