How Archival Records Are Organized


Understanding a little about how archival records are organized can help you to use the Archives Descriptive Database more effectively.

Archives are not organized by their subject content. Rather, they are arranged into groups according to the person or organization that created or accumulated them in the course of conducting their personal, professional or business activities.

The Archives of Ontario holdings include records created by:

  • Ontario government offices
  • historical records of provincial significance created by individuals as well as organizations such as associations, clubs, businesses and unions

The Archives' collection is a rich resource for the study of the history of Ontario and its people. Please see Our Collections: An Overview for more information about the nature and scope of the collection.

Government of Ontario Records are organized somewhat differently from non-government records:

How Government of Ontario Records are Organized


The Archives Descriptive Database consists of three types of descriptions that can help you to find and understand records created by the government of Ontario that may be of interest to you:

Types of Descriptions Chart


Descriptions of government offices that have been responsible for creating or accumulating archival records.









Descriptions of groups of records that have been created by government offices. These groups of records are called series, and may be divided into sub-groups called sub-series.











Descriptions of the files and items that make up the different groups of records (series and sub-series) created by government offices.







Government offices create records in the course of their work

Government offices are created to undertake the work of government. In the course of fulfilling their mandate or delivering a service, an office creates records to document its activities and support its work.  Some of these records become archives.

Records are organized in groups

Records created by government of Ontario offices are organized into groups called series. A series is a group of records that:

  • result from a particular function or activity
  • share a particular format
  • were kept together as a unit by a government office for some other reason

Series of government records were created by government offices during the course of their regular business and they are maintained in the archives largely as they were when they were created by these offices. In this way, the records retain their value as evidence of what a particular office did.

Examples of government of Ontario record series include:

  • Ministry of transportation film and video productions
  • Criminal Assize Clerk criminal indictment files
  • Water quality study files
  • Ministry of Education architectural drawings of schools
  • Correspondence of the Minister and Deputy Minister of Finance

In some cases, series have been further divided into component parts called sub-series.

Groups of records consist of files or items

Series or sub-series consist of files or items. Files or items may include:

  • paper files
  • volumes such as a minute book or accounting ledgers
  • architectural drawings
  • maps and other cartographic records
  • photographs
  • sound, film or video recordings
  • documentary art pieces
  • artifacts

It is these files and items that are the material that may be ordered and viewed in one of our reading rooms or consulted on microfilm.

In the Archives Descriptive Database, each file or item description is linked to the series to which it belongs. Each series is then linked to the descriptions of the different offices that were responsible for creating it.  These linkages help you to understand why a particular file or item may have been created in the course of a particular activity or business.

How Non-government Records are Organized


In addition to records created by the government of Ontario, the Archives’ collection includes historical records of provincial significance created by individuals as well as organizations such as associations, community groups, clubs, businesses and unions. These records are organized in a similar but slightly different manner than government of Ontario records.

Archives are not organized by their subject content. Rather, they are arranged into groups according to the person or organization that created or accumulated them in the course of conducting their personal, professional or business activities.

These groups are known as fonds or collections.

A fonds is all of the records that have been created or accumulated -- in the course of their personal or organizational activity --- by a particular person, family or group that are held by the Archives.

A collection is a group of material brought together consciously by the Archives or a collector based on a particular topic or type of material.

Examples include:

T. Eaton Co. fonds

Records created, received and collected by the T. Eaton Company Limited, a department store chain.

John Strachan fonds

Records created or accumulated by the educator, religious leader and politician John Strachan who was a prominent figure in Upper Canada.

Ontario Society of Artists fonds

Records created or accumulated by a society formed to encourage the production of original art by professional artists in Ontario.

Archives of Ontario poster collection

A collection of historical posters that the Archives has brought together for research use.

The Organization of Fonds and Collections

Fonds and collections may be organized into component parts called series. A series is a group of records that:

  • result from a particular function or activity
  • share a particular format
  • were kept together as a unit by a person or organization for some other reason

Series can be further sub-divided into groups called sub-series.

Series or sub-series consists of files or items. Files or items may include:

  • paper files
  • volumes such as a minute book or accounting ledgers
  • architectural drawings
  • maps and other cartographic records
  • photographs
  • sound, film or video recordings
  • documentary art pieces
  • artifacts

It is these files and items that are the material that may be ordered and viewed in one of our reading rooms or consulted on microfilm.

A fonds or collection may be organized and described at different “levels” of specificity as shown in the following diagram:

Fonds Organization Chart

This organizational structure can further be illustrated by taking a specific example from the records of the Eaton’s department store:

Example of Organizational Structure