Archives, British Columbia history, Canada history, Chinese Canadian history, Historical documents, Historical photos, Historical research, Library, Photos, Vancouver history, Writers

Photo research

Red Cross booth 1918
Red Cross booth at a war-time carnival in Vancouver. Image by James Crookall, circa 1918. Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives (photo 260-1048)

 

Last week I wrote about the use and value of using historical photos for research.

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.

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A picture – the proverbial 1000 words

Red Cross booth 1918
Red Cross booth at a war-time carnival in Vancouver. Image by James Crookall, circa 1918. Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives (photo 260-1048)

 

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.

 

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The Imperial Automatic Voting Machine Company

space contraption
Artist: Chanut is Industries License: CC Attribution 3.0 Unported

 

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.

And another link to locating historical directories across other Canadian jurisdictions. The years vary. Links to Canadian historical directories

Directories exist in almost every other jurisdiction in the English-speaking world and possibly elsewhere in some format, but that is beyond my ken.

If the above links aren’t helpful for your research, do a google search using the term, “historical directory” and the name of jurisdiction.

 

 

 

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Archival records weren’t created for future researchers

archive image
some archival documents are hand-written in an old style which adds to the challenge of reading them

 

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.

More next Saturday.

 

 

 

 

Administrative records, Archives, British Columbia history, Canada history, Historical documents, Historical research, Record keeping, Research, Vancouver history

Archival research – where to start?

directions

 

If you realize you’re at a point in your research that you need to use an archive the first thing you need to do is figure out which, if any archive, will hold the records you need.

Because archival collections are, strictly speaking, collections of one-of-a-kind, original documents (artefacts), it follows that they’ll only be found in one place (with a few exceptions of copied artefacts).

This post is the first one to help you figure out which archive to go to for your research,  starting with an overview of areas of responsibility between municipal, provincial, and federal jurisdictions in Canada. And since I’m most familiar with the archives in my home-town of Vancouver and my province of British Columbia (BC), I’ll be using many examples from these repositories.

I’ll try to make this as simple as I can 🙂

startledcat
Hang on – this stuff gets dense!

 

The majority of archives fall under the jurisdiction of some level of government – whether municipal, provincial, federal in Canada – or some other division of power in the country whose records you are seeking.

You’ll need to know which level of government is responsible for what in order to know which archive will hold the records you want to look at. 

For example, you’ll find the administrative documents that were used to run the various departments of the Vancouver’s city government from the date of incorporation (April 6, 1886) at the city of Vancouver archives. 

These will include records created by the city’s departments, committees, and councils including police, fire, planning, engineering, parks, city manager, etc.

At provincial-level archives you will find administrative documents that were used to run all the various councils, committees, and departments of the provincial government from the date of formation of that province.

In British Columbia the provincial archives is now officially called the British Columbia Archives and Records Service (BCCARS) .  

The records at BCCARS includes those created by departments that have carried out responsibilities that fall under BC provincial jurisdiction, as determined, with some exceptions, by federal law.

In a nutshell, here are the areas of responsibility of provincial governments in Canada. Bear in mind that division of responsibility have changed over time so you may need to do some preliminary research to ensure you are looking in the right archive for the time-period you are researching.

But here they are, currently;  with some exceptions depending on the jurisdiction (particularly Quebec)

  • internal constitution
  • taxation for provincial purposes
  • municipalities (in BC, Vancouver is its own legislative entity called the Vancouver Charter). Other municipalities in the province have their powers and responsibilities but these are legislated under the BC Municipal Act.
  • school boards
  • Hospitals
  • property and civil rights (their largest area of responsibility)
  • administration of civil and criminal justice
  • penalties for infraction of provincial statutes
  • Prisons
  • celebration of marriage, provincial civil service (aka vital stats)
  • local works and corporations with provincial objectives

For federal government records, on the other hand, you will need to consult with the National  Archives of Canada (officially called Library and Archives Canada) to find records that fall under Federal jurisdiction.

Here are the general areas that the Canadian federal government is currently responsible for:

  •  trade and commerce
  • direct and indirect taxation
  • currency
  • the postal service
  • census taking and statistics
  • national defence
  • the federal civil service
  • navigation
  • fisheries
  • banking
  • copyright
  • Aboriginals and Indian reserves
  • naturalization
  • marriage and divorce
  • criminal law
  • penitentiaries
  • interprovincial works and undertakings.

 

If you (brave researcher) want to delve further into this, here is the link to an article from the Canadian Encyclopedia about the division of power between the Canadian federal government and the provinces.

For countries other than Canada – comparable divisions apply but you will have to determine that from your own governmental websites.

Enough for now?