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What are archives?

The word ‘archive’ has two main meanings:

  • archives are documents that are no longer needed for day-to-day business, but which are worth keeping because they are of historical interest
  • An archive is also the word used for the buildings where these historical documents are kept. Many archive buildings are also called ‘record offices’

Archive materials such as correspondence and manuscripts are ‘primary evidence’. They are the ‘raw material’ used by researchers who wish to find out about the past. 'Secondary evidence’ refers to books that may have been written using the information found in archival records.

Understanding archive collections – What is a ‘fonds’ ?

Archivists arrange documents that originate from the same source into collections and each collection is assigned its own unique reference code. For example, the records donated to St.Helens Local History and Archives Library by Rainford Cricket Club are identified by the code RCC.

Archivists around the world often use the French word ‘fonds’ to describe a collection of documents created or received by an individual, company or institution as a result of business or day-to-day activities. They use a French word because many of the rules of the archive profession were established in France during the 19th century. ‘Fonds’ is pronounced in the French manner with a silent 'd' and 's'.

Archival levels

Archive collections are arranged in a hierarchical way so that people can locate the exact document they require more quickly. A typical hierarchy might look like the following:

- Sub-Fonds
-- Series
--- Sub-Series
---- Sub-Sub-Series
----- File
------ Item

Archival descriptions of collections are arranged hierarchically starting from the top level and moving down to the lowest level.

At the top level is the description for the whole collection, which archivists call a fonds.

Fonds: This is an archival term used to describe a collection of papers that originate from the same source. It refers to archival documents that have been created or received by an individual, company or institution as a result of business or day-to-day activities. The word “fonds” is used to describe the whole of the archives of an organisation or the papers of an individual. It may be divided into sub-fonds if a company or organisation has subdivisions which generate their own collection of papers

Using the example of a company:

  • the fonds would be the overall archive of the company
  • the sub-fonds might be the archival documents of a sub-division of the company e.g. the finance department
  • a series might be the sales invoices
  • a sub-series might be sales invoices relating to overseas trade
  • a file might be the sales invoices for 2001-2003
  • an item might be an invoice from March 2002

Note that the number of levels used varies depending on the size and complexity of the archive.

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