A Canadian icon: celebrating Sir John A. Macdonald’s bicentennial

It has been 200 years since the birth of Canada’s first prime minister and the interest in his political and personal life has not diminished. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has an extensive and varied collection of records related to Sir John Alexander Macdonald, including a virtual exhibition that includes personal papers, photos, artwork, and publications. Within LAC’s Sir John A. Macdonald collection, there are over 100,000 letters to and from family and close friends, which gives researchers a rare glimpse into his personal life.

Black and white photograph showing Sir John A. Macdonald sitting on a chair, both his legs and his arms are crossed.

Sir John A. Macdonald, 1872, by William Topley (MIKAN 3333452)

As well as revealing a little bit about Sir John A.’s family life, LAC’s collection also contains artwork and objects that use the former prime minister’s image as a political symbol and, at times, a comic caricature. From political cartoons disapproving of the National Policy and Canadian-American relations, to a derisive phrenological chart of Macdonald’s head, the image of Sir John A. has become a part of Canadian iconography.

Lithograph showing Sir John A. Macdonald dressed as a marching British soldier in front of a locked gate. Behind his back, Uncle Sam is reaching for bags of money from some business men straddling the fence.

Electoral campaign sign reading, “We can’t undo the lock, Sir John is on guard. Hand it over the fence?” (MIKAN 2847973)

Beyond the more politically charged cartoons, Sir John A. Macdonald’s image has also been used commercially in beer advertisements, an endorsement for tomato chutney, and he has even been made into an action figure.

Print of a Molson’s ale ad featuring Sir John A. Macdonald seated and looking off to the side. Behind him is a map of the Dominion of Canada and underneath the image the text reads, “Fifty-six years ago when Sir John A. Macdonald was first Premier of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, Molson’s ale was then 81 years old! The ale your great-grandfather drank.”

Molson’s Ale, Sir John A. Macdonald. (MIKAN 3000462)

However, lest our mental image of Sir John A. Macdonald become a caricature, this bicentennial marks an opportunity to reflect on the personal history and life behind the icon. LAC’s Sir John A. Macdonald collection is a monument to the man and the myth, but his legacy extends beyond these images, back to his Scottish origins. In 1968, outside the tiny village of Rogart in the Scottish Highlands, a memorial cairn was dedicated to Sir John A. Macdonald and unveiled by the 13th Prime Minister of Canada, John Diefenbaker. This memorial is built on the site of the home of Sir John’s grandparents and is made of stones from the original family home. Accompanying the cairn is a plaque that states that the monument is but “a footnote to his greatness.” This type of disclaimer is a good one to keep in mind when examining Sir John A. Macdonald’s accomplished and storied life through such a diverse range of records.

To learn more about Sir John A. Macdonald and his legacy:

Building a case for the Proclamation of the Constitution Act 

It was raining on Parliament Hill as Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau signed the Proclamation of the Constitution Act on April 17, 1982. Marks left by the raindrops, as they smudged the ink, can still be seen as physical reminders of the rich history of the Act.

The Proclamation of the Constitution Act is a fundamental document for all Canadians as it symbolizes Canada’s journey from colony to independent country. Like many of history’s most valued documents, it has spent most of its time sealed in a vault for preservation reasons.

As with the display of all collection materials, a balance must be struck. Exhibiting materials involves exposing items to potentially damaging light, while not exhibiting means restricting access to the collection. The loan of the Proclamation of the Constitution Act to the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg presented an exciting challenge to the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Preventative Care and Conservation staff—to make the document accessible to Canadians.

So, what does it take to prepare one of Canada’s most significant documents for display?

Studies conducted in 2012 by the Canadian Conservation Institute concluded that the signature inks on the Act are extremely light sensitive. In an effort to prolong its life, the document is allowed only a limited number of display hours per year. LAC staff designed and created a state-of-the-art encasement and display case to protect the Act from harmful light, vandalism and theft.

First, the Act was housed in a custom case that allows the control of humidity, UV exposure, and oxygen levels which will help to further reduce deterioration of the document. A display case was then designed to help limit the total amount of light exposure during exhibition.

Conservators fitting the interior of the case with an an activated carbon cloth which filters the air, absorbing atmospheric pollutants.

Conservators fitting the interior of the case with an an activated carbon cloth which filters the air, absorbing atmospheric pollutants.

The display case incorporates a special layer of opaque black glass (which protects the document from 97% of visible light) but, at the press of a button, it can quickly become translucent as the document is illuminated. The whole system runs on a timer, controlling the length of time the document is visible and records the total exposure over an entire loan period. This will help LAC to monitor the amount of light exposure the Act receives over the course of its life.

The silver bag inside the case acts as a bellows to regulate the air pressure once the case is sealed, to avoid a change in temperature or barometric pressure.

This project enhances public access to our country’s heritage without compromising the long-term preservation of the Proclamation of the Constitution Act, and ensures that Canadians will be able to see this national treasure, including generations to come.

Visit the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg for this rare opportunity to see the Proclamation of the Constitution Act and other significant documents from LAC’s collections during the museum’s inaugural exhibitions.

Photography of the First World War – Part II: Finding First World War Photos

Following on the first part of this series: The Canadian War Records Office, here are some strategies for locating photographs of the First World War produced by the Canadian War Records Office.


You can browse the lower-level records by selecting the ‟sub-series” or ‟sub-sub-series consists of” hyperlinked entries. For example, trying this within the “O” prefix record yields “4134 lower level description(s)” (Note: records are being continually added so this number may change).

Browsing the “O” prefix Sub-sub-series.

Browsing the “O” prefix Sub-sub-series.

Choosing this strategy makes it possible to view the pictures by browsing through them sequentially. This works well if you’re not quite sure what you are searching for but want to have an idea of the way the pictures are described and the type of photographs that can be found in the collection.


A more robust strategy to locate specific photographs within each series is to use the advanced Archives Search function. You can search using the “O-?” (with the quotes) or the original accession number “1964-114,” and a name or keyword. Using quotes limits the search words to a specific order. Using the question mark (?) allows for an open-ended search. A similar use of the asterisk (*) allows a search that looks for the variants of a word, for example: nurs*: nursing, nurse, nurses.

Searching for nursing-related photographs in the “O” prefix series in Advanced Archives Search.

Searching for nursing-related photographs in the “O” prefix series in Advanced Archives Search.

If you are unsure which series will contain photographs that are of interest to you, try entering the accession number “1964-114” and a specific term, such as “Vimy” (349 results) or “bishop” (21 results).

The following image shows items for nurs*, resulting in nurse and nursing sisters.

Search results for the nurs* search.

Search results for the nurs* search.

Some of the search results may yield records that appear to be duplicates. This is because archivists often create bilingual records to make it easier for all Canadians to find items in the language of their choice. In the case of panoramas, duplication may come from multiple negatives for one finished photographic print, with each part of the negative having its own record.

Explore the Canadian War Records Office images, and discover the “official” photographic record of Canada’s involvement in the First World War.

Other related materials:

A Sticky Situation: The Perils of Sticky Notes

The convenience of the sticky note cannot be beat… the variety of sizes and colours allows us to organize and place our notes and thoughts exactly where we want them. They are used in offices, homes, schools—I only wish I held the patent!

There are strong arguments, however, against their use in libraries and archives. Between 1988 and 1989, when conservation scientists at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration first tested sticky notes, they found that an adhesive residue remains on the surface of the paper that comes into contact with the note (even if the note is placed and removed immediately), that the adhesive can remove electrostatic images (that is, printing ink), and that the dye in the note can run if exposed to water. A more recent repeat of the testing confirmed these findings, showing that most of the note adhesives will stain over time.

The following images show the results of a highly unscientific test conducted at Library and Archives Canada. Although the results are startling, they are not surprising.

1. This is a good book—I will need to reference this chapter later…

A sticky note showing colour fading from the sun

A sticky note showing colour fading from the sun

2. “Goodness, I’ve heard about what light can do to colours. That really faded in a short time.”

A sticky note is used as a bookmark

A sticky note is used as a bookmark

3. “Uh oh… I was not expecting THAT… this didn’t even get wet.”

Evidence of glue residue on a page after a sticky note is removed

Evidence of glue residue on a page after a sticky note is removed

So, that’s why sticky notes are not approved for use with collection materials, not even for temporary use!

Remember, please keep sticky notes away from collection materials, and continue to contribute to the long-term preservation of Canada’s documentary heritage.