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Context and Archival Research

The belief that the best way to understand a document is by studying it in its context is not unique to archives. Archaeologists and geologists, while not specifically dealing with documents, constantly place their artefacts in the context of their dig sites or geological age [1]. Historical research traditionally has been done by examining and studying documents, studying the intents of their creators, and comparing and contrasting the documents to other contemporary sources and accounts [2]. Placing documents in their proper context remains a tried and true method of evaluating the evidential value of any document or artefact.

The online researcher faces some challenges in conducting research on the internet. Digitization projects have had a tendency to be selective of the documents they digitize making the placement of these documents into their historical and documentary contexts difficult. Judgments about authenticity have been based on assessments of the origins, completeness and internal integrity of a document [3].

To use archival materials to their full potential the researcher needs to be aware of the breath of records in a particular collection. Hopefully this presents as complete a picture of their research topic as possible and allows the researcher to weigh the evidential value of each document. Does the memo corroborate what is written in an earlier report? Does the letter provide an alternative view of the event described in the memo? Which is trustworthy? These are the questions asked and they can be answered by the context in which the document exists. This comparison allows the researcher to draw more accurate conclusions about the past than if they simply relied on the narrative of one single document.

In the world of paper archives two key principles have evolved to organize and present documents in their context. The first principle is respect des fonds. This principle dictates that archival materials, when transferred to archival custody, remain as distinct collections catalogued and filed according to their creator. According to this principle, when the University of Regina received the Kirk materials it maintained them as a distinct and separate unit and did not interfile them with the letters and documents produced by any other person or organization. The second key principle demands that the documents in these distinct collections be maintained in their original order. Materials within collections cannot be extensively re-arranged as this would break the relationships of files and documents to each other. Together these principles are known as provenance and they ensure that the researcher using the archives sees documents exactly as the creator used them. This allows the researcher to evaluate the purposes and motivation of the creator and thus the reliability of the documents as evidence.

We have tried to use these principles fully in our web presentation of the Kirk letters. Thus you will find only documents from the Florence Kirk collection on this website. Furthermore we have digitized all of Kirk’s correspondence that we have. No selection was carried out and all the letters, from the most fascinating to the mundane are here for the researcher to see. Finally you may view the letters in their original date order, just as you would see them if you were to visit the University of Regina and study the paper originals.

We have also taken several steps to build context around each letter and around the whole set of letters. You will notice that each letter is presented with a series of data elements. These elements provide basic information about each letter such as the original paper file reference number; copyright restrictions; and the physical characteristics of each original. Some elements are also embedded in each digitized document (under the “document properties” of each PDF). Should a researcher download a letter or series of letters this embedded information will all them to link back to the Kirk website.

The website also attempts to provide context around the whole set of letters. This attempt is made though a series of contextual materials intended as guides to thinking about and using the letters. There is a biographical sketch about Florence Kirk; a timeline; short essays on the Chinese civil war, the Japanese invasion and occupation, and Western missionary/educational activity in China. There is also a list of further readings. These tools are intended to help the researcher place Kirk in her historical context: that of a Westerner in China from the 1930s to 1950.

The essay you are reading now – on the importance of context – and further short pieces on the archives and its collection policy; the Kirk archival collection; other similar collections at other archives; and the technical information about our scanning process are intended to help the researcher understand the documentary context [4].

It is hoped that these materials will entice the researcher to go beyond the letters and to think about the less visible and more complex ideas and trends behind them. A researcher can, of course, go directly to the letters and avoid the contextual materials at will, or choose to read some and ignore others. It is also hoped that some researchers will want to contribute to building the context around these letters by sharing interesting facts learned during their research in the Kirk letters or other source materials on the web or at other archives. For this purpose we have added several methods for user participation and feedback to the website.

Mark Vajcner, University Archivist
August 2010


[1] Joanna Sassoon, “Sharing Our Story: An Archaeology of Archival Thought” in Archives and Manuscripts 35:1 (November 2007), pp. 40-54. Sassoon describes how archival thought can be placed at the centre of interdisciplinary thinking, and what archival thought has drawn from other disciplines.

[2] Susan Grigg, "Archival Practice and the Foundations of Historical Method" in Journal of American History 78:1 (June 1991), pp. 228-239.

[3] David Bearman and Jennifer Trant, "Authenticity of Digital Resources: Towards a Statement of Requirements in the Research Process" in
D-Lib Magazine 4:6 (June 1998).

[4] For a superb discussion of the types of contextual materials that can be linked to archives see Tom Nesmith, “Reopening Archives: Bringing New Contextualities into Archival Theory and Practice” in Archivaria 60 (Fall 2005), pp. 259-74.

Last Revision: 2010-Sep-10