Digging up archives for research

Digging up archives for research

Gwynn Scheltema

My recent blog Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers got me thinking more about research, and in particular about how to locate archive materials.

Of course, you can always start with Google, but beyond that, you might try:

Bibliographies

Look in the bibliographies at the back of books that you are already consulting for research. Where did those authors go to get information? Even if you don’t read all the books they consulted, you can still check out what sources they used. Likewise with any essays you read. Even websites dedicated to your topic may list archives they used. Sometimes the dedications at the beginning of books also thank people who helped with research.

Experts

While I’m not suggesting you stalk big names in your field of interest, we often meet experts (and other novelists) at book readings, symposiums, conferences or casually at other events. Asking about their research and the collections they may have used is a good conversation opener, and you might just learn something. If you are interviewing them, make it one of your questions.

Libraries

Your local reference librarian is bound to be a treasure house of information, especially about local archives.

But beyond that, ask your local library about accessing the WorldCat database or Archive Grid, with close to a million listings for archival materials stored in libraries, archives and museums all over the world. Many of the libraries within that network offer inter-library loans. Your library may also have access to the subscription site Archive Finder which has over 22000 listings of historical collections of primary source material in American and British archives. For American publications, the Library of Congress  is America’s national library, and the world’s largest.

College and university archives
An 1864 photo from the collection

Apart from theses archiving, educational institutions often have “special collections”. University of Toronto, for instance, has a collection called “The Barren Lands: J.B. Tyrrell’s Expeditions for the Geological Survey of Canada, 1892-1894” which includes over 5,000 images from original field notebooks, correspondence, photographs, maps and published reports covering two exploratory surveys of the Barren Lands region west of Hudson Bay, in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan and the area now known as Nunavut.

Corporate archives
1936 Parade of Progress

Large corporations often have archives, like the General Motors Heritage Centre, that preserve the history of their corporations and industries. Collections of videos, photographs, and corporate records have varying degrees of public access depending on the company’s policies and archival staff availability.

Canadian archives

Our National Archives known as Library and Archives Canada (LAC) are housed in Ottawa. (read about Ruth’s research visit there). Among their collections are:

The Canadian Council of Archives (CCA), in partnership with LAC, maintains ArchivesCanada.ca which lists over 800 repositories across Canada and has links to databases by province.

Other web sites to check

Explore the Smithsonian Institution Archives , the record keeper of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo.

The American Historical Association sponsors Archives Wiki which gives information on (and links to) archives around the world from a researcher’s perspective.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)  looks after US Federal government materials, regional archives, and presidential libraries.

And then what????

Of course, locating the archive that holds the documents or other materials you need is only the beginning. Accessing that information and dealing with archival staff is the subject of another blog. Stay tuned.

Last Word

This twitter quote comes from this year’s author guest at Writescape’s Turning Leaves 2018 retreat in November, Andrew Pyper (@andrewpayper). And it’s so true!

The thing with research is you only know you’ve done enough research after having done way too much research.

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.