Trove of historic documents heads to Vancouver Public Library

Thousands of boxes of aging federal documents containing reams of information on Canada's First Nations will be moved to downtown Vancouver as part of a collaboration with national archives and the public library.

Move coincides with improved digital access to historic federal documents

Bella Coola First Nations group during a tour of Germany , circa 1884. From Vancouver Public Library's historical photograph collection. (Carl Guenther)

Thousands of boxes of aging federal documents, containing reams of information on B.C.'s First Nations, will move to downtown Vancouver as part of a new collaboration between the national archives and the public library.

Altogether, about 5,500 boxes of original documents dating between 1870 and 1970 will be transferred from Burnaby, where they're stored in a warehouse, and moved to downtown Vancouver and made accessible to library users.

The material belongs to Library and Archives Canada.

It includes documents from the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs containing hard copies of government records, including treaties, dating between the 1870s and 1970s.

The documents can be viewed in downtown Vancouver beginning in spring 2017, according to an announcement made Wednesday by Library and Archives Canada and the Vancouver Public Library.

As well, the national archive is transferring thousands of other federal documents to digital platforms.

That material includes census documents, photos, films, art, maps and sound, said Canada's Chief Librarian and Archivist Guy Berthiaume.

Much of this material is already available online. But under the new collaboration, the digital archives will be available to view at Vancouver Public Library's main downtown branch.

This photo, from Library and Archives Canada, depicts the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Flyers, a hockey team hastily assembled to represent Canada at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. The Flyers won gold. The photo is part of the national archives' digital collection.

Berthiaume and Sandra Singh, chief librarian at the Vancouver Public Library, said the changes will allow more people to view material previously available only in Burnaby.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity for patrons to access new resources to achieve their goals and aspirations," Singh told reporters at the Vancouver Public Library.

"Like grade school and high school students looking for sources for history projects, patrons searching out local First Nations' histories and the scores of people who come to research their family history."

Records of ancestors

Berthiaume said the digital material includes documents pertaining to Ottawa's decisions during the First World War, including troop deployment.

"For genealogists, that's a gold mine," Berthiaume said. "They can find records of their ancestors, every single thing. Their medical records, where they went, what salaries they got, etcetera." 

As for the new hard documents soon to be available in Vancouver, Singh said nothing compares to viewing an original document.

"Looking at a digitized copy of our Constitution is not nearly the same as seeing it in person and standing there and looking at it, and seeing where the water drops were because it was raining that day," she said. 

"Just that sense of connection to the past in this very real physical world that you don't get with the digital."