Adding context to history writing with archival research: Sometimes you have to go offline

When writing corporate history or personal memoir books for clients, I often need to supplement personal interviews with archival research in order to corroborate a memory, understand the time and place in which a story occurred, or gather materials that will give the book some visual interest.

For this work, I’m incredibly lucky to live at a time when so much archival information is available at my fingertips. With just a few keystrokes, I can access huge amounts of information in digitized archive and library collections, online historical newspapers and photos, and genealogical sites.

Often these digital resources are sufficient for me to gather the details or visuals I need for a particular project. But sometimes what I want is not online. Sometimes I have to dig deeper.

There’s nothing better than the real thing

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The July 28, 1858, issue of the Daily Victoria Gazette

I recently needed to look through one of the first newspapers published in BC, the Daily Victoria Gazette of 1858-59. There are no digitized copies (that I know of) online, but fortunately I live near UBC, whose Rare Books and Special Collections does have physical copies that users can browse through in a wonderful wood-panelled reading room. I spent a glorious morning there a few weeks ago, paging through the issues in a large bound volume and snapping photos with my iPhone whenever I spotted something of interest to my project.

(The Vancouver Public Library has physical copies of Gazette issues too, but they are unbound, and the librarian denied me permission to look through them once she realized how fragile they are. I reluctantly looked through the microfilm versions instead, which is not at all the same experience as paging through the yellowed and stained actual 19th-century pages, but now I’m quibbling. Access is access, and I totally get the library’s stewardship role for these rare and valuable materials.)

Sometimes a close facsimile is better than nothing

Now, it’s one thing to browse through, page by page, the relatively small number of Gazette issues published. The newspaper was short, and I was able to look through all of the issues in about a day and a half, total. But for some of the longer-running historical newspapers in the province, I had no choice but to rely on the Legislative Library of BC’s newspaper index for 1900-1990 to pinpoint the issues and page numbers that might contain information of interest.

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The microform stacks at UBC’s Koerner Library

By necessity, the index is selective, containing only significant mentions of people, places, and events, and sadly, it does not include the information in any ads (which I happen to want for this particular project). What’s more, the index is in card form in its original and is not searchable online. It is, however, available on microform at major libraries, so again I headed over to UBC’s main library to see what I could find.

The microform area at Koerner Library is eerily quiet on a Sunday morning when classes are not in session, but that suited me perfectly. I plucked dozens of microform boxes off the shelves at once and spent about six hours loading, scanning, and unloading film reels just to access the various parts of the index that I needed. This process is obviously not for the impatient.

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My stack of microform rolls

For me, though, it was well worth the effort. As I was going through all those reels, I felt bursts of excitement as I discovered pertinent index entries from the early 20th century. I now have to go back to look through the various microfilmed issues of the newspapers that I tagged in this process, but that sounds like a great day to this archives nerd.

 

It’s about strengthening the pulse of the story

When I unearth something in this kind of hands-on research, perhaps a telling detail about someone that isn’t present in the easily searched online historical record, I feel the pulse of the story I want to tell grow stronger. And if I can’t find anything, even after this kind of effort? If time (and budget) allow, I just double-down and look harder. This person lived, or This incident happened, I think. There must be something. Where should I look next

 

 

 

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