From modest beginnings

By Forrest Pass

For an institution that conserves so many treaties, charters and proclamations, Library and Archives Canada’s own founding document is a modest one. On June 20, 1872—150 years ago—the federal cabinet appointed Douglas Brymner as “senior second-class clerk” responsible for a newly approved “Public Archives Service” within the Department of Agriculture. The handwritten order-in-council might look unassuming, but it marked the beginning of a century and a half of collecting and caring for Canadian documentary heritage.

The decision to establish a national archive was the result of a petition circulated in 1871 by the Quebec Literary and Historical Society. The petitioners lamented the “very disadvantageous position” of Canadian historians when it came to accessing historical documents and proposed a national repository. The government agreed in principle, but it could not offer any immediate funding. The project would have to wait until the next fiscal year.

A handwritten page that reads: “On a Memorandum dated 18th June 1872, from the Hon: the Minister of Agriculture, recommending that Mr Douglas Brymner, aged 42 years be added to the Staff of the Department of Agriculture as a Senior Record Class Clerk at a Salary of $1200.00 per annum – and he further recommends that during the present year the Salary of Mr Brymner be paid partly from the vote of Parliament for the collecting of Public Archives to the amount of $600 – as he proposes to employ Mr Brymner on the …”

A certified copy of Order-in-Council 1872-0712, dated June 20, 1872, approving Douglas Brymner’s appointment as a senior second-class clerk, responsible for both the Public Archives and “getting of information on Agriculture” (e011408984-001)

Douglas Brymner, a Montréal journalist, was not an obvious choice to be the country’s first archivist. He had an interest in history but was not active in historical circles. However, Brymner was not hired solely as an archivist; at first, he was to split his time between archival projects and “a preliminary enquiry for the getting of information on Agriculture.” Investigating the state of Canadian crops and livestock was as pressing a task as organizing a national archive, and Brymner, a former farmer as well as a journalist, seemed qualified to do both.

A man with a beard wearing a white shirt and a black jacket.

Douglas Brymner, the first Dominion Archivist, in an oil portrait by his son, artist William Brymner, 1886 (e008299814-v6)

Whatever the intention, Brymner soon found that building the archives was a full-time commitment. As he later recalled, “the work had to be begun ab ovo, not a single document of any description being in the room set apart for the custody of the Archives.” Within weeks, he was on the road, rummaging through courthouse attics, legislature basements and the dusty papers of prominent settler families.

This collection strategy reflected both the new archives’ limited mandate and the new archivist’s own concept of Canadian history. Before 1903, the archives did not collect recent government records. Instead, Brymner looked for documents of the pre-Confederation past, focusing on settler history, especially its political and military aspects. Although his reports indicated a passing interest in “Indian affairs” as an aspect of colonial policy, Brymner’s archives recorded Indigenous experiences or voices only incidentally, if at all.

His colonial focus led the archivist to prioritize the transcription of Canadian historical records in British and French archives, continuing the work that the Quebec Literary and Historical Society had quietly pursued for decades. Brymner travelled to London to investigate relevant collections there, while the Quebec historian Hospice-Anthelme Verreau did the same in Paris.

These were ambitious projects for the archives’ limited resources. In its first year, the new archives’ budget was a meagre $4,000 (about $94,000 in 2022 dollars). For office and storage space, Brymner’s chief, the deputy minister of Agriculture, had to haggle with the Post Office Department for the use of three rooms in the basement of the West Block on Parliament Hill.

A large stone building with towers, behind a dirt road and a wrought-iron and stone fence.

The West Block on Parliament Hill from Wellington Street, as it appeared when the Dominion Archives took up residence in the basement. The northwest wing of the building, including its imposing tower, was not completed until 1879. William Topley Studio photograph, about 1872 (a012386-v6)

Underfunding led to embarrassment. In 1880, Gilbert-Anselme Girouard, a New Brunswick Member of Parliament, suggested that Brymner hire the Acadian historian Pascal Poirier to transcribe Acadian parish records. However, on receiving Brymner’s reply, Girouard regretted that he could not possibly recommend Poirier or any other competent copyist for the paltry amount that the archives were prepared to pay.

More startling was the archives’ willingness to contemplate using what today would be considered child labour to cut costs. In 1878, F.J. Dore, Canadian Agent-General in London, sought permission from the British Museum, on Brymner’s behalf, to transcribe the papers of Sir Frederick Haldimand, the Governor of Quebec during the American Revolutionary War. Dore regretfully informed Brymner that the museum prohibited anyone under the age of 21 from working in its building. “Otherwise,” Dore wrote, “a number of Juvenile copyists might have been got to do the work at a much cheaper rate than the one quoted.” At the time, teenaged copying clerks were common in England and Canada alike. Nevertheless, the idea of using young, inexperienced copyists to save money underlines the early archives’ budgetary woes.

Yet for all these challenges, Brymner accomplished much in his first decade as archivist. Transcriptions from England began to arrive in the early 1880s. By 1884, the archives’ catalogued holdings filled some 1,300 volumes, with thousands of pages awaiting indexing and binding. Transcription projects in European archives would continue well into the 20th century.

A typed and handwritten form, signed by William Blackwood. There is a stamp in the right-hand corner, and writing in red over the left side of the page.

A shipping receipt for “one case of Archives,” likely one of the first batches of Haldimand transcriptions, 1881 (e011408984-001)

Among original documents, Brymner’s “first major archival acquisition” was a large accession of records from the Halifax Citadel. Primarily military in focus, the records touched on many aspects of early colonial history. Brymner acquired these in 1873, after negotiations with the British War Office.

Even before the Halifax records arrived, however, a small donation anticipated the institution’s eventual role as a library as well as an archive. In the summer of 1872, Brymner had visited the Séminaire de Québec, a 200-year-old religious community and college. The Séminaire was not interested in transferring its own rich archives to Ottawa, but Brymner did come away with a small consolation prize: a set of the Séminaire’s student newspaper, L’Abeille (“The Bee”), which occasionally featured transcribed historical documents.

Bound in red leather and buckram, this set of L’Abeille remains in the collection at Library and Archives Canada to this day. Several issues bear the embossed stamp of the “Dominion Archives – Library,” undoubtedly from Brymner’s day. A volume of a revived edition of L’Abeille, published between 1877 and 1881, is inscribed to the “Archives of Canada” by a director of the Séminaire, evidence of Brymner’s ongoing relationship with the donor.

Five books bound in red leather, with white paper flags sticking out of the top. The books are in a wooden book cart.

The Dominion Archives’ set of L’Abeille (“The Bee”). Brymner received the three slim volumes on the left in 1872, his first documented acquisition. The volume on the far right was donated to the archives in 1885 (OCLC 300305563) Photo Credit: Forrest Pass

A typed page of L’Abeille, Vol. 1, Petit Séminaire de Quebec, December 11, 1849, No. 12.

The front page of an 1848 issue of L’Abeille (“The Bee”), featuring a transcribed letter from François de Laval, the first Bishop of Quebec, dated 1690 (OCLC 300305563) Photo Credit: Forrest Pass

Douglas Brymner could only have imagined how the collection he started would grow over the following century and a half. Under his successor, Sir Arthur Doughty, the “Dominion Archives” evolved into the Public Archives of Canada, with a broad mandate to collect government records and private manuscripts, as well as maps, artwork and photographs. Before the creation of a national history museum, the Public Archives also collected artifacts and maintained a museum. The National Library of Canada, founded in 1953, complemented the work of the archives by collecting and preserving published documentary heritage. In 2004, the two institutions merged to form Library and Archives Canada. Today, collections at Library and Archives Canada include over 20 million books, 250 linear kilometres of archival records, over 30 million photographs and nearly half a million works of art.

The Library and Archives Canada of today is a far cry from a part-time archivist working in a cramped basement on Parliament Hill, making the most of his modest resources and as busy as, well, a bee!


Forrest Pass is a curator with the Exhibitions team at Library and Archives Canada.

The literary season has just wrapped up; did you see it go by?

By Euphrasie Mujawamungu

In early autumn or more likely in late summer,
Before the birds—great and small—pull up stakes and fly south,
Well before Parliament resumes sitting,
And on the eve of the back-to-school rush,
While some employees are still enjoying the sun,
The new literary season magazine appears,
Awaited by bookshops, readers … and especially librarians,
Not to herald the falling leaves, oh no—
New releases, new novels, new poems, new ways of doing things, and more.

Publishers release most of their books during this period, to put themselves in a strong sales and marketing position. Those few months before the end-of-year holidays give readers the chance to shop and to benefit from the recommendations of other book lovers for holiday gifts. This is also when avid readers stock up on their literary supplies so they can curl up with good books during the fall and winter.

This is the time when publishers and bookshops suggest lists of candidates for various awards, as most of these are handed out in the fall. Books that win awards or are named “staff picks” are in high demand among readers; another reason not to miss the literary season!

It bears mentioning that according to the provisions of the Library and Archives of Canada Act, all publications, regardless of medium or form, must be legally deposited by their publishers or authors. Legal deposit enables Library and Archives Canada to collect, preserve and make accessible all of Canada’s published documentary heritage.

Colour photo of a book cart with two copies of each book.

A book cart with new releases.

Many publishers and authors meet their legal deposit obligations when their publications are released. Consequently, the Legal Deposit team receives more publications in the fall than during other times of the year.

Just imagine the passion of the authors, the enthusiasm of the bookshops, the excitement of the readers!

Books in all formats have a place of prominence—the library—cared for by a devoted staff!

Our contact information:

Legal Deposit
Library and Archives Canada
395 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario  K1A 0N4
Canada

Telephone: 819-997-9565
Toll free (Canada): 1-866-578-7777 (Select 1+7+1)
Toll free (TTY): 1-866-299-1699
Fax: 819-997-7019

Email:
bac.Depotlegal-LegalDeposit.LAC@canada.ca (Physical or Analogue Legal Deposit)
bac.Depotlegalnumerique-DigitalLegalDeposit.LAC@canada.ca (Digital Legal Deposit)
bac.archivesweb-webarchives.LAC@canada.ca (Web Harvesting)


Euphrasie Mujawamungu is an acquisitions librarian with the Legal Deposit team in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

From our rare book vault: What makes a book rare?

When you hear the words “rare book,” you might think of an old, valuable book that’s hard to find. That’s a pretty good general definition, but let’s take a closer look at some factors that can make a book “rare”:

Age

Although old books are often rarer than new books, age can be relative. The first printing press did not arrive in Canada until 1751—about 300 years after the first books were printed in Europe. A book printed in France in 1760 might not be considered very old. By contrast, one printed in Canada in the same year is extremely old, in Canadian terms. And, at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), we consider anything printed in Canada before 1867 old enough to go in the Rare Book Collection.

Provenance

A book’s provenance is the history of its origin and ownership. A book once owned by a famous person may have added value, particularly if the owner signed it or made notes in the margins.

Coloured photo of a book’s front inside cover, with William Lyon Mackenzie King’s inscription dated September 8, 1894 on the right page. The opposite page has a Public Archives Canada/Archives publiques Canada book plate.

William Lyon Mackenzie King’s inscription on the front page of An Introduction to the History of the Science of Politics by Sir Frederick Pollock. Source

Physical condition

A book in perfect condition is more desirable than one with a detached cover and missing pages. Maps or illustrations, or an intricate binding may also add to a book’s rarity. Old books do not always live their entire lives between the same covers, and it is common to find several copies of the same book that look different on the outside.

Scarcity

If there aren’t many copies of a book, it is, by definition, rare. Books printed in editions of fewer than 300 copies generally go into LAC’s Rare Book Collection, regardless of their publication date.

Significance

Some books, such as first editions of well-known novels, have more historical value than others. However, significance can be subjective; collectors may see value in a little-known edition of a favourite author’s work, while others might look at the same book and see no value at all.

That being said, a book might have all these qualities and still not be considered “rare” if no one is interested in it. In the end, rarity, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.

Visit our Facebook album for illustrations of some of these points.

Stay tuned for upcoming articles as we explore the hidden gems in LAC’s rare book vault!