Archives of Ontario a treasure trove on York’s Keele campus

The Archives of Ontario is a treasure trove of interesting, quirky and little-known facts and information, including legal case studies, business records, original correspondence from the War of 1812, art, photos, women’s diaries from the 1800s and even Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade colouring books from the 1950s. Lined up edge-to-edge, there are over 60 miles of paper records at the archives.

With the archives now located on York’s Keele campus in a new, purpose-built building, access to the vast collection of over 45,000 maps, some 1.7 million photos, almost 2,500 historical and contemporary art works and over 50,000 films just got easier for the York community.

Right: A letter dated Oct. 12, 1850 from S. Wickham to D. B. Stevenson warning of slave catchers in the US. The letter is part of the D. B. Stevenson fonds at the Archives of Ontario.

“We’re hoping all these things will increase the number of people using the archives. It will be interesting to see how we’re embraced by the academic community and not just the history department,” says Sean Smith, assistant manager of customer service at the archives. “There is an immediacy about reading a case file from the 1890s that you would not be able to have if you were reading a book about case files. There’s just something there when you interact with original documents that you can’t have when you read something that has already been processed.”

The Archives of Ontario, around since 1903, moved to York’s Keele campus in April. “It’s a huge, huge change for us. It’s awesome,” says Smith. “It allowed us to embrace our history.” Currently, about 60 per cent of the archive users are family historians, with about 40 per cent being government officials, legal professionals, cultural producers and academics, including students. Anyone from a filmmaker to a documentarian, a biographer or a novelist to an academic from just about any field could find the archives useful, says Smith.

“We have already seen a significant increase, I think, in the number of students and academics coming into the archives…. It certainly has its benefits for the York community. There is a broad range of programs at York that you would think would make use of the archives, and that’s not just the history department…. There is no shortage of material to match up with departments."

Left: A poster encouraging emigration to Ontario in 1869 by the Department of Immigration. Provincial advertising programs were created to encourage people to settle in Ontario. Emigrants from the UK, Europe and the US were drawn to Ontario for the free land and hope for a better future.

Using the archives does take some work though. It’s not like a library where you walk in and pull a book off the shelf or Wikipedia where the information is instant. “Here a person has to be prepared to develop a relationship with knowledge and with the material that leads toward developing knowledge," Smith explains. The archives’ Web site is good place to start. Visual material can be searched for through the Web site’s Visual Database and records through the Archives Descriptive Database. As well, there are reference archivists on staff at the archives itself to help people get started with their search.

The archive’s Web site contains several online exhibits, including exhibits on black history, early Ontario, war and remembrance, the Ontario government, Ontario growing up, Ontario personalities and the preservation of the William Thomson Freeland panoramas. These two 1910 panoramic photos of Niagara Falls – one taken in the winter, the other in summer – were found under the floorboards in one of the attics at Queen’s Park in 2003. The exhibit details how the seven-metre-long photos were found and restored. Replicas of the two photos are hanging in the archives. There is also a curved wall in the Reading Room covered with photos from 1812 to 1995, giving visitors a good idea of the breadth of photos available. For those interested in art, the Government of Ontario Art Collection Database will give online users a narrated virtual tour of a selection of works from the archive’s collection.

In addition, there is an online exhibit of David Thompson. Thompson (1770-1857), a fur trader turn explorer, surveyor and astronomer for the Hudson’s Bay Co. and North West Company, travelled some 90,000 kilometres (equivalent to circling the globe twice) by horseback, dog sled and foot to map Canada from Vancouver Island to Lake Superior. A replica of his 1814 map, titled Map of the North-West Territory of the Province of Canada, is on display at the archives. The map, as well as Thompson’s journals and notes, were one of the first donations to the archives. 

Above: An image of the 1814 map, titled Map of the North-West Territory of the Province of Canada, by David Thompson

Much of the information on the War of 1812, which remains one of the most popular exhibits, especially as the 200th anniversary of the war draws nearer, is also available online. But there is a whole host of records, images, films and photos that are only available through the archives, either housed at the new building or that can be ordered from off-site – a process that can take about three days. That’s something people need to plan ahead for, says Smith. Although there are several online exhibits, most of the material is either housed at the Archives of Ontario building and can be viewed by going in person, or it is stored off-site and needs to be ordered for viewing.

Right: An Ontario Department of Agriculture Farming in Ontario poster. In 1921, Ontario led the way with the highest annual field crop value and highest immigration rates. At that time, the most prominent immigrant groups were English, Irish, Scottish, French, German, Dutch and Italian.

At the archives, there are state-of-the-art digital microfilm readers with all the birth (1869 to 1912), marriage (1801 to 1927) and death (1869 to 1937) registration records publicly available on microfilm. Some of the other items that can be found at the archives include court records, both criminal and district; original and copied records of some 60 churches in Ontario; records of immigration; multicultural newspapers from across the province; the Provincial Freeman newspaper, which advocated equality, integration and self-education for black people; records relating to Aboriginal Peoples; T. Eaton Company Records; the Ford family fonds; and even televised broadcasts of the Legislative Assembly from 1986 to 1999.

There are also about 200,000 drawings and other items in the Architectural Records Collection, dating from the early 1820s to the 1990s. The reading room also has audio-visual booths and computer stations for researchers.

As some of the material is 200 years old and much of it original documents, care is required. Bags, large purses and coats are to be stored in a locker provided by the archives. Pens are not allowed, pencils are all right. Eating and drinking are not allowed in the archive Reading Room and visitors may be asked to wear gloves when handling certain items.

“We have very precious records here. Anything that we have in the archives is unique. In all likelihood if anything was lost, stolen, wrecked, destroyed we would never be able to replace them,” says Smith. "The value of the collection is really outstanding. It’s well in excess of $410 million. We are the custodians of Ontario history in a lot of ways and so we take that seriously. We acquire material, preserve material and make it available."

The new building has a classroom space that can be used in conjunction with the archives for innovative educational programming, as well as an exhibit gallery, which will allow the archives to display original records for the first time. The upcoming inaugural exhibit, On the Map, will have over 40 original maps on display.

“When you go into an archives, it in some ways can be like a voyage of discovery…. There’s going to be stuff in there that you will be the first person to come across since the records were created. So there is an opportunity I think when you come in here to make some really big realizations and to have lots of sparks flying when you look at archival documents…. You see it a lot with people doing geneology. For them, connecting their great-great-grandfather’s birth registration or land patent or land grant, for example, it’s a very immediate emotional connection.”

For more information, visit the Archives of Ontario Web site.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer