Frequently Asked Questions

What records can I find here?

You can find descriptions of archival records held at the BC Archives. Some descriptions have digitized versions of records attached to the description. The BC Archives collects government and private records of enduring value to the province of British Columbia. Examples of these records include textual records, photographs, documentary art, sound recordings, moving images, and cartographic records. For more information about the types of records we have, please visit the BC Archives’ webpage on What we have.

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How do I access records? Are they available electronically?

We have a selection of records available electronically. If there is a digitized version available, it will either be attached to the description or noted in the “Availability in other formats” section in the Notes area.

If there isn’t a digital version attached to the description, you can access records in person or order copies of records. For details, please see:

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What else can I search at the BC Archives?

We have two other databases available through BC Archives.

Search Library: You can search for descriptions of publications held in our Archives Library using this database, e.g., books, directories, pamphlets, government reports, etc.

Search Genealogy: You can search vital event registrations for births, marriages, and deaths. There are digitized versions for many of the registration records. These are attached to the listing under Vital Stat Image(s).

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Guide to archival description

Archives house unpublished, unique records of permanent historic value. Records can include texts, photographs, sound recordings, moving images, drawings, and maps, and can be in either analog or digital format.

Due to their unique nature, archival records are arranged and described quite differently than other recorded information such as library collections.

This guide aims to briefly explain how archival records are arranged and described at the BC Archives.

How are archival records arranged?

Archival arrangement is governed by two main principles: provenance and original order. The purpose of these principles is to contextualize records so researchers gain a more comprehensive understanding of how, why, and in what circumstances the records were created.

Principle of provenance

Archival records are arranged according to their provenance, i.e., by the creator of the records. The creator can be an individual, a group of individuals (e.g., a family), or a governing body. This initial arrangement is called a fonds and this group of records is given a title based on the name of the creator (e.g., Alma Russell fonds). As the archives acquires more materials from the same creator, these records are added to the fonds to maintain the relationship between the records.

If the creator of the records is unknown or if a donor collected records from various creators for a specific purpose, records may be organized into a collection. Collections are often composed of records with similar characteristics such as subject or format. The collection is then given a title that describes the contents, purpose, or collector, e.g., Doukhobor oral history collection.

Principle of original order

Within a fonds or collection, archivists maintain the original order of records imposed by the creator. Maintaining records in their original order ensures that the records remain contextualized and that their relationship with other records in the fonds or collection remains unbroken. This is one of the reasons why records are not arranged consistently across fonds. If no order is identified by the creator or is apparent to the archivist, the archivist may impose an order on the records to improve access.

How are they described?

To ensure consistency across institutions, most Canadian archives follow the description standards outlined in the Rules of Archival Description. This standard outlines the required elements for archival description (e.g., title, reference code, date, creator, etc.) and consistent standards for how to display the required information for these elements.

Hierarchy of description

Archival records are arranged and described in a hierarchy and are only described to the lowest level necessary for access. Levels of description are reflected in the database descriptions and associated findings aids. The levels of description from highest to lowest are fonds/collection, sous-fonds, series, sub-series, file, item. See our diagram for additional details.


The highest level of description is a fonds or collection. Information relating to all levels of description is captured in the fonds or collection description, along with a general description of the records contained within the fonds or collection.

Lower levels of description

To provide greater access, records within a fonds or collection may be described to lower levels, i.e., to the sous-fonds, series, sub-series, file, or item level. Detailed information about specific groups of records is included in lower level descriptions.


For example, all records in the Alma Russell fonds were created by Alma Russell therefore this information would be included at the fonds level. The fonds includes letters, miscellaneous papers, and photographs. This general description would also be included at the fonds level. At the series level description for the photographs, there would be more specific information about the subject matter of the photographs, range of years they were taken, etc. Navigate through PR-0321 - Alma Russell fonds to see this in practice.

Descriptions of government vs private records

Government records

Government records are records created by the Government of British Columbia or those created by the colonial governments which predate British Columbia’s entry into Canada. At the BC Archives, new government acquisitions are described at the series level and the creating body is linked to the series level description. There is no higher level of description provided. File lists are often included at the series level and provide further description of records within the series.

Private records

Private records are records create by individuals, families, businesses, and organizations. Private records are described at the fonds or collection level. Most private records are then also described to a lower level of description. The BC Archives typically includes file lists at the series level. These lists will be included as hyperlinks in the description and provide further description of records within the collection.

Diagram of records hierarchy

Diagram 1 – Explanation of records hierarchy

This diagram demonstrates how a fonds or collection is arranged and described and includes explanations of each level of description.

Diagram 2 – Example of records hierarchy

This diagram demonstrates how a fonds in our collection has been arranged and described. To view the description in our Archives Collection Search, see PR-0410 - B.W. Pearse family fonds.

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Content Warning

This website and the archival records it describes may include content and language that is upsetting or triggering. Records reflect the language, attitudes and power structures of the historical period in which they were created. This can include images or language that is racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, and otherwise offensive or discriminatory. Many of these terms are unacceptable.

Archives are constructed to preserve historical records for future use. As not every record ever created can be kept, only certain records are deemed “important” enough for archival preservation. In many cases, these “important” records are created by those in positions of power, whether within a family, business or government. Due to the history of the development of British Columbia, this has led to privileging the voices and experiences of white middle or upper class men within the archives collections, while ignoring or undermining the voices of the rest of the population.

If at any time you feel the need for emotional support please call:

If you have a concern with an image or other content that you believe is inappropriate please contact us at:

Our Process

The Archives is currently updating outdated and derogatory language in our database. Every effort is being made to ensure offensive terminology is replaced with accurate language that individuals and communities use to describe themselves.

Original archival records are a product of their time and will not be altered. This is so the records can be maintained as historical evidence – to document events and perspectives of the past, even if they are upsetting. Preserving this history is important to the Archives, so that we can learn from the past and do better in the future.

Original titles provided by an archival record creator may still be maintained on our website to preserve the historical context of how the records were made and used. In this case, a current and appropriate variation in title may be provided as an alternative. Additional contextual information may be included as well.

The descriptions of archival records on our website have been created by archivists over many decades. Over time, acceptable language and archival best practices have changed. Some language used in archival description may no longer be acceptable, and is in the process of being updated. Note that previously used titles created by archivists may be kept as a variation in title. This is to preserve the historical context of the record’s use and to avoid concealing the Archives’ past practices.

There are also certain offensive terms that will not be changed due to their historical value. Examples include:

  • Proper nouns and names, such as the Indian Act;

  • Titles of published works;

  • Subject headings will be maintained until the Archives can determine a method of updating them that is consistent with archival standards and best practices.

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