How to find photographs that are not yet available online – part one

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has more than 25 million photographs, one of the largest archival photographic collections in the world. To make these collections more accessible, LAC has undertaken an ongoing project to digitize them, including photographic material. Currently, some images are already digitized and described at the item-level in our Archives Search database.

Given the cost and complexity of describing and digitizing fragile archival images, photographs are described and digitized only when they are requested by users. So, if you are looking for that unique, one-of-a-kind archival photo that no one else has requested (e.g., UFO, Big Foot or Ogopogo), you better start digging!

Begin by checking what has already been described. Follow the steps outlined in our past article: “How to find photographs online” to get a sense of the type of photographs that already exist on your topic, individual, or location.

If those searches do not yield what you’re looking for, it’s time to dig deeper. This is where archival research meets detective work! Remember, from now on we’re talking about photographs that have not been digitized, so you will not be able to view the image before ordering it or visiting LAC.

Keyword Search

In Archives Search, after selecting “Photographic Material” under “TYPE OF MATERIAL” you can enter key words in the search box. Get creative with the key words; archival documents are often titled using the creator’s own language. Narrow your search by using the “ADVANCED SEARCH” features.

You may end up with image search results that aren’t exactly what you’re looking for. Don’t panic. This list is just the beginning of your journey into deeper archival research. It’s fun, trust us!


Have you found archival records, including photographs and textual records, all jumbled together? These groupings are called fonds or accessions or sometimes collections. This is a high-level description of an entire grouping of material, usually based on the source of the original donation.

Check out the extent field and see how many photographs are listed there. Read the descriptions carefully and see if the material described relates to the photographs you’re looking for.

They do? Great!

Now, read the description again and see if there is a finding aid.

There is? Good!

Now see if it’s electronic and attached to the description in Archives Search.

It is? Fantastic!

Open it up and see if it provides a listing of the contents of the fonds, collection, or accession.

It does? Wonderful!

Locate the box that you think contains the image you’re looking for, based on the contents of the finding aid, and order the box by following the steps outlined in our article “How to consult material that is not yet available online.”

But what happens if things don’t go this smoothly? Our next article on this topic will provide more tips from our experts on what to do. Stay tuned!

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!

12 thoughts on “How to find photographs that are not yet available online – part one

  1. Hi,
    Thanks for your very interesting site and for information on “tracking down” archival materials and photos. I do feel a bit overwhelmed by it and am not really sure where to start with my search.You may be able to help though. I have been trying for several years now to locate an image (photo) of the current CP rail bridge DURING ITS CONSTRUCTION over the Fraser River at Cisco which is about 10km south of Lytton. This current bridge, in use today, consists of 3 “Through” truss bridges that were built around the very early 1900’s (maybe 1909). The original bridge, built around the 1880’s was a “double” cantilever truss bridge that was dismantled and re erected on Vancouver Island to serve the railroad there.

    I have contacted CP headquarters but they have only been able to supply a photo of the original cantilever bridge. I feel that someone somewhere will have a photo of the current bridge during construction and so I have turned to you folks hoping that you may have a photo or perhaps be able to point me in the right direction to another avenue that may prove fruitful.

    Maybe the name of the building construction company of the bridge could be the lead I need.

    Any information that you can provide would be most appreciated.

    Rod Salter
    Melbourne Australia.

  2. Just going on a thirty-five year old memory: it’s possible that there are photographs of the bridge in question in the Dominion Bridge fonds — in one of the mid-1970s accessions of photographs. There is a typescript finding aid to the glass negatives found in these accessions which might lead more quickly to the photograph being sought. If not there, it’s possible that a photo might be amongst the prints, some of which are loose, and some of which are in albums.

    • Hi Andrew,

      Well it has been awhile now since my last effort to find a photo of the CP Rail Bridge as it is today being constructed at the Cisco site across the Fraser River. In fact, the last time I thought about this I more or less came to the conclusion that such a photo could found is very much like the “needle in a hay stack” catagory. Well it still may be the case but at least this latest initiative of the Archives may yield what I have been looking for for so long.

      Seems like a visit in person to the archives office would be the best way to go but, being so far away from Australia, I could not make it any time soon!

      I will check out the web site to see what else I may be able to discover.

      Thanks again for keeping me in mind,


  3. I have a photo of a family taken in front of their teepee, near Strome, Alberta around 1930. I have always hoped of finding the family of this photo, and giving it to them. Is there a place to post this photo so that albertans could view it?

  4. Hello,
    I just received a file of my grandfather who fought in Vimy Ridge. His name was Norman Wilfred Kilborn. He joined in 1914 and was honorably discharged in 1917 I believe having lost a leg in battle. Would it be possible to find a photo of him or his regiment on file? His Regiment Number was 907209 with the195 Overseas Batallion. Perhaps you could direct me where I could possibly find this?

    Lorraine Barton

  5. Dear sir/ Madame
    I’m looking for WW1 battalion or company pictures of the 133rd Battalion Norfolks own from Simcoe Ontario!

    A person had retrieved one from your files on A company of the 133rd! Where do I look for ! Or can you send me a link!

    Thanking you in advance
    Robert McCareyUE

  6. Good Day.

    I am interested in obtaining a service photo of my great uncle Hugh MacDonald. He was killed in action in Italy on December 13, 1944. He appears to have be buried in Bologna, at the common wealth cemetery. Service number is G28004.

    Is there anyway of having access to his enlistment photo?

    Thank you for your time.

    Brenda Bailey

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