LAC: The Scandal of the Archives

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By Allan Greer

Recently I had occasion to visit Library and Archives Canada.  Marching up Wellington Street, I noticed my heart beating a little faster as the historical juices began flowing through my researcher’s veins.  Even at the time, I recognized this pulse of excitement as a throw-back, a residual thrill from a time long ago when I was an eager graduate student discovering the wonders of dusty manuscripts; more recent visits to the federal archives had been anything but thrilling.

Indeed, as I checked in at the desk and surveyed the vast marble lobby, I realized that I had been coming here, on and off, for a little over fifty years!  That was a sobering thought at a personal level, registering as it does just how far the days of my youth have receded, but at the same time, I hope this extended experience puts me in a good position to observe the ways in which this institution has evolved over the decades.  I don’t pretend to know the full history of the federal archives, but I can testify to the changing experience of an academic historian probing the collections for source materials.

I was a graduate student in the 1970s, which in retrospect seems to have been the high-water mark for state institutions, buoyed by postwar prosperity and before the neoliberal wave of privatizations and shrinking budgets. The “Public Archives of Canada,” as it was called then, shared a spanking new building with the National Library.  The sun-drenched reading room on the third floor filled with researchers of every stripe: genealogists, Parks Canada researchers, people investigating Indigenous land claims, and so on, as well as a substantial number of professors and graduate students working on Canadian history.  There were plenty of opportunities to meet fellow researchers, exchange tips and discuss findings.

One half of the third floor was devoted to a vast reference room where you would find shelves full of finding aids and card indexes that archivists had assembled over the years.  There was a special genealogy desk where an employee would orient people searching for their ancestors, as well as a general reference desk with an archivist on duty to answer inquiries.  If the person on the desk couldn’t help, there was always a specialist archivist down the hall who could provide detailed guidance on a given collection.  I benefited hugely from their deep knowledge and their willingness, to suggest relevant sources that I’d never thought of.

What the archives offered then, in addition to a pleasant physical environment and the world’s most extended hours (24 per day), was a well elaborated infrastructure of resources describing the many and various collections, their contents, structure and origins.  Advice from archivists well acquainted with the documents was close at hand, supplemented by the camaraderie and informal help provided by fellow researchers.

That’s all gone now.  The reading room is largely empty and over what used to be the immense reference room I was shocked to discover a sign reading “Genealogy Services,” suggesting that the specialized functions of one desk had expanded to take over the entire facility.  It might as well have said, “Historians not welcome.”  I discovered that a collection of finding aids had been installed in a corner of the reading room (the ones I consulted had not been updated in years), along with an inquiry desk.

I had come here looking for information on rum in eighteenth-century Newfoundland and, while open to suggestion on other sources, I planned to look mainly at the Colonial Office correspondence (C.O. 194) and had brought a number of references gleaned from secondary works.

C.O. 194 is available in the self-service microfilm section, but to find any particular document, you have to know the corresponding microfilm reel number, so my question to the person at the desk was a simple one: how do I locate the correct microfilm reel for a given volume number in C.O. 194?

Since this inquiry desk serves both the National Library and the archives, she may well have been a librarian.  In any case, she was baffled by my rather basic question.  She arranged for me to speak with an archivist, but he too was at a loss.  Left largely to my own devices, I had to email the Newfoundland Studies programme at Memorial University to find the infrastructural resources and guidance I needed to find my way through the colonial office papers.  The MUN people, bless them, also gave me leads to other sources on my topic, something no one at LAC was able to do.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming the archivists, who are competent and dedicated public servants and I’ve found them extremely helpful with email inquiries.[1]  The problem is with the way LAC has been reorganized over the years with so little thought to the needs of professional and amateur historians.

Some years ago, the archivists who acquired, organized and described materials were moved across the river to Gatineau, far from researchers.  The latter had to deal instead with generalist “reference archivists” who couldn’t possibly be expected to know the ins and outs of all the collections.  Then the archives merged with the National Library, further diluting the expertise on offer at the inquiries desk.

Much of this has to do with cutbacks. Since the dawn of the neoliberal era, the archives, like other federal agencies, have been expected to do more with less.  In 2012 and 2013, for example, budgetary cutbacks led to significant staffing reductions (over 100 positions) and retrenchment in several programs.

At the same time, new approaches to government administration have arisen, largely derived from the private sector with its preoccupation with bottom lines and abstract metrics and its tendency to view the public as “customers” rather than citizens.  It follows from this logic that family history should get priority over historical scholarship, partly because genealogists are more numerous than historians, but also because their hobby involves a kind of privatizing of history.

Thus, we have an entry for “fur trade” in an orientation feature (“A-Z Tools and Guides”) on the LAC website that reads, “Find resources for researching an ancestor who worked in the fur trade,” as if no one could be interested in the history of the fur trade except as part of a search for a great-great-great grandparent.

Of course, the really big change has been the advent of digitization: like other archives around the world, LAC has channeled resources into scanning their materials and making them available online.  Naturally, that implies less emphasis on research facilities at their physical headquarters, the aim being to spare people the trip to Ottawa.

Over the course of my career, digitization has transformed historical research, mostly in positive ways.  From the comfort of our homes and offices, we can now call up a plethora of source materials from LAC and other archives.  Online resources played a vital role in keeping the research enterprise alive at the time of the recent covid pandemic.  Moreover, online collections have the potential to open up access to the archives for a wide range of potential users who would not otherwise be able to examine these vestiges of earlier ages.

That said, I’m not convinced that digitization has been an unmitigated benefit.  The problem is not with digitization per se, but with the chaotic way in which LAC has dumped their collections onto the internet.

Some of LAC’s digitized materials — such as transcripts of sources held in Britain and France that were hand-copied a century or so ago — has been placed on a partner site run by Heritage Canadiana, while the rest is available through the LAC’s all-purpose search engine.  Search functions on both sites are quite crude with little room for refined searching.  Hit lists come back with unhelpful descriptive verbiage like this, “Province of Upper Canada, Isaac Brock, esquire, president of the province of Upper Canada, and major general commanding His Majesty’s forces therein: to all whom it may concern, greetings,” often with no indication of the contents or the date of the document. (This is actually a liquor license, though you would never know that from the listing.)

More to the point, their operations are largely divorced from the architecture of the archives.  If you have a standard reference to a specific document, for example, RG7, G21, vol. 125, file 230, the search engine will not recognize it; the best you can do is specify a year and then pick through the hundreds or thousands of items that come up in hopes of finding what you’re looking for.  Browsing through adjacent materials for context is next to impossible.  The Heritage Canadiana material, scanned from microfilm, is arranged by microfilm reel number but, in the absence of finding aids and conversion lists, there is no way to find one’s way to a particular item.

It is as if LAC had shoveled its digitized material out into a virtual dumpster and invited researchers to dive in.  There are indeed treasures to be found here, but systematic research of the kind needed to investigate major historical issues is out of the question.

A study of nineteenth-century Indian Affairs Department records (RG10) by veteran LAC archivist Bill Russell provides a nice illustration of the perils of digital dumping.  Letters in the correspondence dockets of this collection can only be located by consulting contemporary registers, but these are not included in the online version of the collection.  Nor is there any notice alerting researchers to their importance.  Since remote users won’t even know of the registers’ existence, “the online research potential of the correspondence dockets is severely limited.”[2]

Archives don’t simply store and conserve documents, they structure and organize them, carefully recording the provenance of government records, collections of private papers, films, recordings, images, etc.  LAC has always been very good at this and generations of archivists built up an infrastructure of guides and finding aids, but instead of using these resources to curate their online collections, the archives seem determined to hide the results of their past efforts from the eyes of researchers.

Allan Greer is a professor emeritus of history at McGill University. He thanks Gerry Friesen, Max Hamon, Nathan Ince, Laura Madokoro, Tom Peace and Bill Russell.

[1] This would be a good place to record my gratitude to Anik Laflèche for her assistance on several occasions.

[2] Bill Russell, “Indian Department Headquarters Records, 1844-1861: A Case Study in Recordkeeping and Archival Custody,” Archivaria 75 (2013): 219-20.

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2 thoughts on “LAC: The Scandal of the Archives

  1. David Calverley

    I agree that much of LAC’s material was dumped online with a substandard search engine. Once it is explained to you, it is more useful but it is not intuitive. It would have been helpful to include instructions and a video so researchers can figure things out.

    I would also like to include a big thank you to Anik Laflèche. She provide wonderful assistance every time I’ve sent an email to her. She sent me screen shots to explain how the search engine works. This was invaluable when trying to locate material on Heritage Canadiana.

  2. Tom Irvine

    Thank you for writing this piece. It has validated the difficulties I have been having with trying to use the LAC so-called “search engine”. I need to find some back issues of the Canada Gazette. The “search engine” is of absolutely no use and the Canada Gazette is inaccessible.

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