Archives Unboxed and Revealed: A Guide to Understanding Archives: What does an archivist do? - Page Banner

Archivists set the criteria for acquiring records according to the “enduring value” to their organization. For example, archivists at the Archives of Ontario decide to accept records according to their significance to the Province of Ontario.

Photo: An archivist retrieving glass plate negatives from the special collections stacks
An archivist retrieving glass plate negatives
from the special collections stacks
Photographed by the Archives of Ontario



Archivists arrange and describe the records so that people can find and use them more easily. At the Archives of Ontario, the main tool for locating records is the online Archives Descriptive Database, which is continually added to as new records are accepted.

Archivists also do whatever is necessary to see that records are properly maintained and preserved.

Lastly, it is the archivist who helps people identify and locate the materials they need to answer their research questions.

Photo: A reference archivist conducting a reference interview with a researcher
A reference archivist conducting a
reference interview with a researcher
Photographed by the Archives of Ontario
Photo: An archivist measuring a map
An archivist measuring a map
Photographed by the Archives of Ontario

Where do archives get their stuff?


Photo: Raymond Moriyama and his mother Elsie Nobuko at the Slocan Internment Camp, Spring 1943
Click to see a larger image (124K)

Raymond Moriyama and his mother Elsie Nobuko
at the Slocan Internment Camp, Spring 1943
Raymond Moriyama fonds
Reference Code: F 4449-1-16
Archives of Ontario, I0020990

Archives will develop an acquisition mandate that will serve the interests of their particular organization. The records in Public Archives come from many different places. The primary sources are government bodies, but other sources include corporations, community groups and private individuals.

An acquisition mandate outlines the parameters of what an archives will and will not collect. The mandate acts as a guiding principle in all the archives’ acquisition-related business.

At the Archives of Ontario, the acquisition mandate is to “acquire recorded information of provincial significance” that provides the best documentary evidence of the decisions and activities of the Ontario government and of the development of Ontario society.

The Raymond Moriyama fonds and Moriyama and Teshima fonds include both records from Mr. Moriyama's early family life including time spent in Japanese internment camps during World War 2 and many examples of architectural plans from Mr. Moriyama's illustrious career as one of Canada's foremost architects.

Proposed design for the Markham Civic Centre : perspective drawing, [ca. 1986]
Click to see a larger image (363K)

Proposed design for the Markham Civic Centre : perspective drawing, [ca. 1986]
Moriyama and Teshima, Architects
Watercolour painting
Reference Code: F 2187-1-95, D-279
Archives of Ontario, I0026565


How do archivists decide what to keep?


Photo: Records from the Mitchell F. Hepburn fonds, 1893-1945
Click to see a larger image (69K)
Records from the Mitchell F. Hepburn fonds, 1893-1945
Reference Code: F 10
Archives of Ontario


Unfortunately, archives can’t keep everything. Even with an acquisition mandate in place, it is still necessary for the archivist to evaluate all potential acquisitions for suitability. After all, if an archives is going to preserve records for eternity, they’d better be worth it!

The process by which archives determine what they will and will not acquire is referred to as archival appraisal. Appraisal is not an exact science, but archivists do follow guidelines and practices to help determine how to capture the best documentary record possible.

Photo: Premier of Ontario, Mitch Hepburn, [between 1934 and 1942]
Premier of Ontario, Mitch Hepburn, [between 1934 and 1942]
Photographer unknown
Black and White Print
Reference Code: F 10-2-3-8.1
Archives of Ontario, I0005418

The guiding principle in the Archives of Ontario’s appraisal work is that of provincial significance. Archivists appraise how well records document key government functions as well as the activities and experiences of Ontario’s citizens and organizations.

Preservation and Conservation


Photo: A conservator disbanding a 19th century journal
A conservator disbanding a 19th century journal
Photographed by the Archives of Ontario


Preservation and conservation go hand in hand. Archivists and conservators work together to preserve the records in their original format. Conservation acts to reverse or arrest damage, and preservation works to prolong the life of the records as much as possible.

Conservators work with damaged and fragile materials to repair, preserve and protect them. They also work with archivists in deciding the best storage and housing requirements for records. Often records will require new housing such as acid-free conservation quality boxes, folders and envelopes according to the media type. Type will also make a difference in storage arrangements; for example, it is best to store maps and architectural plans flat. Preservation may also involve creating alternate formats for viewing and thereby protecting the original record from use.

Photo: A conservator remounting photographs
A conservator remounting photographs
Photographed by the Archives of Ontario


Archival institutions normally have specially designed storage areas where temperature and humidity is controlled to minimize physical deterioration of the holdings. The new storage facility in Bolton for the Archives of Ontario has state-of-the-art climate control, including cool and cold (freezer) storage for sensitive film and photographic material.