Archives Unboxed and Revealed: A Guide to Understanding Archives: Who uses archives and why? - Page Banner

Archives are important resources for answering our questions about the past. Records may be used to settle legal claims, they may clarify family history, they are grist for historians, and they impart to filmmakers and authors a sense of the ways things were. Whatever the reason, archives have a story to tell.

Map of the Province of Ontario:



First Nations Peoples may use archival records to establish legal claims to both land and privileges guaranteed by federal and provincial governments



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[Map showing Indian treaties in Ontario]
James L. Morris, [base]
Map of the Province of Ontario: Dominion of Canada.
Map No. 20a. Ontario: Department of Surveys, 1931
J. L. Morris fonds
Reference Code: F 1060, Folder 1, map 14, 13356 (63/5)
Archives of Ontario, I0022329

Historians and others interested in history use archives to understand and interpret the past from primary sources. D’Arcy Jenish studied the notebooks and journals of David Thompson, an early explorer, cartographer and trader, when writing Epic Wanderer: David Thompson and the Mapping of the Canadian West. Jeff Shea, a playwright, used the same journals to bring that great explorer to life for his audiences.





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Page from Journal No. 22, 1809-1810
David Thompson notebooks and journals
Reference Code: F 443-1
Archives of Ontario
Map: Niagara River and Boundary between Great Britain and United States 23 (XXIII), [1817-1826]
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Niagara River and Boundary between Great Britain and United States 23 (XXIII), [1817-1826]
David Thompson ’s boundary survey maps prepared under
Articles VI and VII of the Treaty of Ghent
Reference Code: F 443-5, AO 7603
Archives of Ontario


Authors and filmmakers use archives to become familiar with the people and times about which they are writing. Margaret Atwood, in writing Alias Grace, consulted the medical records of Grace Marks from the Queen Street psychiatric hospital.

Queen Street Mental Health Centre index card
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Queen Street Mental Health Centre index card
Reference Code: RG 10-322
Archives of Ontario
Photo: Casebooks, London Psychiatric Hospital, 1877-1885
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Casebooks, London Psychiatric Hospital, 1877-1885
London Psychiatric Hospital patients’ clinical casebooks
Reference Code: RG 10-279
Archives of Ontario


Genealogists rely on archival sources to reconstruct family trees and trace their histories.

Marriage certificate of Charles Vincent Massey and Alice Stewart Parker, 1905
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Marriage certificate of Charles Vincent Massey and Alice Stewart Parker, 1905
Registrations of marriages
Reference Code: RG 80-5-0-776, vol. 4934
Archives of Ontario

In short, archives benefit nearly everyone, even those who have never directly used them.

How Many Ways Can We Use this Map?


To illustrate, people may use this patent plan of Seneca Township from 1842 in many different ways.

Patent plan of Seneca Township
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Patent plan of Seneca Township
Patent plans
Reference Code: RG 1-100, C-51
Archives of Ontario

Genealogists research family history and collect documentary evidence of family events. They would use this patent plan to:

  • connect an individual to a particular lot of land
  • map out a person’s relationship to surrounding families
  • help prove an ancestor’s status as a patentee or original owner of a lot.

Students can learn directly from primary source materials by appreciating the context for historic events. A student would use the map to

  • understand how land was granted
  • see a visual representation of the settlement of Ontario.

First Nations use archives to examine evidence of traditions and especially to provide legal right to lands or native status. This map might show original reserve boundaries.

Property-owners may need to research the history of their land or building and determine boundaries. Maps can be used to

  • show the size and shape of the original lot.
  • show who lived on the land.

Archaeologists collect evidence to support conservation of an area as historically important and will plan excavation activities using evidence of early settlements. Maps such as this can be used to

  • locate early and important settlements.
  • identify areas with historical significance that should be preserved.

Environmental engineers gather information about plots of land for corporate clients or environment groups. Maps can be used to

  • uncover past uses of land that may impact on new development; for example, church reserves, industrial use, mining rights, or historical significance.