Top 5 topics addressed by our Reference Archivists

By Rebecca Murray

Reference archivists receive a lot of questions. In 2018 alone, our reference archivists responded to over 1,200 written reference requests about archival records held at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). Here are the top five subjects that we address on a regular basis.

A black-and-white photograph of a partially derailed train in a train yard. Snow covers the ground and a city can be seen in the background.

Train cars off the tracks at Strachan Avenue, Toronto, December 19, 1916. Photograph by John Boyd. a070106

1. Transport accident reports

Our country’s vast expanses require frequent transportation from A to Z and points in between. Occasionally, civil or military aircraft, trains and ships are involved in accidents that range from minor occurrences to major wrecks that make the national news. LAC holds the archival fonds of the federal departments, agencies and boards that are tasked with investigating and reporting on transportation accidents.

Check out previous blog posts: Railway Accident Records at LAC, Tips for Aviation Accident Research part 1 and part 2.

If you’re interested in a marine accidents, use Collection Search and various combinations of keywords to narrow down potentially relevant records within the Department of Transport fonds (RG12). Type in RG12, the name of the boat, the location of the accident, and then filter your results by date.

You can also find published material on accidents. For aircraft accidents, check out Published Sources for Aviation Accident Reports. To find other published reports about transportation accidents, enter relevant keywords in Collection Search and select “library” from the dropdown menu.

A panoramic photograph showing the soldiers of the 91st Overseas Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, standing and sitting in three rows. The soldiers are dressed in uniform, some are holding drums and other musical instruments.

91st Overseas Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, April 7, 1916. e010932335

2. Military operations and units

Many researchers ask for information regarding specific military operations or units. It is helpful to have a date range to narrow the scope of the request. Start with a keyword search in Collection Search for records within the Department of National Defence fonds (RG24/R112) and choose “archives” from the dropdown menu to narrow your search.

For example, if you are interested in Operation Overlord, the codename for the Second World War Battle of Normandy (1944), you could try “RG24 operation overlord” and then filter results to archival material from the 1940s. Use the same steps if you’re interested in a specific military unit. Perform a keyword search for the unit’s name or number along with archival reference number “RG24.”

A black-and-white image of an official Province of Canada document describing the exact location and size of a land grant.

Land patent confirming title to land, granted to David Patterson in Haldimand County, June 8, 1856. (RG68 volume 231, file EO, page 172)

3. Land sales and holdings

This is a very popular topic—especially interesting as our country’s land use has changed and evolved over time. Record keeping and shifting government responsibilities have made this type of research a challenge. There are several blog posts to guide researchers through the preliminary phases of their research:

LAC also maintains numerous databases related to land holdings including:

Most researchers inquire about land they currently own or that was granted to their ancestors. The following information helps us respond to your request more efficiently:

  • Date of grant (or sale/transfer)
  • Location of land (specific legal description or general)
  • Name of patentee (group, corporation or individual)
A blurry black-and-white photograph of a building taken from the side, showing the main entrance and the front of the building.

St. Eugene Indian Residential School—Kootenay, main building looking south, Cranbrook, B.C., September 11, 1948. (e011080318)

4. Residential or day school attendance

Our reference services receive many requests related to attendance at residential or day schools. Most residential school records are in the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds (RG10/R216).

In Collection Search, type in various combinations of the following terms for a broad search: the name of the school, archival reference number RG10, and keywords such as pupil, student, nominal, attendance, admission or discharge.

Refine your search results using the tabs across the top of the results page or the filters in the left menu. For example, you can limit your results to Archives (unpublished materials) and a specific date range. The goal is to identify and compile a list of complete references for potentially relevant files.

For links to digitized records organized by school, refer to School Files Series—1879–1953.

A black-and-white photograph of a large stone building. In front of the building, there are men walking on the sidewalk. The sign on the building next door reads “The Mercury Newspaper.”

Post Office, Renfrew, Ontario, 1910. a055863

5. Information about historic federal buildings

Are you an architecture buff? Maybe you live or work in a historic building (train station, post office, customs house)? There are many reasons for researching historic buildings.

In Collection Search, start with the building type and location (e.g. Post Office Renfrew). Filter your results as needed—perhaps you are looking for photographs or contract specifications for a mid-century renovation. Filtering by date or type of document (e.g. maps) is often the best first step.

Use clues from the results page to conduct further keyword searches, perhaps using more specific terminology (like street names). Or widen your search using broader geographical terms (like the name of the province or region).

We love getting your questions and will always help you while following our Reference Services Charter. While we cannot do your research for you, Ask Us a Question and we will do our best to help you advance your research on any topic!


Rebecca Murray is an archivist in the Reference Services Division.

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