How are archives organized?

Archivists organize records according to provenance. This means that material created and/or accumulated by an individual or organization are kept together. The term used in Canada for material created and/or accumulated by an individual or organization is fonds. Archivist also have a word for material deliberately gathered together and organized by topic or theme.  This type of material is referred to as a collection.

Fonds/collections are arranged and then described using a guide called a finding aid. Finding aids provide descriptions based on the hierarchical structure of the arrangement and can comprise several levels (fonds/collection, sous-fonds, series, sub-series, file, and item). However, not every level is used in every description.

The following diagram shows some of the different hierarchical arrangement structures used by archivists.

Arrangement structure

All descriptions go from the general to the specific.  This means that the upper level of the description (fonds or collection) will provide a general overview of the material.  Descriptions become more specific as you move down the hierarchy.

General to Specific arrangement