By Rebecca Murray
Earlier this year I was working on a request for a researcher that involved spending some quality time with accession RG12M 77803/17 “Railway index,” a set of 30,000 index cards that provide detailed, item-level listings for railway plans and profiles from across Canada, dating from 1866 through 1937. Although I am used to working with accessions of cartographic material and their finding aids on a regular basis, this particular one was a challenge. It provides a great example of how difficult it can be to organize and understand extensive sets of records such as these.
Why might you even venture into this type of research, then? Why not rely on published sources? I am a huge advocate for the use of and reliance on primary sources for research. You can consult the original document and draw your own conclusions, both from the document itself and from its arrangement among the other records. Perhaps the plan you are looking for demonstrates a particular moment in time not usually shown in secondary sources. Or perhaps you’re investigating the evolution of a particular section of railway. No matter the reason, it’s time to get your hands into some white gloves and get into the archives!
The first step is to review the index cards that are available on digitized microfilm. The index cards are arranged alphabetically by both railway company and location.
When you identify plans of interest, please note the plan number. For example, if I were interested in the “Plan & profile showing the approach of the Bridge in the city of Montreal P.Q. as located,” as listed on the index card below, I would note plan number 7457.
When you are working onsite at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa, Ontario, you can consult a set of paper index cards in our Reference Room. Once you have identified the plan numbers for items you wish to consult or copy, you can use an additional set of index cards, found with the other map and plan finding aids and organized by plan number, to identify the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) item number for each. A team member in the Reference Room can assist you with both steps as required.
If you are not on site, you can write to us using our online form and request assistance in completing the references for each item. For example, you could cite RG12M 77803/17, plan 7457, and ask for the item number in order to complete the reference. One of our team members can check the index cards to confirm the item number and then determine the container barcode to facilitate your consultation or reproduction request.
Many of these items are also available on microfiche, which helps with consultation. If you are on site, you can head straight up to the Microform Consultation Room on the 3rd floor and ask for assistance from LAC staff (during service hours) or take advantage of the self-service microfiche drawer labelled RG12M 77803/17. Don’t forget to wear gloves!
Did you know that the Microform Consultation Room has new flatbed scanners that provide high quality self-service copies of microfiche? Bring your USB key so that you can bring copies home with you.
These types of finding aids can be daunting to work with as they require collecting information along the way rather than simply finding all relevant information within one line of text. This represents a good challenge for the seasoned researcher (or archivist!) and a steep learning curve for new researchers. Please do not hesitate to reach out to our team for help with this or other types of requests. We are here to help you navigate LAC’s holdings, and we thrive on learning new things every day!
Rebecca Murray is an archivist in the Reference Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.