Reference services across borders

By Virtue Tran

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) serves a diverse clientele with diverse information needs. In Reference Services, we see many queries coming in from across the globe. Though service for this international community is essentially the same as for inquirers from Canada, responses should take account of the challenges associated with accessing the collection across borders. This blog provides a glimpse of who our international clients are, a sample of interesting questions we have received, and a look at some of the techniques our reference specialists use to facilitate access by this community.

Our clients

Our clients are from all over the world! In the years 2018 to 2020, requests came from the following countries and regions:

  • Africa: Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire), Djibouti, Morocco, Tunisia
  • Americas: Brazil, Martinique, Trinidad and Tobago, United States
  • Asia: India, Japan, Taiwan
  • Europe: Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Switzerland, United Kingdom
  • Middle East: Israel, United Arab Emirates
  • Oceania: Australia

The above list is only a small sample of the international locations from which we receive requests. Many inquirers are professors and students doing research on either a specific Canadian topic or one with a Canadian component (such as ethnic groups who have immigrated to Canada; government policies and the Canadian cultural scene). Students in information science who have an interest in LAC as an institution or in the state of librarianship and archives in Canada comprise a niche within this clientele.

Then there are archivists, librarians and genealogists. As this is part of their day-to-day jobs, these clients are experts in searching for information. They usually have tools of the trade that allow them to conduct more complex searches. Their questions are geared mainly toward finding information on behalf of their own clients or for internal work. Recent examples include the Direção-Geral do Livro, dos Arquivos e das Bibliotecas [national book, archives and libraries department] of Portugal and the Scottish Natural Heritage Library. Finally, inquiries from members of the public vary widely. They are often driven by curiosity, hobbies or research into family history.

Here are three examples of topics that have piqued the interest of our international clients:

From Martinique: Guadeloupe domestics in 1910–1911

Request for information regarding the Canadian immigration service during that period and biographies of various immigration public servants who worked on the file of Guadeloupe domestic workers. This is found mainly in books discussing the history of immigration legislation and the policies of Canada. At the time, the Department of the Interior was responsible for immigration. Because immigration of Black people was discouraged, as was the case for other ethnic groups, immigration officers would find ways to deport them under the Immigration Act of 1910.

Further sources:

LAC database: Immigrants to Canada, Porters and Domestics, 1899-1949

Calliste, A. (1991). Canada’s immigration policy and domestics from the Caribbean: The second domestic scheme. In S. Brickey and E. Comack (eds.), The social basis of law: Critical readings in the sociology of law (2nd ed., pp. 95–121). Halifax: Garamond Press.  OCLC 24743137   This chapter sources information from various archival documents available at LAC.

Kelley, N., and Michael, J.T. (2010). The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy. 2nd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.  OCLC 531018353 Chapter 4, “Industrialization, Immigration, and the Foundation of the Twentieth-Century Immigration Policy, 1896-1914,” pertains mainly to the discriminatory treatment of Asian immigrants under the section “Selective Admission Restrictions.” The discriminatory treatment of Black immigrants is also discussed, but to a lesser extent.

Macklin, A. (1992). Foreign domestic worker: Surrogate housewife or mail order servant. McGill Law Journal 37(3), 681–760.   ISSN: 0024-9041 — OCLC 768130032

Yarhi, E. (2016). Order-in-Council P.C. 1911-1324: the Proposed Ban on Black Immigration to Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada.

A typed page (Form B of the Immigration Act of 1910, used for deportations).

Form B – Order for deportation (C-10411 reel on Héritage).

From France: “Les Belles Mères” by La Bolduc

Request for information on the song “Les Belles Mères” by this famed folk musician. This song borrowed the “Red River Valley” melody as mentioned in an extensive biography published on our webpage. It is available on Virtual Gramophone along with other digitized songs by La Bolduc while materials such as books, articles and musical scores are searchable through our catalogue Aurora.

A colour picture of the label of the song “Les Belles Mères” with golden lettering on a navy disk.

Label of the song “Les Belles Mères” (published by the Compo Company Limited) (OCLC 1007640213).

From the United Kingdom: Stephen Leacock recordings

Request for a list of audio records of the writings of Stephen Leacock. Specifically, the requester wanted to know the names of those who were speaking in the recordings. LAC holds many audio recordings that can be located through our Aurora catalogue. Information about the readers is found within the bibliographical records, in the section on performers, in the notes or even in the title.

A black-and-white photograph of Christopher Plummer in a suit standing on the left with his arms crossed. A large framed painting of a woman in a dress holding a fan is hung on the right side.

The celebrated actor Christopher Plummer read and adapted Stephen Leacock’s writings. (a182414); for an example, see OCLC 3589995).

Accessing the collection: Options

It is standard practice to redirect clients who are not in the vicinity of Ottawa, Ontario, to institutions closer to their location in order for them to access relevant materials. However, when the materials cannot be located that way, three techniques are often used:

1. The Internet

The list of online resources is long, but here are a few that are heavily used by reference librarians. LAC maintains various resources that can serve as a starting point for research. They are accompanied by an explanatory page that provides a concise summary of the subject and, sometimes, a list of publications for further readings. Other helpful resources are the Government of Canada Publications portal and the Internet Archive’s Canadian Libraries collections, which host a massive amount of official publications, departmental libraries collections, and Canadiana, a staple for pre-1921 Canadian content.

2. Interlibrary loans

LAC does not offer an interlibrary loan (ILL) service. As a result, reference librarians count on local libraries that often provide this service to help connect clients with the publication they need. In the United States, many universities have Canadian holdings, and some public libraries will offer ILL with their Canadian counterparts. While the chances of finding a publication in institutions overseas diminish greatly, not all is lost. Specialized collections exist at universities with Canadian studies programs and within national libraries and museums, to name but a few. The fact that many international organizations are based in Europe should not be discounted. Those organizations often have libraries that collect Canadian content relevant to their work. While they are unlikely to lend out, they are generally open to the public and researchers.

3. Copy services

Copy services are always an option. LAC can provide copies of documents, images, etc., in various formats, including digital, which can be requested in PDF or JPEG format. Most institutions will also offer this service for a fee, but figuring out which institutions hold a copy is the hard part. This is when reference books, bibliographies and union catalogues come in handy. A dated resource will still offer valuable insight for determining the correctness of the references provided and identifying the institutions that used to hold copies. These tidbits of information are useful for tracing back publications, especially older materials that are oftentimes discarded when they no longer meet the needs of users.

With skills, perseverance and a little bit of serendipity, LAC’s Reference Services will connect you with our Canadian heritage. So don’t be shy about sending in your queries to Ask us a Question; we will be happy to assist you in your research!


Virtue Tran is a reference librarian in the Reference Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Hockey and the First World War

By Ellen Bond

In the early 1900s, playing hockey could lead to fighting for your country. The skills that made you a good hockey player—strength, endurance, patience, toughness—were desirable to the army. In its rough-and-tumble way, hockey was seen as a way to prepare yourself for war. The best soldiers were often hockey players and many players volunteered to fight in the First World War.

Allan McLean “Scotty” Davidson was one of those volunteers. Born on March 6, 1891, in Kingston, Ontario, Davidson began playing hockey with the Kingston Junior Frontenacs. As their captain, he helped the team win the Ontario Hockey Association Junior Championship in 1910 and 1911. The next year, Davidson moved to Calgary to play for the Calgary Athletics’ senior team. They won the Alberta Cup in 1911–1912 but lost their challenge to the Winnipeg Victorias for the Allan Cup (Canadian Senior Championship).

In 1912, Davidson started playing professionally for the Toronto Blueshirts (now Toronto Maple Leafs) in the National Hockey Association. Davidson was the team’s captain and leading goal scorer the next year and helped win Toronto’s first Stanley Cup in 1914. In his two seasons with the Blueshirts, Davidson scored 46 goals in 44 games. He could skate backwards faster than most players could skate forwards, according to Edward Allan, a hockey writer for the Toronto Mail and Empire newspaper.

Black-and-white photo of the Toronto Blueshirts in 1914.

Toronto Blueshirts, Stanley Cup Champions of 1914. Scotty Davidson is in the centre of the front row. Photo courtesy of the McCord Museum.

As a star hockey player, Davidson had all the skills the army was looking for. He may have been the first professional hockey player to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF), joining in September 1914. Scotty volunteered to be a “bomb thrower”, lobbing grenades at enemy troops. Some newspapers carried stories about Davidson in the army and described his bravery in the face of danger.

Scotty Davidson died in the field on June 16, 1915. His CEF service file states that Davidson “was killed instantly by a shell falling in the trench. He was practically blown to pieces.” A newspaper account of his death claimed that Davidson would have earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal or the Victoria Cross if he had survived the battle. Fellow soldier and Kingston resident, Captain George Richardson said Davidson was one of the bravest men in his company. He was fearless, willing and ready to save his comrades at every opportunity. Davidson’s name is memorialized on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France.

A page from the service file of Scotty Davidson describing how he was killed in action.

A page from Davidson’s digitized service file describes how he was killed in action (Library and Archives Canada, CEF 280738)

Scotty Davidson sounds like the type of athlete I would have loved to watch play hockey. He was a smooth skater, a goal scorer and a leader. In 1925, Maclean’s magazine named Scotty the top right-winger in its all-star team of the best hockey players. An opposing coach, Ernie Hamilton, said about Scotty’s shot, “I never saw such hard shooting.” The roots of our freedom are founded on the lives of people such as Scotty. He was a glorious athlete whose life was cut far too short.

Scotty Davidson was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1950. Scotty’s sacrifice is honoured by the Canadian Virtual War Memorial.


Ellen Bond is a project assistant with the Online Content Team at Library and Archives Canada.

An Arpent, a Toise, a Perche, a League… Understanding Old French Measurements

When looking through old French records, you will frequently come across old measurements that are rather mysterious nowadays. These measurements are found in records originating in France, Quebec and Louisiana. Below is a table showing the equivalencies, but many online sites offer conversion calculators, even for these old standards.

Conversion Table for Old French Units of Measurement

Old French Units of Measurement Conversion to Other Units of Measurement
1 pied 0.324 837 81 metres

1.065 740 34 feet (English measure)

1 toise 6.0 pieds

1.949 026 87 metres

6.394 442 03 feet (English measure)

1 perche 3.0 toises

18.0 pieds

5.847 080 62 metres

19.183 326 1 feet (English measure)

1 arpent 10.0 perches

30.0 toises

180.0 pieds

58.470 505 4 metres

191.833 261 feet (English measure)

63.944 420 3 yards (English measure)

1 lieue 84.0 arpents

840.0 perches

2 520.0 toises

15 120.0 pieds

4 911.547 72 metres

4.911 547 72 kilometres

16 114.0 feet (English measure)

5 371.333 33 yards (English measure)

3.051 893 94 miles (English measure)

1 arpent carré 32 400.0 pieds carrés

3 418.80 square metres

0.341 88 ares

36 800.0 square feet (English measure)

0.844 803 06 acres (English measure)