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Citing Archival Material

Do Your Citations On the Go!

A very important part of archival research is keeping good source notes as you do your research.

This is because it can be very hard to go back locate a document later if no notes were kept about where it was found. Even the archivists responsible for the collections may not easily be able to find the individual letter or document you need to cite, and the process of trying to find it again can be quite time-consuming. Keeping notes as you research will save you time down the road and ensure a well cited end product.


Finding Aid:   A document describing the history of an aggregation of materials, as well as containing detailed information about the records contained therein.

Provenance:    This is a fundamental principle of archives, referring to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. The principle of provenance or the respect des fonds dictates that records of different origins (provenance) be kept separate to preserve their context.

Original Order:    The order in which records were maintained by the creator. Archivists strive to keep records in their original order to preserve context.

Accession:   A discreet aggregation of materials donated by a single source at a specific time, and assigned with a specific identifier at that time.

     Eg. Bob Smith donates records in 2006, and again in 2018. These are two separate accessions, identified as 2006-014 and 2018-112.

Accrual:   A general term for material that is, or may be acquired by the archives. Once material has been acquired and a number assigned, it becomes an accession.

Fonds:    a group of records that share the same origin or provenance and that have occurred naturally as an outgrowth of the daily workings of an agency, individual, or organization.

Collection:   a group of records which does not share the same origin or provenance, but have been brought together artifically, generally based on a theme or subject.

Series:   Units of files or document kept together because they: Relate to a particular subject or function or result from the same activity. Often this series structure is applied by the archivist, however it may also reflect the original way the record creator had the files organized (See Arrangement note on first page of finding aid to determine the origin of the series being applied).

     Eg. Imagine that Bob was an avid bird watcher who also happens to write books about garden gnomes and was employed by the University as a grounds keeper in the 1930’s. His papers may be divided into three series: I. Bird watching ; II. Publications; III. University Work.

Subseries:   A set of similar things within a larger set of similar things.

     Eg. Bob’s series II. Publications may be divided into subseries by book II.a Gnomes of Rome; II.b Gnomes of North America

File:   An intellectual container for related materials that will show up under a single “file title”. An intellectual file may be so large that it takes up many physical folders.

Folder:   A physical container for related materials held under the same file title. Any number of folders may make up an intellectual file.

How to Cite Archival Material Using Specific Style Guides

Your work may require you to use a specific style guide for your citations. Your professor or publisher may require your citations to be done in MLA, APA, or Chicago style rather than the style we suggest below.  In the side bar we have listed examples and how-to's for the three of the most popular style guides. If you are unsure of how your professor wants archival references cited you should ask them for clarification.

If a specific citation style in not required, we suggest using the citation style that we list below.

How to Cite Archival Resources

Because archival resources are unique, they can only be found in one institution. Archival citations therefore begin with the institution, then the fonds or collection, the individual file, and the specific item. For example:

University of Saskatchewan, University Archives and Special Collections, President's Office - W.C. Murray fonds, RG 2001.1, B. Name and Subject Files, 73. Military Matters, (Jan.-June 1916), Letter from John M. White, June 29, 1916.

There are many types of records that can be found in archives - posters, sheet music, audio cassettes, correspondence, typewritten manuscripts, and more. But how you cite it is not dependent on the type of material it is, but where it is found.

The trick is that every fonds or collection itself is unique. Archival descriptions will always reflect that: the arrangement of archival fonds is based on the principle of provenance and the principle of original order. Each description will reflect the system by which the materials were originally used and created (if such a system was in place). If no original order is evident, then an order may be imposed by the archivist. The criteria used for any imposed arrangement can also vary, and might be based on functions, subjects, etc., as appropriate.

Archival fonds normally have a hierarchical organization going from most broad (fonds level) to most specific (either item or file level, ideally) Broadly, these are:

  • Fonds - the "whole of the records..." and the highest level of description
    • Series - "subdivision of a fonds maintained as an entity because the documents relate to a particular function or subject, result from the same activity, have a particular form, or because of some other relationship arising out of the circumstances of their creation or use."
      • File - "an organized unit of documents, usually within a series, brought together because they relate to the same subject, activity, or transaction." A single file - the intellectual collection of documents - may be found in more than one folder - the physical organization of those documents.
        • Item - "an archival unit that can be distinguished from a group and that is complete in itself."

Depending upon the complexity of the fonds, there may be additional levels of arrangement: for example, fonds, sous-fonds, series, sub-series, file, item.

The same elements listed above will appear in footnotes/endnotes and your bibliography. The only difference will be the level of detail (higher in the footnotes).

Abbreviations are entirely appropriate:

  • If you use material from more than one archives, abbreviate the institutional name but provide a key somewhere. For example:
    • City of Saskatoon Archives = CoSA
    • Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan - PAS
    • Saskatoon Public Library Local History Room = LHR
    • University of Saskatchewan, University Archives & Special Collections = USkUASC
  • It may not be necessary to write out the full names of every series, subseries, and file. Often each level of description will have its own identifier, so the citation may simply need to include these. For example, instead of writing...
University of Saskatchewan, University Archives and Special Collections, President's Office - W.C. Murray fonds, RG 2001.1, B. Name and Subject Files, 73. Military Matters, (Jan.-June 1916), Letter from John M. White, June 29, 1916.

             it is reasonable to write...

USkUASC, President's Office - W.C. Murray fonds, RG 2001.1, B. 73., Letter from John M. White, June 29, 1916.

Depending on where you're citing the material, you may have space limitations. If in doubt, ask the archives how best to abbreviate the required information further.

As with any other footnote or bibliographic citation, ensure you are providing sufficient information for any other researcher to be able to easily locate your sources.

And most importantly, never hesitate to ask one of our archivists for help! We love to see our records cited properly, and are more than happy to help.

More Examples


University of Saskatchewan, University Archives and Special Collections, Sylvia Fedoruk fonds, MG 435, III. Audio-Visual, 3. “A University of the People,” University of Saskatchewan, VHS, 47 minutes, 1998.


University of Saskatchewan, University Archives and Special Collections, Photograph Collection, B-266, "President's Residence - Exterior," 1926, Photographer: Gibson

Visual Art

University of Saskatchewan, University Archives and Special Collections, Robert Newton Hurley fonds, MG 482, IV. Original Sketches and Watercolours, e) Live Model Sketches, "Sketch of old Captain Parker" by R.N. Hurley, n.d.


University of Saskatchewan, University Archives and Special Collections, R.L. Sweet fonds, MG 401, 4. Brewery Ephemera, 4.2 Labels, Folder O-Z, Saskatchewan 75 Anniversary (Molson), beer label.

University of Saskatchewan, University Archives and Special Collections, Bob Fink fonds, MG 616, IV. The Origin of Music, 4.  “Hear a Talk on the Origin of Music," poster.

Contact Us

The University Archives and Special Collections reading room is available for appointments Tuesday-Friday, 10am - 12pm and 1pm - 4pm. Please schedule an appointment or get research assistance by email us at  - we look forward to seeing you!

We provide physical and digital copying services subject to copyright, fair dealing, and privacy law.

Our website hosts a variety of digital content such as searchable databases, exhibits, and websites which means you can do a lot of preliminary research without leaving your chair.

Staff is monitoring emails Monday to Friday, 8:30 to 4:30. Depending on whether the material has already been digitized or not, and the scope of the request, delivery time of scans may vary. Please plan accordingly.