Ryan Taylor Don't be intimidated by archives


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By Ryan Taylor

A friend surprised me a few weeks ago. She thanked me for some suggestions regarding research she was doing, then said that she had not thought of the archival resources I mentioned.

She's a longtime researcher with admirable experience and insights. I thought she'd know about the archives I mentioned.

She told me that she thinks that many genealogists, having spent a long time consulting books and now the internet, have not had much experience using original sources. They find archives intimidating.

I remember my own first experience in an archives, at the old Archives of Ontario in Queen's Park Crescent in Toronto during 1966. It was crowded and the archivists made their dislike of teenage researchers quite clear.

But I also remember laboriously sorting through a box of Township Papers and finding an original document when my great-great grandfather William Lunn transferred his property to his brother in law. It remains the only original document of his which I have found, aside from census records. Now, those Township Papers are accessed on microfilm (and are available on interlibrary loan).

The timing of the sale confirms his move from the lush farmland near Kirby to less arable sandy soil in the Ganaraska watershed-an unfortunate change for his sons, who inherited after his early death. His first wife's death and his subsequent remarriage to a sixteen year old Irish girl probably made it expedient to move from his farm surrounded by his first wife's family.

So that single sheet (which the Archives photocopied - it was a different era in lots of ways) made a big difference for me, and set me on a research path that includes many archives in several countries. Aside from their usefulness, the unexpected nature of working with original documents is great fun. You never can tell what will turn up next.

In those far-off Sixties, many archival materials were still in their original churches or town offices. I have been drenched in a sudden shower, then sat on six hundred year old stone seats handling 200-year-old parish registers, trying to write on my knee. Fun to remember, but miserable at the time.

I worked in a township office on assessment records from the 1860s which included a notation that Andrew Hunter's tax responsibilities were transferred to his daughter Sarah in September 1866, indicating he had died. This note in an unlikely place - a tax record - remains the only record of Andrew Hunter's death I have found. The township office, and its stack of old assessment records, burned a few months later.

Now, of course, things have changed. Archives are tidy and organized, and clients who visit making jokes about dusty shelves of documents don't get many laughs from the other side of the desk. Archivists worry more about how the patrons, with their naturally oily hands and clothes covered in pollen and danders, will damage the cleaned, carefully preserved records.

But they still welcome us. There is no need to be afraid, or even hesitate. Start by exploring the websites of the National Library and Archives in Ottawa and a provincial archives of interest. Several provinces include indexes for some of their records, and all provide information about how to use their resources.

Only the most superficial kind of searching can be done online in an archives, however. You must visit and examine the materials yourself, and you should allow plenty of time. One collection leads to another, and it may take a long time to read the fascinating things you find. Every hour will hone your research skills and add to your historical understanding.

My next couple of columns will detail changes at provincial archives across Canada.

Posted January 2, 2004
Column copyright © 2004 Ryan Taylor

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