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Archives Research Tutorials: Student Research Tutorial


Written and Researched by Dan Elves


Welcome to the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections' student research tutorial!

Student researchers at the university level need to know how to properly find, use, and cite primary sources in their research assignments. This tutorial will demonstrate how to plan and carry out research at the University of Manitoba’s Archives & Special Collections. Even if you have no prior primary research experience, after completing the tutorial you will be able to:

- Design a successful research objective

- Perform background research

- Understand what types of material the Archives holds

- Search our archival holdings online

- Request and access records in the Archives

- Properly handle archival records


In addition, you will also learn:

-  Tips on viewing archival records

-  How to appraise and analyze archival records

-  How to successfully integrate archival records into your assignment

-  How to properly cite archival records

It's important to plan out any research assignment beforehand - take a few minutes to read this tutorial before you start your research and visit the Archives.

You can also view our online video research tutorial which explains where the Archives are located at the University, and offers tips and suggestions for the student researcher.


Before you begin any assignment it's important to understand what your research goals are - what aspect of the past are you trying to understand better? 

The first step in designing a successful research objective is figuring out a general topic for your assignment. Unless your professor has assigned you a specific topic, try to find a subject area that interests you. The more your topic interests you, the easier it will be to research and write about.

Once you have a general topic in mind, your next step involves doing some background research. Secondary sources, such as encyclopaedias, books, periodicals, and journal entries, should be your starting point. Gain knowledge about your subject by reading what other researchers and scholars have written. This information will give you a framework in which to assess the value and usefulness of primary sources, and see how these records might be used to support your research assignment.

While reading these secondary sources note important themes, subjects, names, dates, and locations. This information will help you when it comes to doing research in the Archives. Also, pay attention to the writer's footnotes, citations, and bibliography. These provide useful information about the types of sources the author used while doing their research.

What records do we have?

Studying secondary sources is an important initial step in any research paper, but most professors want you to also include primary sources in your assignment. Libraries concentrate mainly on published, secondary material, while archives maintain a collection of original, primary material, as well as rare books.


The University of Manitoba's Archives contains a variety of primary sources which include files, letters and diaries, other textual records, photographs, maps, architectural drawings, documentary art, electronic records, as well as film and audio recordings, among others.

Checking out our website provides a great introduction to the Archives. Here you can view descriptions of our collections, and search for records that may help you with your project.

Go to the Archives' homepage and click on Our Collections to see a listing of our holdings arranged by alphabetical order, by type, or by subject area. Note: not all of the Archives' collections are listed online. Don't worry too much if you can't find anything relating directly to your research topic - come visit the Archives and one of the staff members can assist you in finding potential source materials for your assignment.

The University of Manitoba Archives' primary focus is on records relating to the history of Manitoba and Canada. In particular, we have many records on agriculture, Prairie literature, and the operations of the University of Manitoba. Though we do have other historical records and rare books, approximately 90% of our archival holdings relate to the people of Manitoba or Canada.

What should you expect?

Often there will be a significant amount of records for you to examine. Leave yourself ample time to view them all. Although sometimes the information you are looking for is quite obvious, other times it may take many hours of examining records to find information useful to your research project.

To maintain their original context, collections are generally kept in the order in which their creator assembled them. You won't find everything on a topic arranged together, and you may have to consult several sources to find enough information to use in your research project. 

It can be difficult to know if a given record will be useful for your research project until you read a collection's finding aid and start going through the materials. Be aware though, what you do find in the Archives may or may not change your understanding of your topic. You may want to adjust your topic to fit the source material found in the Archives.

Finding & accessing records

For the sake of example let's say the focus of your research paper is on the history of agriculture in Manitoba. A sample question might be, "How did agriculture develop and grow across Western Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?" With this question in hand, go online to the Archives' website and see what records may be available about your subject. Click on Our Collections. Here you can search our processed collections by either subject area or type of record. 

If you are searching for information on agricultural education, click on The Archives of the Agricultural Experience under subject areas. Here you will find a listing of some of our collections related to agriculture, including records from the Manitoba Agricultural College and the Faculty of Agriculture, the United Grain Growers, the Manitoba Rural Leadership Training Committee, Manitoba Cattle Producers, among others.

You can then read more about a specific collection that may interest you, and link to a detailed finding aid description of its contents. If you are unsuccessful finding records related to your subject online, come visit the Archives and one of the staff members will assist you in finding potential source material on your topic.  

Once you have located some potentially useful records held in the Archives, your next step is requesting and accessing these documents. Make a note of the fonds' accession number or other collection number, the box number, and if possible, the file number. It is now time to visit the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections reading room. Fill out a request slip and the archivist on duty will bring out the records you've requested. These records may be examined only in the reading room, and may not be checked out.


Handling & Viewing Archival Records

Be careful handling documents and do not rearrange them or destroy the order in which they are arranged. Use only one box of material at a time and make sure you place records back in the correct box, file folder, and order. Due to the sensitive nature of many archival documents, some additional rules apply to the handling and treatment of records. No food or drink is allowed in the Archives reading room, and while handling documents pens or markers should not be used.

Older records, particularly private records, are often written in handwriting or language that is difficult for modern researchers and students to understand. Leave yourself ample time to carefully examine each record. Although the majority of our records are written in English, others do exist in French, Polish, Ukrainian, and other languages. Keep this in mind when choosing your research topic, especially if you wish to study a particular cultural or ethnic group.

If you wish to examine non-textual records such as film, sound recordings, or microfilm, this requires special equipment. The Archives will provide this equipment for you, but leave yourself enough time to properly use it. Photocopy machines are also available in the Archives, though for reasons of copyright, privacy, or preservation, not all records may be copied or scanned. You may also take digital photographs of our records, but for preservation purposes please do not use a flash.

While viewing archival records you will hopefully find some information that you would like to include in your assignment. Take note of the collection's name, the call number, and the particular box and folder number where you found the record. You will need this information later to properly cite these records in your paper. This information is also useful if you need to return to the Archives and re-examine the material at a later date.

Records Appraisal & Analysis

While viewing archival records you will often come across many different pieces of information that might be useful for your research paper. Sometimes it will be impossible to include all this information in your assignment, so it is important to appraise the value of these records to your research paper and decide what should and should not be included. The usefulness of a given record will depend on your own personal research goals, but try to choose the fullest and most complete records possible.

One individual record may not always tell you the whole story behind an event. It is important to approach archival records critically and "read between the lines". Sometimes a record's context can even provide more historical insight that its content. While examining primary sources there are a few important questions to ask.

What kind of document is it?

If it is a textual document, is it personal correspondence, a government record or report, a diary, a memorandum, a record of a transaction, a petition, an interview, a diploma, or something else? Knowing a document's type and form can be important - this helps you understand why certain information is present, while other information may be absent. For example, a census record will only contain the information that the census taker was legally required to include. Likewise, a record of an interview will only contain the information that the interviewer felt was important enough to ask and record. 

What is the context of the record's creation?

Records, regardless of form, are always created for a reason. Records serve a given purpose, so it's important to understand both why a record was created, as well as who created it. Did the creator of the record date, sign, or authorize it? Finding aidsgenerally contain information about the organization or individual responsible for a record's creation, but ask yourself why did they create it? What were their motives? Records are usually created to serve a short term function - few people realize that what they are creating will one day, perhaps centuries later, end up in an archives.

Who was the intended audience for the record?

If possible, try to determine the relationship between the record's creator and their intended audience. The nature of the information included in a record may be determined by the relationship between the creator and the intended audience. For example, the content of a letter written by an individual to the government in Ottawa will likely be very different than in a letter written to a family member. Knowing these relationships will help you understand the record's history and its original function.

In what historic or social context was this record created? What was happening in Canada, in Manitoba, or even in Winnipeg when that record was created? Does the date or place or creation give you any clues about the record's history? For example, a letter written in Winnipeg in June, 1918 was written in the context of the First World War. A letter written in Winnipeg in June, 1919, however, was written in the context of the Winnipeg General Strike and the city's recovery from an influenza pandemic. Are these historical events reflected in the record? Records produced in times of crisis - such as political upheaval, economic turmoil, or war - may be reflective of the uncertainty of the times.

Is the document unique, or is it part of a larger series of similar records? Is it likely that more than one copy of this record exists? Can it be compared with similar records in the same fonds? Unique records may possess archival value, yet it can be difficult to assess the reliability and usefulness of a record when it cannot be compared with similar records.

How reliable is the record? Is the information it provides accurate? If you can tell that the information in a record is inaccurate, or there is an overwhelming bias or prejudice present, this can significantly damage the record's reputation as a reliable representation of a historical fact or act. This unreliability, on the other hand, gives you some insight into the document's history. Was information intentionally falsified, or did the author deliberately try to hide or obscure information? Did the author have any ulterior motives for the document's creation?

Is the record formal or informal? The opinions and attitudes expressed in an informal record, such as a personal diary, may differ significantly from those expressed in a formal account, even if the topic is the same. For example, official government intelligence reports and informal soldier diaries will often contain differing accounts of the same military engagement. Depending on the intended audience, the emotions expressed in an informal document will often be quite candid, honest, and unreserved.

What is the physical form and condition of the document? In the case of textual records, are there heavy fold or crease lines? A document that has been continually folded and re-folded gives you an idea of its importance to someone. A document in pristine condition, however, may suggest that it was highly valued and handled with great care. Conversely, it may have been so unimportant that nobody took the time to use it. The physical condition of a record, as well as its material construction, can give us some indication of its creation and use.

For example, if you have a photograph but do not know where it was taken, there are certain clues you can look for. If the photograph was taken it a city, are there buildings, monuments, or geographical features that can help you determine where it was taken? If the age of the photograph is unknown, are there vehicles in the background? How are the people dressed? Fashion, both in clothing and vehicles, can help you determine the general time period. The presence of absence of buildings can also assist you. When was that building in the background constructed? When was it demolished? Did its construction or façade change during this period? Are there any signs or advertisements visible in the photograph?

Is this background information significant to the photograph? Did the photographer deliberately include this background information, or is it merely coincidental?

There are other things to consider while viewing visual records. The photographer's image is rarely included in the picture, yet it is important to consider their presence. Why were they taking this photograph? What function did this photograph serve, and what did it mean to the photographer? Was the photo candid or staged? Were the people in the picture aware they were being photographed?

Integrating Records Into Your Assignment

Now that you have hopefully found some useful primary sources your next step involves integrating these records into your assignment. There are many different ways in which archival records can be used to support your research. Often a particular fact, figure, or statistic will be used as supporting evidence to 'back up' or add weight to a statement you make. Here are a few examples of how to integrate primary sources into your assignment. 

For example,the spring and summer of 1918 saw the 28th Battalion involved in near constant fighting near Arras, France. In a July 9 letter to his father, Lance-Corporal Vaughn Watt wrote, "Did I tell you that we were out for a short rest? Came back about twenty miles, it is a great relief to get away from shell fire. For the last three months we have never been away from it."

University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Vaughn Watt fonds, Mss 179 (A.03-86), box 1, folder 2.

In this example a soldier's letter to his parents is being used as evidence of the heavy fighting involving the 28th Battalion in Northern France during the First World War.

You can also use archival records to compare and contrast information over time and space. For example, United Grain Growers Ltd. experienced substantial growth throughout the first decades of the 20th century. The number of shareholders in the company grew significantly from 7,504 in 1910 to 35,640 in 1944. Of these 35,640 shareholders, approximately half farmed in either Manitoba or Saskatchewan, 40% were from Alberta, and only 5% farmed in British Columbia. The average number of shares per shareholder was 1.6.

University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, United Grain Growers fonds, Mss 76, box 16, folder 10.

Here primary source information obtained from United Grain Growers financial records is used to demonstrate the company's rapid growth during the first half of the 20th century.


Citing Records in your Assignment

These are just a few suggestions, there are no fixed rules on how to useprimary sources in a research assignment. When using any type of primary record, however, it is important to include a citation demonstrating the source of your information. Universities treat plagiarism as a serious offence. Though archival documents may be unpublished, they still need to be cited in your assignment. Doing this is easy.

Whether you are quoting from a manuscript, using a piece of statistical information, or citing from an audio or visual recording, the procedure for referencing is basically the same. A proper reference must contain all the information necessary to locate the document and place it in its descriptive context. 

Use the fonds' title, accession or call number, box number, folder number, and item number. You also need to include information on where the records are held, in this case the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections. 

A sample reference for a textual document:

University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, United Grain Growers fonds, Mss 76 (A.01-10), box 35, folder 12.

A sample reference for a photograph:

University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, G.L. Shanks fonds, Pc 4 (A.81-16), box 10, folder 8, item 5.

A sample reference for an audio recording:

University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Peter Warren fonds, Tc 62 (A.05-15), box 3, folder 9, item 3.

You should now have all the tools you need to make use of primary sources in your research. Feel free to contact the Archives if you have any questions.  Good luck!