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Article posted: August 24, 2001
Provincial Archives' Web Sites (Canada)
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles
I set myself the task of reading the websites for all ten provincial archives. Really reading them, too, not just skimming the headings.
I have not finished, but already I am surprised by the variety. One seems to want to tell you everything, another is so formal there is little information actually getting through. One has online sources galore, another none.
Provincial archives really have two sides. On the one hand they have a variety of manuscripts collected from many sources, a kind of treasure-trove of history. On the other, they are records management centres, charged with the huge task of determining which of the millions of documents generated by their government should be kept or discarded. The ones that are kept must be stored, cataloged and made available.
The records management side is difficult and complex. The archival side has more fun.
Genealogists have interests in both sides. Government documents are the basis for much of our research and even unlikely places, such as the Forestry Department, might generate resources which will help us. The manuscripts on the archives side are like a candy store for family historians.
So what did I see in the websites? New Brunswick's was welcoming and kind ( www.gnb.ca/Archives/default.htm). They explain how to do genealogy from the bottom up and offer many possibilities in their own collections. Of the sites I have seen, New Brunswick's has more online searching possibilities than anyone else, including a land grant index (produced in cooperation with the University of New Brunswick, and located on the UNB site) and an Irish Famine Index. The Irish index can lead you to people (actual names are given!) from passenger lists, hospital and charity admissions and similar sources, 1845-1852. I tried Patrick Murphy and got more than 40 hits aged from 1 year to 77.
I found it useful when the site explained exactly what their archivists could do for researchers. In Newfoundland, they can discuss, refer, instruct and provide information. In Prince Edward Island, they introduce, demonstrate, instruct and offer direction. Saskatchewan will discuss, explain, suggest and introduce.
These are interesting verbs. I especially like 'discuss', which means you can tap into their archival knowledge and experiences. 'Instruct' and 'explain' also point to a useful exchange of information. Genealogists need to know what to expect from the archivist, and archivists must set limits to what they can do. We depend on the archivists' assistance. However, it is self-defeating to be too demanding of their time.
The Nova Scotia site ( www.gov.ns.ca/nsarm/) is very formal. It emphasizes the records management side of their work, including lengthy government policies written in bureaucratese. You come to these first on the site and I found it heavy going. Although it is clear that the Nova Scotia archives welcomes genealogists, there was considerably less information for them here than on other sites, and it was difficult to move around the site.
What impressed me most is that every provincial archives has an open-arms policy for genealogical researchers. We form a huge part of their business and they are all glad to see us coming. That's a pleasure.
Some provinces, such as Ontario, have large and wealthy archives with a variety of offerings. Saskatchewan, which has considerably less funding, still provides a quality service, but on a different level. Prince Edward Island, the smallest province, answers queries at no charge and even asks that you not send a stamped, addressed envelope, as it isn't necessary.
Have a look at the website for provincial archives which interest you. They have plenty of food for thought.
The PEI site is at www2.gov.pe.ca/educ/archives/archives_index.asp. Saskatchewan is at www.saskarchives.com/web/about-where.html. You can find Newfoundland at www.gov.nf.ca/panl/.
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