Primary Sources Are Going Online

29 11 2010


Library and Archives Canada Building, 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa, Ontario

Library and Archives Canada recently completed the digitization of the papers of Sir John A. Macdonald.

Macdonald in 1883. Image from LAC. Mikan: 3218716


"Come Into My Office" Image of the Office of Sir John A. Macdonald

Previously, scholars wishing to look at the correspondence of Macdonald had to look a microfilms of the originals. There is now a database online that allows you to download images of the correspondence in PDF format.

The search engine for the Macdonald correspondence looks like this:

I have pasted an image of an actual document in the Macdonald correspondence below. In this case, it is a rare letter that Laurier sent to Macdonald.

Laurier to Macdonald, 7 February 1884

LAC’s wonderful decision to put the Macdonald papers online is part of a growing trend to digitize primary sources and place them online. The Library of Congress has put Abraham Lincoln’s Papers online. See here.

The wonderful thing about the LoC’s Lincoln Papers search engine is that you can view both images of the primary sources as well as plain text transcriptions of each item of correspondence. For instance, I found this letter from a private citizen in Canada to Lincoln dated 25 Feb 1863.

Here is the transcription of the letter, which was completed the folks at the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.

P. Tertius Kempson to Abraham Lincoln, Wednesday, February 25, 1863 (Support and autograph request from Canada; endorsed by Elbridge G. Spaulding)

From P. Tertius Kempson to Abraham Lincoln, February 25, 1863

Fort Erie C. W.

Feby 25th 1863.

Honoured Sir,

Englishmen and Canadians are charged that their sympathies have been with the Southern Rebellion and Slavery and my cheeks flush with shame for my countrymen, when I own that this has been too much the case– Thank God, there are numerous glorious exceptions and as a proof of this I take the liberty of sending you a Copy of a Speech delivered recently by the foremost man in Canada and I am happy in being able to assure you that it contains the sentiments and views of thousands of Canadians and millions of British Subjects;

Yes! honoured Sir, you have our earnest and most constant prayers that you may entirely succeed in ridding the Great and Glorious Union of the foul Canker worm of Slavery.

I had the honour and happiness of a personal introduction to you when you passed through Buffalo; May I ask you to enable me to perpetuate the remembrance of yourself and the honour I then enjoyed by giving me a line or two in autograph that I may be able to leave to my children & my childrens children, as a heir loom in remembrance of the great apostle of Liberty of the 19th Century–

By confering upon me this small favor, I shall ever be yours most respectfully & gratefully

P. Tertius Kempson

Another wonderful recent initiative is the Transcribe Bentham project, which seeks to transcribe the papers of Jeremy Bentham, the great philosopher. In this case, the transcription is being done by crowdsourcing. Image of all of the correspondence in the Bentham collection was placed online on a website that allow interested members of the public to try their hands at transcribing the documents. The results are monitored by trained archivists and paleographers to maintain quality control.

Transcribe Bentham Project

Library and Archives Canada User Survey

15 01 2010

Library and Archives Canada

“Your input is hereby sought on the current and future relationship of Library and Archives Canada with the Canadian historical research community.  Input is invited from academic historians, graduate students, public historians, and professional researchers.”

The survey form is available in English and French.

Remembrance Day 2009 Resources

8 11 2009

War Memorial in Ottawa

The first Remembrance Day-related resource I am showcasing is Library and Archives Canada’s excellent website on the First World War. This website contains links to a host of online resources, including the database of Canadian Expeditionary Force enlistment records. This database allows people to look at the actual attestation papers signed by men at recruiting papers. (The surname search box makes it easy to look for ancestors). Each attestation paper gives the birthdate, address, next of kin, etc., of the man.

In my course on Canadian history since 1867, I ask the students to look at this attestation paper before coming to the lecture on the Great War. The paper is for a young guy from Winnipeg named Alexander Henderson Cuthbert who singed up 9 Nov 1917. I selected this paper from the database because Mr Cuthbert was pretty representative of the type of man who enlisted. He was a young, unmarried, city-dwelling, working-class immigrant from the British Isles.  I point out that farmers, francophones, married men, and people whose families had lived in Canada for many generations were massively under-represented in the Canadian military in WWI.

Many students bring their laptops to class, so I ask the students to plug Cuthbert’s address into Google Maps to get a sense of the type of neighbourhood he was from. (The Google Maps satellite view shows that his house was next to a railway, which drives home my point about social class and military recruiting).  The map also allows me to talk a little bit out the multicultural make-up of Winnipeg circa 1914 and the impact of the war on (non-British) immigrants.

The Cuthbert attestation paper usually generates a good discussion in class about why men join the military and the ways in which Old World national hatreds are imported into the western hemisphere. I usually share a personal anecdote about  going to high school in the Toronto area in the early 1990s, when the break-up of Yugoslavia set kids from different ethnic groups at odds.  I mention how some Anglo-Saxon Canadians at the time condemned the second-generation immigrants from the former Yugoslavia for bringing “Old World squabbles” into Canada.  I also point out that during the First World War, it was British immigrants who were having difficulty in severing their emotional connection to the homelands. The irony of this is not lost on my students!   As I remind my students,  in the First World War, the group most truly loyal to Canada were the French Canadians.

YouTube Videos About North American Public Archives

28 09 2009

The first video from the U.S. National Archives, which is the targeted at the general public, gives a good sense of what archives are good for.

Although somewhat amateurish in terms of production values, this video does a good job of explaining how to use the Canadian national archives, Library and Archives Canada.

This more professional-looking video discusses the impressive new home of the Archives of Ontario, which is located at York University.

NARA Photostream

13 09 2009

The National Archives and Record Adminstration in the United States has been posting digitized historical photos to Flickr. It is now seeking input from the public about which photos it should post online next.

This is great news for history professors in the PowerPoint age.

P.S. The national archives in Canada, now known as Library and Archives Canada, has been posting digitized images from its collection to the Wikimedia Commons.