A writer, photographer, historian, community activist, editor, and all-round cultural engineer, Jim Wong -Chu’s early death in 2017 left a huge void in the local Asian literary community.
A small consolation, though not at all insignificant, is his rich collection now at UBC which includes correspondence with prominent Asian Canadian writers, his own writing and personal records, records of the Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society, and much more.
Launching Jim’s archival collection is an exhibit at UBC that shows his lifelong passion, dedication, and legacy to the community and arts.
The exhibit is on now until Friday Nov 15, 2019 at the:
Irving K. Barber Learning Centre
1961 East Mall, on the University of British Columbia Campus
This week’s climate strikes, coinciding with the United Nations Climate Action Summit , brought more than 80,000 people out to the streets in Vancouver alone, according to the Candian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)
It is a great start to some painstaking documentation that we need about this grass-roots movement.
But there are many more events, movements, legislation (and catastrophes) – like the Mount Polley mining disaster, that should also be included in this timeline.
The environmental movement has many tentacles and has traditionally had limited access to the powerful media outlets and industry-affiliated lobbying interests that, generally, are working against it.
Vancouver has a long tradition of environmental activism and is the birthplace of Greenpeace, the Suzuki Foundation, SPEC (Society for the Preservation) and probably more innovative environmental organizations – and those are only the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
If you think this is the kind of project you would be interested in, the encyclopedia is always looking for contributors so get in touch with them here if you think you can help make this timeline more complete.
I have one that I’ve been creating for a couple of years that is a general – mostly British Columbia historical timeline, with fictionalized dates and events pertaining to my novel, interspersed.
And I’ve created another one to help me understand the timing and details of First Nations land grabs within the city of Vancouver that covers over a hundred years.
And finally, I’ve created a shorter one to help me understand the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) controversy over the location of the terminus of the transnational railroad that occurred in the 1870s and 80s.
In his book, The Last Spike, Pierre Berton wrote about CPR Vice President and General Manager Cornelius Van Horne’s visit to Port Moody in 1884, ostensibly to discuss the lay-out of the new metropolis.
The people of Port Moody, anticipating that their town was to be the terminus of the trans-national railroad, the Canadian Pacific, imagined a new wharf, station houses, roundhouses and machine shops, theatres, churches and paved streets.
Berton said their hopes were all “tragically premature”.
Because by then, a small syndicate of provincial politicians and businessmen had already made a deal with the CPR to have Granville – later Vancouver – designated as the terminus. The syndicate had been purchasing land in the little milltown of Granville for the previous ten years, gambling that their investments would reap huge profits when the railroad finally arrived.
And while they waited for that time to come, they used their influence to lure the CPR to their way of thinking by offering parts of their land holdings (stolen land – noone said anything about the fact that the First Nations presence and use of the land there upon arrival), in exchange.
Meanwhile, the average person in Port Moody and Vancouver and even New Westminster still believed that the terminus would be Port Moody, and were buying land and moving there, starting businesses, and building houses in anticipation.
At the same time, the editorial columns of the newspapers in New Westminster and Port Moody were sparring, the Port Moody Gazette sniping about lies and idiotic reporting in the Columbian that cast doubts on the Port Moody terminus, even going so far as to say that its editor, John Robson had been played for a sucker.
Yet Robson, along with his other cronies had already made large investments in Vancouver real estate, and had the last laugh on Port Moody when Van Horne announced Vancouver as the railroad terminus, in early 1885.
Despite petitions, protests, and legal challenges launched by the squatters between Port Moody and Vancouver who tried to block the tracks from crossing their property, the dye had been cast and Port Moody immediately went into an economic tailspin and comparative obscurity.
“Those in the know were in a position to act on their information; others could only guess at what was going on” from G.W.A. Brooks M.A thesis in HIstory, April 1976
I’ve been trying to get my head around the back room deals and characters who were buying huge chunks of land as early as the 1870s in the area that later became Vancouver .
Anticipating that the national railroad, promised to British Columbia as an incentive to join Confederation would terminate here, a syndicate of politicians and businessmen began speculating on land in the undeveloped area that would later become Vancouver, ultimately reaping them millions in real estate transactions.
But they first had to use their financial connections and instigate some political manoeuvering to rig it so that Vancouver and not Port Moody became the ultimate winner of that real estate sweepstake.
Who were these people and how did they know or at least strongly influence the selection of Vancouver as the terminus?
They were government officials, including then Premier William Smithe, Dr Israel Powell, Laughlin Hamilton, and others, and businessmen George Campbell, Richard Alexander, Edward Heatley, John Robson, David and Isaac Oppenheimer and others after which many of the streets in the oldest part of Vancouver are named.
And they quietly split up large swaths of land here as early as the late 1870s, even though approval for construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the CPR, didn’t even receive royal assent until 1881. And then they offered pieces of their cheaply bought (stolen) land to the CPR in exchange.
These guys were business partners and buddies, mostly operating between Victoria, New Westminster, London England, and San Francisco, with a few ambitious early arrivals based in Granville (later Vancouver), Hastings Townsite, and Yale.
They hung out socially too with dinners and arranged marriages between the various families; and whist and poker games that frequently went on until 3 in the morning.
Officially, Port Moody was designated as the railroad terminus in 1884, but this political and economic syndicate had the connections to lure the railroad further west, to Vancouver, and were motivated to do it because they knew that their properties would skyrocket in value and make them all filthy rich.
So while the “man on the street” was distracted by the excitement generated by the Port Moody terminus announcement, men working at the Hastings Sawmill in Granville (later Vancouver) just kept drinking and gambling, and generally not paying much attention to anything but their bodily needs and trying to survive the boredom of life in the milltown.
In the end, the CPR garnered more than 6000 acres of property here in exchange for making Vancouver the railroad terminus, becoming the largest landowner in areas of the city that later became the West End, Shaughnessy, Coal Harbour, and Fairview.
The novel I’m writing, begins in 1880s Vancouver, and already encompasses land and property issues, including First Nations land grabs by settlers, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of touching on this scandal too, part of the bigger picture of Vancouver real estate speculation and corruption.
I’ve been trying to pin down some details – gritty stories and actual day-in-the-life specifics of a young seaman working on a sailboat in the late 1800s – what they ate, what work they did, where they slept, what they did in the lulls and anything about pets or children onboard.
But I’d been having trouble finding much that was useful. I did keyword searches on the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) using the terms sailing and sailboat and history and “daily life” and came up with a lot of current information about how to sail, where to sail, and contemporary sailboats in general with a bit of historical information thrown in about the heyday of sailing and the advent of steamships in the late 1800s, but still not finding quite what I was looking for.
When you’re doing historical research in particular you may need to think about some older and even antiquated terms for the activity or concept you’re searching for, though I had a similar challenge trying to come up with just the right search term when carrying out research on a (current) aspect of environmental science as well.
Finding the right term is like finding the right key to the lock and is sometimes the first step in finding useful material. Try turning phrases around in your head us, brainstorming different terminology for your subject, and trying this keyword-to subject-heading research in order to come up with the right term that will bring you success.
Before Google and keywords changed the world of online searching in the late 1990s libraries catalogued material using a thesaurus to ensure that all librarians were using consistent terms for classifying books and related material in different formats.
This meant that when terminology migrated (from ecology to envirormentalism for example) related material would still fall under the same classification heading and researchers wouldn’t have to look up multiple terms for the same thing.
Subject headings originate in the classification thesaurus used by libraries (usually Dewey or Library of Congress) and follow a rigid format as you’ll see from my research example, below.
But now, when you’re carrying out research, you can use a combination of keyword searching and the more traditional subject classification searching to pinpoint more specific or obscure information. The subject classification will encompass books and other resources that use terms you might not think of.
For example in my research on the daily life and conditions of sailors in the 19th century I did the following keyword searches.
I then chose a book from my results and scrolled down to find the library subject headings under which it was classified. On the Vancouver Public Library site, subject headings appear on the far right, a little down from the book title, and are hyperlinked.
Using the keyword “Sailing” gave the Subject heading of “Sailing”
Using the keywords “Sailing history” gave the Subject heading of “Sailing ships pictorial works”
So I clicked on “Sailing ships pictorial works” to see what other books have been put into that classification, but they were mostly about yaching and racing, neither of which I was interested in.
So I tried another tack (pardon the pun)!
Using the keywords “sailing daily life” – gave me no results
Using the keyword “sailors – pictorial works” brought up books with photos of sailors, a few novels, and some analysis of gender issues among sailors.
Finally I remembered the word ‘seafaring” and once I entered that term I hit paydirt because suddenly there was a plethora of books on the daily life of a sailor aboard a sailing ship in the 1800s, from the work they carried out in stormy weather, in port, and while in the calm waters, the doldrums of southern South America, near the Magellan Strait, to the fo’cs’le where they lived and slept, to the food they ate.
So if you aren’t finding the material you need, try thos little librarian trick of starting with keywords and then looking at subject headings of books that come up in the results that yield other sources on the subject you’re looking for.
Of course you can always ask a librarian for help. They will probe you for specifics and relevant terminology in this same way as I’ve just explained, but it’s always heavenly to have someone else to work on it with.
Don’t resort to being a mere mortal and thinking you can do everything yourself because it will save you a lot of time and frustration to use the professionals who know these things and more, so well.
Many archives are now working to digitize collections of their photos to make access easier for researchers to do preliminary research from their home or office, and to minimize the handling of originals.
To track down digital images, start your research in the appropriate archive for your location or subject (municipal/provincial/federal OR cultural/industrial/artistic), and see if they have a photo database you can search.
Every database will be slightly different but generally, you can enter date parameters, location, and photographer information, plus a subject you think will be appropriate to carry out your search.
But not all of these databases are user-friendly so write or phone the archives and ask for step-by-step instuctions or help in using them.
Don’t feel embarrassed or shy about asking for help.
Archivists know that their databases can be challenging to use and are usually more than willing to help you navigate and find something you’re looking for.
They want you to succeed!
Bear in mind that the images you see may only be in a thumb-nail version, or they may be bigger, but regardless, your use of them will generally be limited to research purposes only unless and until you’ve made arrangements with the archives that holds the copyright to that photo.
Considerations of fair use, copyright, and costs for various kinds of use including replication in books or used for a commercial purpose such as a poster, t-shirt, mug, or marketing material.
“The new town, called Vancouver, will no doubt be of some detriment to Port Moody”
This quote, comes from the 1887 BC Directory’s introduction to Port Moody, the city that had its designation as the terminus for the national railway pulled out from under it that year, in favour of Vancouver.
Rampant speculation, investment and enthusiasm ran high in the few years prior as Port Moody prepared for the onslaught of growth and investor interest that would come with the rail terminus.
But a syndicate of the CPR, headed by CPR Vice-president William Van Horne negotiated a deal with Premier William Smithe to bring the terminus to Granville (later Vancouver) in exchange for 6000 acres of land.
Interestingly, title to this land went not to the company, but to two of its board members, Donald Smith and Richard Angus.
And you have to be suspicious when, a few years later, Smith and Angus, along with other Victoria government officials, businessmen, and politicians earned spectacular profits on real estate parceling and selling of that land.
This is an important piece of Vancouver’s earliest settler history. The speculative nature of real estate profiteering from the 1880s established much of our local politics and business interests to this day.
Ironically, the world view that engendered this display of greed and avarice entirely dismissed any First Nations claims to this land in the first place.
In the novel I’m working on, set in Vancouver 1884-1913, I’m exploring these and related issues from a young settler woman’s perspective.
I can’t tell you how much I love the old directories to get a snapshot of the moment from that time’s perspective and countless “reading between the lines” possibilities that they provide.
I consulted the early BC Directories to learn more about Port Moody when one of my characters wants to get out of Granville (later Vancouver) because he can’t stand the boredom and backwardness of it. I have him weighing the pros and cons of moving to New Westminster or Port Moody in the months before the final CPR announcement in favour of Vancouver.
City of Vancouver Archives (CVA) has recently begun a project to digitize thousands of negatives created by commercial Vancouver photographer Don Coltman who worked at Williams Brothers Photographers, and whose images were created in the years 1941-55.
Coltman’s images cover such subjects as
This is exciting news and will add much to the photo collection of Vancouver images that are available online.
Researchers will be happy to know that all Coltman’s photographs are in the public domain and will be freely available for use once the project is finished.
The negatives are made of rapidly deteriorating cellulose acetate and are stored frozen to keep them from deteriorating further.
Because cellulose acetate is toxic, the CVA had to develop a way to digitize the negatives that would still be safe for staff and figure out a way to manage preservation of the negatives while also reducing the amount of time they are out of the freezer.
See the link at the top for more about the chemistry and preservation of cellulose acetate photos and about the CVA’s preservation work with the Coltman collection.
Another interesting collection within the British library’s sound archive are recordings of childrens’ games and songs made by Iona Opie and her husband Peter between 1969 and 1983, the Opie collection.
The Opie’s dedicated their working lives to the documentation of children’s play, folklore, language and literature.
They also published several influential works, most notably The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959).
Recordings are searchable by British county using an alphabetical drop-down menu, or by the name of the interviewer or interviewee.
Under the BBC Voices project, you can listen to speakers from all the counties of Britain to hear how they pronounce words in the early 21st century – and what words are in their current lexicon.
I took a quick listen to the people from Cornwall – because I’ve heard that people from that region have a strong accent that is difficult for outsiders to understand (though I didn’t find that from what I listened to – local accents are becoming less distinct with the movement of people from different regions). I also listened to speakers from West Yorkshire because that’s where the protagonist of my historical novel comes from.
Two of the recordings from the West Yorkshire area (Leeds) feature speakers from the Jamaican and Punjabi communities there which adds another flavour to the evolution of the English language
Between 2004 and 2005 group conversations were recorded in 303 locations involving a total of 1,293 people across the UK, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. The vast majority of conversations were conducted in English, but the collection also includes 31 interviews in Scots, 9 in Welsh, 5 in Scots Gaelic, 3 in Irish, 3 in Ulster Scots, and 1 each in Manx and Guernsey French. The selection available here represents the entire set of conversations conducted in English and Scots.
There are further recordings of accents and dialects on Sounds Familiar, which is an interactive, educational website with 78 extracts from recordings of speakers from across the UK and over 600 audio clips that illustrate changes and variations in contemporary British English.
While researching the specifics of early audio recordings for a short story I wrote a few months ago, I came across the Vernadsky library’s collection of sound archives in Kiev and it made me think of this different format of documents that – to a music lover and aurally-focused person such as myself – opens up a whole new world of fascinating historical materials.
It’s got one of the biggest collections of recorded sound in the world and includes music, spoken word, and ambient recordings as far back as 1905, mostly on metal cylinders.
A digitizing project began in the 1990s, allowing much of the collection to now be electronically accessible.
The British Library sound archive’s collection of six million recordings come from BBC radio broadcasts and privately made recordings . They include first hand accounts of Holocaust survivors and of WW I vets held in German prisoner-of-war camps, soundscapes of street scenes including open markets from the Victorian era, the sound of a sail being hoisted on its mast on an early sailing ship, recordings of early folk and opera singing, writers – including an interview with Leo Tolstoy and other noteworthy writers – bird calls and wildlife recordings from many parts of the world, and UK dialects.
In a nutshell – here are the classifications of different recordings available. I’ll delve into these more in the weeks to come.
Drama and literature
Popular music and jazz
Spoken language and dialects
Wildlife and other nature sounds
World and traditional music
It makes me think of all the amazing ways these recordings could be used – in art and theatre projects to help set a scene. In academic investigations comparing the predominant sounds of yesteryear to those we hear today. And to hear – perhaps for the first time for contemporary audiences – the sound of birds and animals that have become extinct.
Many of these archival clips and recordings are available online to the public and some can be imbedded into various kinds of documents, but there are others that are restricted to use by students and faculty of British universities that have subscribed to its collection. However – if you are in London – and go into the reading room, you can listen to almost anything in the collection.
More in the coming weeks on use of this collection, restrictions, and a selection of recordings.
The library holds one of the largest collections of phonographic recordings of Jewish musical folklore in the world – including Jewish synagogue singing – on more than 1000 wax cylinders.
Before I worked in an archives I remembered hearing news-stories about things being discovered in different archival repositories and I couldn’t understand – why didn’t they know what was in their collection?
But now that I understand better how many unique items are housed in archives, I see that not everything can be added to a searchable list.
Not to mention the political restrictions that can make archival materials unavailable and even subject to destruction.
In January 1949 the Soviet government confiscated the entire archival collection of the Institute of Jewish Culture and arrested almost all of its employees including Moishe Beregovski who I wrote about last week and about whom I fictionalized a story called Pale Shadow*.
After the break-up of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in the early 1990s, the Vernadsky collection of wax cylinder recordings became publicly available and researchers have been going through them ever since – a veritable renaissance.
The collection includes music collected by several generations of cultural researchers who gathered material from as early as 1908 out of Belarus where there was a large Jewish diaspora as well as a plethora of traditional religious centres.
A huge project to re-recording the collection was carried out between 1996 and 1999, from which a CD was produced, “Treasures of Jewish Culture in Ukraine”, in 1997.
*I entered Pale Shadow into a story contest that the magazine Prairie Fire ran so don’t want to jeopardize my entry by posting it here yet.
I’ve been working on a short story for a contest this week that’s been percolating in my mind for more than 10 years – that’s the way it goes sometimes – but I was happy to have the chance to finally write it.
The story would probably never seen the light of day if it hadn’t been for the break-up of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in 1991 when archival records that had been restricted and virtually inaccessible, were released
The idea for the story I wrote all started at a concert at the Chutzpah festival in Vancouver when the band leader, Alicia Sviegels told the story of an ethnomusicologist, Moishe Beregovski, who travelled through the Ukraine in the 1930s and collected Klezmer folk music in one of the world’s most comprehensive studies.
Beregovski was sent to prison in the 1940’s and his research was confiscated from the Ukrainian Academy of Science. He never knew what had happened to it by the time he died in the 1960s’s, but probably assumed they had been destroyed by the Communist government.
However, after the break-up of the Soviet Union – a whole slew of archival records were released, providing a glimpse into the USSR that academics and geneaologists have been gobbling up ever since.
It was at that time that Beregovski’s early recordings on wax cylinders and his extensive documentation of the music – more than 100 questions for each piece of music – were unearthed and are now available for researchers at at library in Kiev, the Vernadsky National Library of the Ukraine.
I’ll write some more about this in the weeks to come and also will post parts of my story, which is called Pale Shadow.
Last week I reported that the Vancouver Sun newspaper is now searchable online within the Ancestry digital resource of the VPL for the date range 1912-2018.
This way to search will shave hours off your research time plus give you easy access to news stories that might whet your appetite and inspire you to to write a story, make a movie, paint a picture, or just have fun exploring the antics you humans get into.
It sure beats locating, loading, scrolling, and unloading rolls of microfilm that can eat up lots of time with sometimes negligible results.
This new database allows you to search by keyword, title, news-reporter, or date and to narrow it by country, province, city, and individual newspaper – of which there are hundreds.
If you’re looking for stories from the Vancouver Sun specifically you’ll need to narrow your search by choosing country (Canada); province (British Columbia); city (Vancouver); and finally, newspaper (Vancouver Sun).
Or you search within one entire newspaper from one a particular day or date-range, or by date-range followed by keyword search within that range.
You can also select any number of newspapers to do a simultaneous search in multiple newspapers anytime or for a specific date-range.
Like any kind of searchable database, there are usually multiple ways to search and you’ll probably find your favourite if you do enough searches and within a short enough period of time to get it into your head.
I always find it easiest to have a search in mind before I go through a new database. It makes it less vague and probably more useful in the long-run. Here are my steps:
Go through each tab on the database’s interface page (what you see on your screen which is a user-friendly rendition of the back-end of the database) and see what options they provide; also any sidebars
Keep track of how I do my searches, making hand-written notes on a sheet of paper at each step so I don’t get lost or forget what I’ve done
Assess the value of those steps for the type of search I’m doing and adjust/go back/keep as appropriate.
It’s sometimes tempting to get lots of results but if 99% of them are no good you just end up spending time combing through and eliminating them. Better to get fewer, more specific results than hundreds of useless ones.
Unless you’re just browsing for ideas …….
I did a search for a column I wrote for the Sun in 1997 which I’d couldn’t find in my paper files anymore. First I narrowed my search to the Vancouver Sun, then to the date I knew it was published, and finally I did a keyword search within those parameters, and it came up nice ‘n easy.
I’ve just added it to my “Clippings” file that is part of the Ancestry site you might find useful.
If you want to try out online searches from your home or office there is a 7-day free trial after which you have to start paying $74.90 for six months, unless you cancel your free trial before it ends. So write on your calendar when you need to cancel the free trial if you don’t want to be charged. This is the only way to access it from home after your free trial ends.
But if you can get into any branch of the Vancouver Public Library, you can get free access to it through the Ancestor digital resource. Check with a librarian for any help getting into it.
I imagine it’s the same with most public libraries but call your first to be sure.
And would you leave a comment if you get free access to it at another library or your experience using this resource so we can all learn?
Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One – the so-called war to end all wars. A senseless slaughter of young men on both sides, sent to fight from muddy, disease-ridden trenches, and told to wipe the memory from their minds after peace was declared and move on.
Yet the physical and emotional trauma those soldiers suffered followed them home after the armistice. Many ended up in insane asylums or became burdens to their families for the rest of their lives, shunted off to a back room in the family home plagued by nightmares or strange mutterings, or drunkenness. Even those who seemed to be doing alright walked the streets at night, unable to sleep because of their nightmares.
Broken lives. What we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But those soldiers were told basically, to suck it up and forget their experience of war, and move on.
When I worked at the City of Vancouver archives, I got researchers looking into all kinds of things. Military units and people prominent in the armed forces. Evidence of women’s political groups or agencies or information about those working for suffrage, women’s rights, and equal pay.
And though there were a few documents scattered throughout the collection documenting the issues or the people working for political and social justice, there were plenty of documents about the military and their people.
I encouraged those who wanted to unearth records about progressive history to look at what we had and try to read between the lines as to what wasn’t there or what was on the other side of the mirror. But that kind of research is harder and takes longer to do.
And often, these researchers were so discouraged by the lack of information about progressive movements that they resorted to the easy-pickings; the men, military, and marine records that have traditionally been abundant in archives. And the result?
The war records get used and studied and written about again and again.
And the documents kept coming in. Old women came to the archives from time to time, proudly carrying their brothers’ or father’s, or uncle’s, or husband’s personal records or war mementos, and offering them to our collection.
Yet they seldom brought in anything that would memorialize their own life’s work or passions. And when I’d ask them, they’d became self-deprecating, shake their heads and deny that they had ever done anything of lasting value.
Generally it takes a certain kind person or a certain kind of organization that, dare I say, has enough of an ego to think their actions and the documents that record them have historical value and relevance. And then think about bringing them into an archive to be preserved and made available to future historians.
Altogether, this makes it easy to see why many archival records are of a conservative nature. They’re more accessible, follow a familiar and logical organizational scheme, and pertain to institutions, organizations, and people who have access to funds and political power.
And that makes them easier to access and get funding to research and commemorate as well.
When looking at historical books note the images and see if there’s a reference number and repository number; sometimes there’s a list of sources of graphical material at the end or the beginning of a book.
The devastating losses at the national museum in Rio De Janeiro in early September reminded me of the sad state of the Bradford archives I visited in the spring, and the high cost of cultural preservation.
In Rio de Janeiro, hundreds of residents stood outside the shell of their national museum, crying and speaking of intense sadness at the loss which has been blamed on funding cuts in recent years that left the institution with few functioning fire extinguishers and smoke detectors.
The science and practice of conserving museum artifacts and archival records requires knowledgeable staff and expensive storage materials and facilities, an expense not well understood or obvious to the public, and so, easily cut from a budget line.
Documents and artifacts deteriorate at a surprising rate when temperature and humidity are not carefully managed, and in most archives, costly devices are installed to control these conditions and are checked and analyzed frequently.
Conservators working in museums and archives, use their extensive scientific training to tease out solutions to problems of deterioration of photos, paper documents, and other items to make repairs and halt the process of deterioration as much as possible.
Most archives also store documents in expensive acid-free folders and boxes to slow down deterioration of documents from acidity emanating from the paper itself and coming from the surrounding environment.
Some archival collections also hold images that exist only in the form of a glass negative, thick and heavy. And, of course, fragile; requiring costly and specialized storage and handling conditions all their own.
I don’t know enough about the science to go into the details but I have seen the results and you have too, no doubt, in your own collection of old photos where the colour has washed out from age, or have gotten moldy and stuck together from being kept in a humid place. Or on documents where the ink has faded altogether, making them virtually useless.
When I had a business documenting the historical use of sites to identify possible contaminants in the soil or environmentally harmful activities, I always made sure to take a look at the aerial photos in the UBC Department of Geography Information Centre.
These are a valuable additional resource to use in collaboration with Fire Insurance Maps, Directories, and other historical documents to get as complete a picture as possible of a site in a specific moment in the past. (I’ll be doing a post on Fire Insurance maps later this year – one of my favourite resources!!)
Although GIS and mapping have been able to consolidate an impressive amount of recent and current data into digital maps and documents , tracking down historical information about a specific site at a specific moment in time is not as straight-forward or accessible.
Aerials show a lot of things that aren’t necessarily obvious from other resources – or would take some expensive mapping or time to compare information from a range of historical documents.
But by looking at an aerial photo you can make out things like the topography, vegetation, building footprints, roads, and urban geography of a given place at about a one-decade interval. Useful, interesting, and fun 🙂
As I’ve been working on writing a wedding-day scene for my historical novel set in Vancouver 1885-1913 I realize I need help to get her underwear and clothes right so I can be as authentic as possible.
I’ve been reading historical novels for years, but have always glossed over these terms in my effort to get on with the story, and only ever had a vague idea about what they were.
Now I understand that part of the reason I never fully understood is because their design, purpose, and construction changed according to the whims of fashion and the social position of women over the couple of hundred years they were worn.
The study of the history of fashion is a complex and detailed discipline and one I don’t claim any proficiency. But in Vancouver, we’re fortunate to have a knowledgeable and passionate costume historian, Ivan Sayers, who not only knows the minutiae of fashion, but also the social history of women as it relates to it.
From details about the multiple layers of underwear and the way a corset was tightened. From the colour and pattern on fabric to the way a woman wore her hair. From the kind of jewelry to the style of shoe – Ivan knows these details as they went through their subtle and profound changes every few years from the 1800s to the present. As well as what was available and acceptable here in the early days of Vancouver.
I spent a fascinating couple of hours with him last week and he gave me the low-down on Vancouver fashion of the 1880s – what the women here knew about the latest fashions in Europe, how they tried to replicate it, and what they’d do to fudge it the parts they couldn’t, whether because it wasn’t available or was too expensive – specifically for my servant-girl protagonist.
Shifts, crinolines, bustles, petticoats. Here was my chance to get the low-down without having to pour through books and try to figure out which style was appropriate for the time in.
Ivan is a local historical hero in my books – and we’re lucky to have him. Next week I’ll talk about his work to create a costume museum in Vancouver and his fashion shows featuring original clothing that he commentates, bringing a feminist historical perspective to the issues, trends, and movements as they relate to clothing of the time.
In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Ivan’s projects, check out SMOC, the Society for the Museum of Original Costume which he founded in 1992 to build, preserve, and study historical textiles, fashion, and traditional costumes.
His next fashion show is entitled Beastly Habits on Sept 21 which will coincide with the Beaty museum exhibit Skin and Bones which opens Sept 15 and runs until next summer.
Copyright, strictly speaking means the right to copy. And there are restrictions – predominantly to give credit for and financial compensate to those who created a body of work.
This includes photos whether digitally available or in print format.
Just because you own a physical copy of something (a print, a photo, a book), it does not mean you can re-produce it.
Rather than go into a subject that is complex and fraught with potential liability, and for which I am not qualified I urge you to check with each website or archive from which you have gotten a photo or piece of artwork to find out about copyright restrictions and permissions of things in their collection.
Today I’ll give you a few tips on how to track down historical photos in archives and libraries and some of the challenges of historical photographic research
Keep in mind that the kinds of images you’ll find within any given repository will reflect the mandate of that archive – be it one holding records pertaining to Japanese Canadians or one with a local mandate. See Archival Research – Where to start.
Because many smaller archives were started by passionate local historians, there are many idiosyncratic cataloguing systems and ways in which photos have been organized. Though there is a move toward standardization, it’s always a good idea to check with the reference archivist about the most efficient way to track down what you’re looking for.
For larger archives there has been a move to digitize many images and make them available for research online through a database over the past two decades.
However budgetary constraints, staff time and expertise, and relative priority of the photos will limit how many photos will be available electronically. For example in a municipal archive, records that help the current city staff plan and implement programs will take priority over records that are merely of interest to the public, however worthy.
Digitizing photos will often take second place to things like indexing city council minutes, planning documents, engineering records and other records used by city staff in the course of carrying out their work.
In smaller, local or cultural archives there’s less chance that photos will be digitized. In many cases, photocopies or reproductions may be available to view in binders or files in the reference room. In other cases, you may only get a list of photos and have to fill out a request form to view them.
Continually weigh your time and priorities.
Consider the amount of time it takes to research a database, fill out a request form, wait for the retrieval. This could take up at least 15 minutes of your time only to result in a 2 second look at something to know it won’t help in your research.
Tracking down photos that are described in list format can be even more time-consuming. And disappointing.
Once you request and receive a picture, you may see, immediately, that it is not what you’re looking for. The image might not be exactly how it was described, or there may be several photos that are very similar – for example a series of interior shots of a lumber mill – and not yield as much information as you had hoped. Or the time period might not be right for your research.
On the other hand it could yield just the right image or information you need.
Keep in mind that some historical images only exist in negative format, some of which are glass and therefore fragile, and that panorama images can be huge and unwieldy. All of these things mean there are times when you may have to make a good case for viewing an original image. And even then your request may be refused.
As with paintings, a photograph can give so much information about a place and its people and they are well worth the time and effort of tracking down. But stay focused or set a timer for yourself because it’s easy to unintentionally spend a lot of time on this kind of research.
Like many people, I am fascinated by historical images and find that as I work on my novel, set in Vancouver 1885-1913, I return to archival photos, either online or in person, to review scenes that help me re-imagine and hone the details of my story to bring it further to life.
This picture from a WW I era carnival in Vancouver in 1918 is a great example of the kind of detail I love. I can see the fashion of the time, including hats, hair-styles, nurses’ uniforms, street lights. Even the price for admission to some event at this carnival.
It gets me thinking how tenacious people are, trying to carve out a semblance of normalcy during times of war or disruption. There is an inherent seriousness to this carnival scene with the Red Cross as its focus.
So as I let my imagination go with the idea of setting a scene there with all the carnival’s inherent energy and sensations – the smell of popcorn and feel of it getting stuck between your teeth. Or getting sticky fingers from eating candy-floss. Of watching out for horse manure on the ground. And hearing the sound of children squealing as they come over the top of the Ferris wheel. The music and the hucksters. The coloured lights as darkness falls.
And what was that 10 cent attraction?
A temporary reprieve from the worries of loved ones on the front.
Because there’s a good chance the people in the picture had lost someone close to them, in the Great War, the name given to WW I at the time. Or had a family member on the battle front. Or missing. The Red Cross stand and its link to the war brings all the frivolity back down to earth and speaks to what’s really on everyone’s mind
You can write an entire scene of a novel, or a play, or a movie – maybe even an entire story based on this one picture.
As a writer or artist of any kind, these are the real-life images that you can hold in your mind’s eye as you ponder your scenes and characters, absorbing historical details and events almost intuitively.
As for the nuts and bolts of doing photo research itself, I’ll come back to that next week.
I can’t tell you enough how much I love looking at old paintings and photos of a place, not only for the artistic pleasure they give but, from a historical research perspective, for the detail they convey.
Take this painting of the early Vancouver waterfront by Edward Roper, for example. It shows people working – from what I can tell possibly some Squamish people hauling boats onshore, a couple of Chinese men, and others at the waterfront. It gives me a strong image from that very time, from the perspective of an astute observer.
And even thought the complete image is undoubtedly contrived, there is a lot here to feed my imagination and fuel the creative process for the novel I’m writing set in Vancouver beginning in the 1880s.
Whereas many photos of the times are of people of prominence or group shots of factory workers or picnic groups, there is a lot of historical artwork that shows everyday people doing ordinary, everyday things.
Clothing, attitude, work being carried out, tools, scenery, and more can be conveyed in a single painting that could take a long time to discern through written records or be difficult to set up in a photograph.
Yet, along with historical photos, they are a rich resource for any creative or documentary research you may want to do. They are further different from photos, however, in that an artist can add in details that might not be present or apparent from a photo.
Check your local archival repositories, art galleries, and museums for any local historical paintings they might have in their collection. Even though, in some cases, the artwork itself may not be very good, drawings and paintings will give you a “snapshot” impression of a place that may be just enough for you to imagine your own creative work emanating from it.
In Vancouver in 1903, a company called The Imperial Automatic Voting Machine Company was looking for investors to raise 250 thousand dollars, issuing shares for a dollar each.
The mood in Vancouver was ecstatic that year following the depression of the 1890s, and along with all that money came the a period of scams and reckless speculation.
I wonder what that voting machine was like and how it worked – if it ever even came into being.
Less dramatic, perhaps, but interesting in a different way, the city directory where I found the Imperial voting machine company also showed me that on Hastings Street – what is now downtown Vancouver – a couple of blacksmiths, a couple of Chinese laundries, and a few warehouses. Even a foundry with a few boarding houses interspersed here and there.
A little further away there was a harness-maker, a prospector, a steam-boatman, a cannery manger, and a shingle sawyer.
Not the kind of people who live in the city today!
All this I found in the collection of BC Directories 1860-1955 which are available online through the Vancouver Public Library.
And here is a link to a collection of directories covering Alberta, Manitoba, and Northwest Territories Directories going back to 1878.
It was a thrilling discovery for me to find an article a couple of days ago, about a real man who had the same thing happen to him as my novel’s character Ron – namely being pressed (forced) into the service of the navy.
I was researching the town of Androssan, in southwest Scotland where Ron came from to deepen my understanding of his early years, when I came across a news-article from 1899 about the town’s harbour.
The article was in a section of a local historical society website called, “This day in Androssan” that posts historical news-stories from Androssan for every day of the year.
And right below the article about the harbour was a short biographical piece from 1899 about the death of the city’s oldest resident, William Robertson who lived to be 97 years old.
But the part that really grabbed me was that at the age of 16, Mr Robertson was taken by a press-gang.
A press-gang was a gang of naval men who would hang around pubs in harbour towns in the 18th and 19th centuries, plying unsuspecting victims with liquor and shillings.
When the press-gangs had their victims good and drunk, they’d strong-arm them onto a ship waiting for the tide to change to work for the crown.
They Royal navy resorted to this method of recruitment because few went into the navy by choice. There weren’t many who were interested in a life-time of service onboard a naval ship, becoming involved in battles far from home, and earning low wages that life in the royal navy promised. Who would?
Many of those pressed into service never saw their homes and families again, though abandonment was common despite the penalty of execution or torture if the fugitive was caught.
Although press-gangs had largely been eliminated or outlawed by the time of my story’s setting, it was still in occasional use and I will plead artistic license to stretch the date so that I can work it into my story.
And seeing William Robertson’s obituary gave me evidence that this indeed happened in that region where my character lived, and at about that time.
But more than anything, it opened up a well of emotional feeling that will help me imagine Ron’s experience, an almost transcendent connection to a real-life person.
Maybe that’s why I enjoy finding out about my own local history so much. It gives me a direct link to people who really lived here where I do. To people who walked the same streets, went to the same parks, withstood the same weather, and marveled at the same beauty as I do, whether they were figures of notoriety, or rows of nameless children out of an 1892 Strathcona School class picture.
I threw out the first four chapters of the novel I’ve been working on for the past year because I realized I needed to start the story later, when the protagonist Annie and her younger sister Mavis arrive in Granville (later Vancouver).
Some of it may still appear in bits and pieces as flashback in the completed manuscript, or maybe it’ll just silently inform my own writing as the story progresses.
Here’s an excerpt from the novel in progress so you can get an idea about it. It’s from a short scene that I turfed.
The setting is in a wool mill in Bradford, 1883.
Annie looked out the window to see the crows flying past, their voices cutting a sharp note through the din of the machinery. Any songbirds that might have added a sweeter tone had long since abandoned Bradford after they’d started falling to the ground dead from the surpherous filth that spewed out of hundreds of factories all day long.
From down the row, the foreman’s gravelly voice broke her reverie and triumphed over the clanging and whirring of spindles and steam engines.
“Here! Morag! What be the meaning o’ this?” he said, and shoved a piece of cloth under the girl’s nose.
He stank of sweat and stale beer and they could all smell him long before he was could sneak up and give them a hard time. He was especially cruel to the new girls and enjoyed seeing them wither under the lash of his tongue and, when he deemed it necessary, the four-tailed whip called the cat.
But Bert seemed happiest keeping them all in a state of apprehension. Until he wanted them for his own pleasure. And he always did. It was just a matter of time.
“We canna be selling this crap,” he said. “Maybe you think if it’s not good enough I’ll let you keep it for yourself and you can be a fancy lady?” he sneered.
“Fix it right smartly or you’ll be shown the door. This is the third time this week you’ve been told and I will na say it again”.
Morag whimpered like a dog who’d been kicked, and hunched over her work as if it would protect her from the ugliness of it all. She was a thin girl, no more than 14, like Mavis, with dirty hair and filthy clothes. And she smelled of old pee and smoke just like the rest of them.
Morag was a new girl, still mourning her mother’s recent death. Out of the corner of her eye Annie could see her wiping her eyes from time to time throughout the day and she knew she’d been crying. She hadn’t yet built up a tough skin to withstand the likes of Bert. And he knew it. Like most of the girls there, Morag had come from a farm not far away, and her father had been a good one, only beating her when she needed to learn a lesson.
Bert smiled to himself. Yes – he liked them like this. Easily rattled. He would be back.
Annie heard Bert’s footsteps coming her way and willed him to keep moving. But he stopped right behind her, watching as she worked her machines. She stiffened and bent to her work feeling him watching her. She shivered inwardly, remembering the way his hands ran over her like water, his lips covering her mouth so that she could hardly breathe.
She said a silent prayer and willed him to move on and pick on one of the other girls – anyone but Mavis.
An archives is, often and strictly speaking the records created in the course of the daily work of a business, society, church, club, or government agency or department.
These records include documents such as letters (correspondence), minutes of meetings, work-flow documents, registrations forms, records of employment. cemetery registries – all that kind of stuff.
They are the tracking, book-keeping, and monitoring documents created by, for example finance department could know who to send the property tax assessment to. Or so that plots in different parts of the cemetery were assigned to the next person to be buried there. Or so that the health inspector knew who the owner was if a customer complained about the cleanliness of a restaurant. The department or organization that created these records probably had no thought to researchers of the far future who might use them as a means of tracking down relatives, figuring out the comparative value of land over time, or compiling stats on tuberculosis deaths in a given year.
They collected information and instructed their staff to manage it based on what that administrative department found most useful or pertinent at the time and for the purpose the records were intended.
They would have been compiled in a way that made sense at the time based on their needs and uses, something that may be unclear or even illogical to a present-day historical researcher.
Documents could have been organized according to address, legal address, or name of an applicant. They could be in chronological order based on the date someone applied for a building permit. Or they might be arranged in some combination of these.
A couple of books have recently come out on two dynamic women in Vancouver’s history, Emily Patterson by Lisa Anne Smith and Julia Henshaw by Michael Kluckner.
I thought I’d shed a light on Emily Patterson because she, or a character based on her, will have a part in the novel I’m writing which is set in early Vancouver.
Emily Patterson was a nurse and midwife here from the early 1870s at a time there were incredibly few other white women. She earned a reputation for being fearless, kind, and dedicated to helping settler families and others on both sides of Burrard Inlet. She is most vividly remembered for an episode one night when she traversed Burrard Inlet in a small boat to help someone in Point Atkinson That act was later immortalized in a poem in which she earned the sobriquet, The Heroine of Moodyville (the settler name for what later became North Vancouver).
I’m not sure if I will portray Emily as herself in my story or if I will conjure up a character at least partially based on her. I would love to put her in as herself, but since there will be some issues in the story – possibly an abortion and likely some discussion about birth control – that might be contentious, I don’t want to put her in a position where she will take a stand or give advice or assistance unless I can find out for sure that she would have supported these things. A big challenge.
But I can use her life and experiences to give me a sense of how midwives worked here in the late 19th century, along with general early midwifery, abortion, and birth control history, and conjure up a character loosely based on Emily.
In any case, if you’re interested in Emily Patterson and the experience of an early white woman in this part of the world I recommend the book, Emily Patterson : the heroic life of a milltown nurse by Lisa Anne Smith.
The author will be speaking at the Vancouver Historical Society meeting this Thursday (May 24), 7:30 pm at the Vancouver museum – FREE.
Ok – so you’re doing historical research on an issue, person, building, or place and realize you need more specific or unique information than you’ve been able to find in books and on the internet.
It’s probably time to find out if there’s something in an archival collection that would help.
But what the heck is an archive?
The Oxford English dictionary defines an archive(s) as:
1) A noun
“A collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people”
2) A verb “To place or store in an archive”
Archives used to have a very specific meaning – though still obscure and unfamiliar to most people – and referred to a physical place where original one-of-a-kind physical documents were kept.
But in the past 20 years or so, the term has become muddied because old or obsolete electronic documents are now frequently found within an archives section of webpages, databases, and other digital sites and can refer to past issues of newsletters and magazines, old or historical emails, databases, websites, and other digital material.
This post, however, is about original kind of archive – the physical place where original (mostly paper) documents are kept.
Of course the definition of an archive doesn’t necessarily make it easier to understand so I’m going to make a few comparisons with libraries that I think will help make it more clear.
A library is something that most of us are familiar with and have been going to since we were kids – a place to get information about something we’re curious about or need to research. But that’s about where the similarity with archives ends.
A library contains mostly books that have been published which means that there are probably thousands of copies of most books available throughout the world.
You can go to a local library and find the kind of books you want by looking up the author, title, subject, keyword in the online catalogue, or by browsing the shelves within the non-fiction part of the library where other books on a related subject are shelved using some kind of classification scheme.
You can usually go right over to the shelves and help yourself to the books you’re interested in. You can take as many as you can carry to a table to look at at one time. And you can take most if not all of them home to borrow for a few weeks.
And there isn’t generally a problem with keeping your purse or bag or backpack with you in the library or with using a pen to take notes.
But mostly, you cannot do any of these things in archives.
So now that you have an idea about what an archives isn’t, I’ll delve into more into that in the weeks to come.
No matter how much you read or watch, there’s nothing like travel to get a deeper feel for a place whether you’re doing historical research or not.
There are things you just don’t think of asking or looking for while researching a place from afar. And things that other sources might not mention because they seem too mundane or obvious.
But by being in a place, you absorb so much, whether consciously or not, that adds depth to understanding your story’s or your ancestors’ settings.
I spent a few days in Bradford in West Yorkshire this week, a place that’s currently going through some tough economic times.
I felt a sadness there – a feeling that was much more palpible than all the research I’ve been doing about the place over the past year.
Is this a vestige of its history? Did the working poor of the 19th century have the same apparent feeling of defeat as I perceived in Bradford this week?
A few people made a lot of money in the textile industry of Bradford in the 19th century.
But the vast majority of its 200,000 inhabitants, including thousands of children – and my protagonist Annie – worked 12-hour days in appalling conditions, earning barely enough to keep body and soul together.
And they lived in dark, dingy, and overcrowded housing surrounded by 200-foot high smokestacks spewing sulphurous smoke from factories throughout the city.
A classic Dickensian scene of the industrial revolution.
Adding to the misery, then and now, Bradford is a very windy place. Relentlessly so. And last week it was really cold too despite the spring season.
It wore me down the way I imagine it wore Annie down as she walked, hunched over in the pre-dawn light on her way to the factory where she worked.
But there were times when the simple pleasure of hearing songbirds chirping made me smile as I walked down the street, or looked out onto the famous moors of the Bronte sisters, and I imagined it bringing some happiness to Annie too.
Along with the more linear research I’ve done so far, I am holding fast to these feelings and impressions of Bradford, adding fuel to the fire of my imagination as I conjure up Annie’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.
And also to work them into her memories as she traveled miles from the only home and life she ever knew before arriving in the village of Granville (later Vancouver), in 1885, a tiny settlement with a lumber mill, surrounded by towering evergreens, and a dearth of white women.
I’m going to visit the city of Bradford next week – now the curry capital of the UK, so I’ll definitely be trying out curry and banghan bharta.
But the main reason I’m going, is because the protagonist of the novel I’m working on comes from there. Her name is Annie and she was one of thousands of girls and young women who moved to Bradford to get work in a woolen mill. Here is a picture of what I imagine her to look like.
Originally Bradford was a small market town, with a population of about 7000 people. Up until about 1800, women came from the surrounding villages to sell their spun wool and cloth. But as technology developed, the home-spun work these women did couldn’t compete with the hundreds of yards of fabric that could be produced every day in the mills of Bradford.
It ended the century’s-old spinning and weaving tradition in the countryside. As a result, thousands of girls and women migrated to Bradford from the surrounding towns to get work in the factories, swelling the population to nearly 200,000 by 1850.
By then the city had earned a reputation for being the wool capital of the world, but at a cost. There were frequent outbreaks of typhus and cholera and mill workers in the city had a life expectancy 20 years.
More than 200 chimneys spewed out sulphurous smoke, polluted the waterways with dyes and other chemicals and had the dubious distinction of being the most polluted city in England.
Annie and her sister Mavis are only 10 when they get pawned off by their orphanage, and sent to work 12-14 hours a day in one of the textile factories in Bradford
It’s been many months now since the City of Vancouver Archives has completed its project to digitize more than 5000 photos taken by early Vancouver photographer, Don Coltman that I first wrote about in a post last February.
The Coltman collection offers a rich selection of Vancouver and Lower Mainland scenes from post-WW II and includes such subjects as:
B.C. industries and small businesses such as canneries, ports, sawmills, fishing, pulp and paper making and manufacturing
Community activities, fashion, businesses, events, sports activities, factories and production
Vancouver parks, bridges, beaches, streets, buildings, schools, shipyard and dock
Portraiture including weddings, families and local employees.
All photos are in the public domain and have been uploaded to the Archives online database with accompanying descriptions.