A day in the life of a Reference Archivist

By Alix McEwen

I’ve always thought that, to be a good reference archivist at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), you need certain qualities. You need to have a solid knowledge of Canadian history and culture. You need to have an understanding of what is in LAC’s holdings, and how the records are collected organized. You must also enjoy working with people. However, it really helps if you are a lover of puzzles and are prepared to do some digging to help solve them.

A recent puzzle that came my way originated with a question from a former colleague about a copy of a particular document presumed to be a pre-Confederation Order-in-Council (OIC). He wanted to know if the federal Cabinet of the time had actually approved the OIC. The date scribbled in the margin of the document is “12 July 1856 OIC pp. 220-221 Vol. 10019.” Almost exactly the same reference information appears at the bottom of the document: LAC RG 10 vol. 10019 pp. 220-221. The subject of the text is the formation of the Indian Land Fund.

The copy of the record of pre-Confederation OICs is found in RG 1 E-8 (RG 1 = Records of the Executive Council of the Province of Canada). However, the LAC reference given is to a Department of Indian Affairs document (RG 10). A brief moment spent in our Archives Search database showed that the RG 10

volume 10019 corresponds to Matheson’s Blue Books, which did not provide evidence that this was an exact copy of an OIC.

Back to the first steps: I searched the indexes and registers of RG 1 E-7 volumes 72-93. These sources are available to help a researcher locate pre-Confederation OICs. The problem is they are handwritten and the writing is not easy to decipher. I looked for the following entries: Indian Land Fund, then Fund on its own, then Land on its own—but no luck.

On to the next steps: Google Books (yes, we do use Google!). A search there provided some confirmation that there was an OIC relating to Indian Affairs signed on the date in question. More importantly, it led me to an unpublished Indian Affairs research paper “The Indian Land Management Fund,” by David Shanahan. My colleagues in the LAC Aboriginal Archives section were able to provide me with a copy of this paper.

This was a turning point. In the introduction to this paper, Mr. Shanahan notes, “There is no satisfactory evidence that the fund was established by Order-in-Council as has been previously believed.” He then devotes a whole chapter to the origins of the Management Fund. Most important to me was the fact that there was indeed an OIC dated July 12, 1856; however, what it did was to set up the Pennefather Commission, tasked with discovering the “best mode of managing the Indian property.”

So, why could I not locate this OIC? This time I returned to the microfilm of the OICs themselves, not to the indexes and registers. As is the case with many of our unrestricted microfilm reels, access is much easier, now that they are digitized and available via Heritage. I found the section that covered the date in question, and was then able to turn from page to page before finally finding what I wanted. RG1 E 8 vol. 60 p. 443 12th July 1856 (reel H-1795)—that was my final reference. The OIC, indeed, did not set up the Indian Land Management Fund.

A microfilmed page with handwritten text from RG1 E 8 volume 60, page 443.

Order-in-Council dated 12th July 1856, RG1 E 8 volume 60 page 443 (microfilm reel H-1795)

I was still puzzled as to why I could not locate a reference to this OIC in the indexes and registers. Back I went, this time resolved to go slowly and start under the letter “I” for anything related to Indian. Before too long, I found my reward. The OIC was referenced in the index under “Indians, Civilization of”—an uncomfortable reminder that to search historical records you need to be aware of the terminology and attitudes of the time.

Do you have a puzzle that could use the attention of a problem-solving archivist or librarian? Submit your question in writing to us today.


Alix McEwen is a Reference Archivist in the Reference Services Division.

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