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By Ryan Taylor

Many libraries have made their catalogs available online. This means we can access them at home and find out what's in their collections.

Now archives are joining in. It is difficult for archives, because there are many thousands of individual documents which need to be treated separately. People hardly know where to begin looking for things -- for example, Victoria Campion's 1860s diary from Hastings County, Ontario can be found at the Glenbow Museum Archives in Calgary.

The solution has been for archives to band together, pool their catalogs and make them available in a network setting. Each province has a union list for archives in its area, but there are also regional union lists that are even more useful.

The Canadian North West Archival Network combines catalogs from Yukon, British Columbia, North West Territories and Alberta archives. At its web site you can search the union list, or each provincial list individually. This list is referred to as CaNWAN. All the union lists have acronyms, which can be confusing but in the end are easier than having to repeat their long names.

Once you reach the search screen, you simply type in what you are looking for. You can search by person's name (most likely for a genealogist), the archives' name, a control number if you know it, the title or the provenance. This last means where the document came from originally. It could be that the researcher wants to find everything that had been in Sir James Dunn's collection, which may be scattered in a number of institutions.

If you are unsure of the spelling, you can truncate using ? in the middle of the word. Thus, Sm?th? will retrieve Smith, Smyth and Smythe.

I tried a very general search using 'caribou pioneers' as my search term. My hits mystified me a little as there were photographs from a Dawson City photographer in the Yukon Archives and more pictures from the University of Alaska, but nothing from British Columbia.

Of course, my mistake was in misspelling the word Cariboo. You must be careful that you are asking the computer the right questions, since it can't think for you.

A new search using 'cariboo pioneers' brought me a single hit, for "a scrapbook which includes transcripts of interviews relating to early mining activities in the Cariboo, obituaries of Cariboo pioneers, and anecdotes of fur traders" located at the Cariboo-Chilcotin Archives. There was not much more information available, but there was a link to the Cariboo-Chilcotin Archives' website as well as the B.C. archives union list.

Since archives have letters, diaries and collections of personal papers, many of which are cataloged in considerable detail, it may be possible to find individual documents which mention someone you are researching.

Once you find something, you can visit the archives to view it, or determine if the material has been microfilmed and might be available on loan. Many archives now participate in interlibrary loan. Don't expect it to be photocopied, however, as archival documents are too fragile for that process.

These union lists open up the huge archival holdings of Canada for researchers around the world. Archivists look forward to forming relationships with new clientele as more people will be aware of their collections and eager to use them. The advantages to family historians are obvious. The ability to search online down to the document level, and then read the full finding aid for an archival collection, also online, is one big advantage of the internet for historians.

Posted October 16, 2004
Column copyright © 2004 Ryan Taylor

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