The McGill Library Archival Collections Catalogue uses standards-based archival terminology that you may not be familiar with. This glossary of terms helps define and describe some of the terms and concepts used within:


A unit of aggregated documents - an accrual of records transferred to the Archives.

Access points

An access point is a name, term, keyword, phrase or code that may be used to search, identify and locate an archival description. In the McGill Library Archival Catalogue these are divided into subject, name, genre or place access points and can be used to find related archival descriptions. For example, all the archival descriptions related to a place like 'Montreal', a type like ‘Correspondence' or all those related to the subject 'skiers in Canada'. You can search and browse by access points by selecting ‘Subjects’ or 'Places' in the drop down menu at the top left of the interface.


An addition to an existing archive. Where the phrase 'Further accruals are expected' is used, more material is likely to be added to the archive in the future. (See also 'Accession' above)

Archival description

A body of information about an archival record or records. This typically includes the name or title of the record, the date it was created, and a description of what it is. These descriptions summarize the contents of a group of records created or accumulated and used by a particular person, family or corporate body.

Authority record

Authority records are collections of information about actors - corporate bodies, persons, or families - who interact with archival materials, typically as creators or subjects. They contain important contextual information, such as dates of existence, administrative or biographical history, and other forms of names by which the actor is known. They also include the relationship of the actor to other authority records or archival descriptions and this can be really useful for researchers. You can view key parts of the authority record in the archival description, or open it as a separate page by clicking on the name of the creator. You can also search by authority record by selecting ‘Authority Record’ in the drop-down menu at the top left of the interface.

Conditions of access and use

This provides information on the legal status or other regulations that restrict or affect access to the record or records described. This might also include technical requirements affecting access, for example, if videotapes, cassettes or computer files are included.


In an archival description, this is the date a record was created. When more than one date is displayed, for example ‘1900 – 1925’, these indicate the date of creation of the earliest and latest record within the collection or fonds. In an authority record, dates represent the 'dates of existence' of a person, family or corporate body.

Extent and medium

A description of the physical quantity and type of material described.


The smallest conceptual unit of aggregated documents. Files typically relate to one subject or one sub-activity.

Finding Aid

A tool or document that provides a description of archival records to assists users in understanding and contextualizing the materials.


This is the highest level of description, along with 'Collection'. The term fonds, originating in French archival practice, can be defined as a body of records that were made and received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their everyday affairs. These records were accumulated over time and kept for their enduring value as a future reference resource and/or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator.

Levels of description

Archives are organized in a hierarchical fashion, from the broad (general) to the specific. In a finding aid, the level of description typically begins with the fonds or collection as a whole, and it may include details about subordinate divisions, such as series, subseries, files, or items.

Name of creator

This is displayed in the archival description and is the person, family or corporate body that created, accumulated, and/or maintained the records described while carrying out their activities or functions. Creators have their own authority records which provide important contextual information (see ‘authority records’ above). You can view key parts of the authority record in the archival description, or open it as a separate page by clicking on the name of the creator.

Reference code

This is the unique identifying code given to each archive collection and displayed at the top of the archival description. All items within a particular collection are labelled with this code, followed by a series of numbers or letters. For example, the James R. Lockhart Fonds has the reference code ‘CA OSLER P194.’ Make a note of the reference code of a record that you are interested in. If you then wish to make further enquiries about it, quote this reference code when you contact us and we will know exactly which section of the archive you are referring to.

Related units of description

This gives details of other records, either at the McGill University or elsewhere, that have links to the record or records described.

Scope and content

This is displayed in the archival description and summarizes the scope (such as time periods and geographical location) and content (the format of the record and its subject matter) of the record or group of records described. At fonds-level this is not an exhaustive list, but rather an overview to enable users to judge the potential relevance of the collection to their research. More detail about individual items can be found at lower levels.


Lower conceptual unit of aggregated documents – series are typically records grouped together because they were created as a result of a similar function or activity, record type or subject.

Further questions? Please contact us.

Thanks to the Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York (UK) for the initial creation of this glossary.