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.
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.
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.
Have you ever wondered how Christabel Pankhurst sounded when rousing women to fight for the right to vote? Or Aga Khan III speaking to Muslim people? Or the Queen mom as a young woman exhorting the women of England to be brave during war? How about Robert Baden Powell, speaking to young boyscouts in the early 20th century?
We can easily find material to read about these people and what they stood for. But it is rare to actually hear their voices and hear their passion and personality come through in speech.
The British Library Sound archive holds recordings of various public figures including these and many more, most of them recorded before the advent of long-playing records and tapes.
They are recordings of speeches and messages addressed to the British parliament or the public at various events.
The library warns users to be aware that the recordings are historical documents and that language, tone and content could be offensive to present-day listeners
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.