Christmas in the Archives

By Jennifer Anderson

In December, many of our clients, donors and readers are preparing for Christmas. So many Christmas traditions are linked to anticipation—preparing surprises for loved ones, dreaming up projects for the New Year, offering comfort and warmth to family, friends and strangers.

Simpson’s, the Christmas Tree Store, around 1955 (e011172111)

That feeling of anticipation is not unlike what it is to work as an archivist. In some ways, it feels like Christmas all year round in the archives: opening boxes, making discoveries, and anticipating the interest that the public will find in our collections. The work of a reference archivist is like customer service: it gives us great satisfaction to be able to assist researchers. Archival work also inspires a sense of gratitude to colleagues who work together to make good things happen.

Black-and-white photograph showing children lined up to see Santa Claus, together with three adult women. Everyone is smiling, although some of the children look nervous.

“Secrets to Santa,” 1952 (e011172113)

A case in point: working with the Sears Canada fonds has been the source of much enjoyment for me, and for my colleagues. The collection includes material relating to Sears stores across the country, as well as Sears Canada’s parent companies, all of which are household names in Canada: Simpson’s, Simpsons-Sears and Sears-Roebuck. The fonds consists of textual documents, photographs, scrapbooks, audiovisuals, drawings and architectural blueprints. Included in the acquisition were 200 boxes of published catalogues, which will supplement the already substantial and frequently consulted catalogue collection in Library and Archives Canada’s holdings.

Black-and-white photograph showing shoppers, mostly women, wearing winter coats and hats, studying catalogues at a counter, as well as the store staff behind the counter. There is a sign on the wall reading “Catalogue Shopping Centre,” together with Christmas decorations.

Catalogue Shopping Centre at Christmastime, around 1955 (e011172120)

One very pleasant surprise in the fonds: thousands upon thousands of archival photographs, which are of exceptional quality and interest. Documenting the leisure pursuit of shopping, but also the practical elements of the retail economy and the working lives of store personnel, the photographs are sure to interest the public. And they are fun! These photos also include glimpses of company-sponsored social and cultural extracurricular events like curling, bowling, dance parties and concerts.

Christmas shopping, Regina, Saskatchewan, around 1950 (e011172152)

Thanks to colleagues across Library and Archives Canada, as well as outside this institution, who were involved in the acquisition, organization, description and digitization work, all geared toward making the Sears Canada fonds discoverable.

Black-and-white photograph showing a large group of men, women and children watching an electric train in a store.

Crowd watching an electric train, Regina, around 1950 (e011172147)

Over the coming years, we look forward to seeing this material being used to generate new research findings. Please reach out to us if we can assist you in getting started on your own research.

Black-and-white photograph showing a little boy talking with Santa Claus, while other children and many parents, dressed for winter, are lined up nearby. In the background are two signs that read “Trains” and “Meccano.”

Visiting Santa Claus, around 1955 (e011172112)


Jennifer Anderson was an archivist in the Public Services Branch, and she previously worked in the Science, Environment and Economy section of the Archives Branch, at Library and Archives Canada.

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

Our previous article “How to find photographs that are not yet available online—part one” explained the best-case scenario for finding photographs that are not yet available online. But what happens when things don’t go that smoothly?

What if I find items that are close but not what I want?

If there are items in your search results that aren’t quite what you’re looking for, don’t despair. It’s quite possible that we have what you want, but that it hasn’t been described yet. The items that have already been described offer you a useful clue as to where those non-described items might be.

First, note the fonds, collection, or accession where each item is from and look at the field labelled “extent.” How many other photographs make up that collection? Perhaps there are more images relating to your topic.

Does the item have:

– an item number?
– a particular photographer?
– certain keywords?

Use variations of those keywords, item number and photographer’s name to do other online searches in Archives Search. If those don’t yield any results, try the finding aid related to each item, either online or on paper. See “How to find photographs that are not yet available online—part one” for tips on using the finding aid.

What if the finding aid is not online or the finding aid is only available in paper?

If you find a fonds, collection, or accession that seems relevant to your research but that doesn’t have an electronic finding aid, look to see if it has a paper one. If it does, you can visit us at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa, to have a closer look at it. If there is no reference to a paper finding aid, then you have to search through the boxes from that collection. If you cannot come to Ottawa, you can contact our reference staff for guidance, or you may wish to hire a freelance researcher.

With more than 25 million images, chances are we have your “perfect shot.” You just have to find it!

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

How to Consult Material that Is Not Yet Available Online

For Archival Material – Use Archives Search

When searching for archival material (i.e., diaries, photographs etc.), use Archives Search. You will be able to search database records, known as “archival descriptions”. Sometimes the contents of the record have not yet been digitized. When this is the case, use one of the following methods to consult the material:

For Published Material – Use Library Search/AMICUS

When searching for published material (i.e., books, newspapers, etc.), use either our Library Search or, for more search features, use our AMICUS catalogue. The search results will often be database records (known as “bibliographic records”) and not full-text online documents. There are three ways you may consult the material:

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