Holding History in My Hands

Holding History in My Hands

My great-great-great-grandfather, Edward R. Umfreville, wrote a book about The Hudson’s Bay Company. An exposé by an 18th-century whistleblower, my ancestor’s book was a bestseller.

And what is even more amazing is that The Present State of the Hudson’s Bay, published 1790 in London, England, is still in libraries.

1024px-Library_and_Archives_CanadaWell…in certain libraries. I’m delighted to say it is housed in Library and Archives Canada (LAC), a short walk in Ottawa from the Parliament Buildings and the Supreme Court of Canada. But LAC is not much like your neighbourhood library.

Not your ordinary library

Our national library and archives provides “services to members of the public who wish to consult the documents of its collection or order photocopies and reproductions.” Researchers don’t even need to visit. Indeed, almost all of their material is accessible online—I’ve read Umfreville’s book several times that way. But I was going to Ottawa on a trip and I wanted to actually see the darn thing.

I called the library and the helpful voice of Natalie confirmed the book was there but cautioned that I was outside request timelines of 7 days. Nonetheless, she helped me put in my order request and wished me luck.

Planning to visit the Library and Archives Canada?

Here are the protocol basics:

  • Pre-register online for a user number; you need it to clear Security
  • Step into the impressive first floor foyer — all marble and a great high ceiling and lots of windows pouring in light everywherenlc011725-v6
  • Stop at Security to show your ID, sign in, lock up stuff in little lockers, and put all pens and pencils and notebooks into clear plastic bags to carry with you. (I was allowed to also carry my purse and cell phone separately and not in plastic bags.)
  • Take the elevators up one floor to visit Reception in a glass-walled room off the main hallway to have the user card checked
  • Up one more floor to the glass-walled Special Collections admin room (it had a velvet rope queue area outside the entry and a sign: Wait to be called in before entering.)

It was here that I got the bad news. My 4-day request to have the book brought in from storage hadn’t been in time. (darn deadlines—ever the writer’s bane.)

At heart, all libraries are the same

But here is where Library and Archives Canada is exactly like a community library. The woman in admin suggested I go to the Special Collections room and ask the staff there. “You never know,” she said. (How many times have we writers benefited from the suggestions and guidance of library staff?)

Special Collections is a huge room, brightly lit by a full wall of windows and fairly sparsely furnished. Two or three office desks were spaced apart against the window wall and three or four very long worktables sat apart in the middle. A man was sorting through a box of index-type cards at the far end. He wore white cotton gloves. Gulp, I thought; no way will they let me even breathe on Umfreville’s book.

The two staff—a pair of lovely women—searched the shelves in the room. If my book was there, it would be with my name attached. Nope. No Walker treasures waiting. I was ready to give up when one of the women asked me, “Is this a rare book?”

Librarians are a writer’s friend

“Yes,” I replied. “I assume so. It’s over 225 years old.”

20160624_103339“Ah, it probably is held off site,” she said. “Let me look back here and see if it’s arrived.”  As she opened a side door, I caught a glimpse of locked wire cages with shelves of boxes and file boxes behind the wire.

They came out smiling, one of them holding a book-sized sturdy cardboard container. On the spine of the container: Umfreville The Present State of The Hudson’s Bay. And inside, wrapped in protective beige paper, an original copy of my great-great-great-grandfather’s book.

Time travel is possible

Thank you Natalie. Your kindness when I called just four days before arriving meant that I didn’t have to travel back to Ottawa to hold history—my history—in my hands. And it is because of the determined staff in Special Collections that I could turn those pages (without gloves!) to gain insights I’d missed in the online version.20160624_104156

Watch for a later post on what THAT experience felt like and what it meant for the book I’ll be writing in the months ahead.

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4 thoughts on “Holding History in My Hands

  1. Thank you Ruth for this very interesting and informative blog. Its heartening to hear of a government agency that goes above and beyond helpful. Also, now that I know I can access the National Archives online. I’m going to be all over that. Once again thanks for this great blog.

    1. You’re welcome, Barb. I’ll admit to being a bit unsure of what to expect during my visit but everyone was most helpful. Made for a pleasant experience from start to finish. Enjoy the online version but make sure you visit the place the next time you’re in Ottawa. I only visited a small part of the whole.

  2. I found myself feeling childishly envious of your lineage, Ruth. (The only genealogy my family lays claim to is far from academic.) How wonderful. I look forward to your next chapter.

    1. Thanks Laurel. A family member did some research and can trace our line back to William the Conqueror & 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. But my g-g-g-grandfather was not all together an admirable man. He left behind at least two children from his Cree “country wife” before returning to England to marry and start his “real” family and the line I’m descended from. Our family histories are never perfection…but interesting is always good.

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