Learning about Library and Archives Canada

For a significant period of time, there was only one archive in Ottawa: the National Archives (now Library and Archives Canada or LAC). Until there was an archive with a local focus, LAC played two roles as the repository for both the nation and for the city. As a result, the records belonging to several early Ottawa businesses are found in the LAC. A few good examples are the companies involved in the lumber industry.

For researchers interested in accessing business records at LAC, there are a few challenges to face. The online database might be best described as byzantine, and finding results isn’t always straightforward; there are databases within databases, and some information can only be found with the help of an archivist. Detailed archival descriptions don’t always happen, especially due to the sheer amount of material the archives house, and finding aids leave something to be desired.

Another issue is access. The LAC has been in the news over the summer in regards to the service cuts that have been implemented to deal with deficits and reduced funding. Fewer knowledgeable archivists are available for reference, and the researcher will likely not find the guidance they need. As well, it has been widely reported that the information available on the website might be altered and reduced in the future, making research even more difficult.

In the CNBH database, LAC material has one piece of information that is unique to this archive: the MIKAN number. Each entry has its own number, and to make sure that you, the user, finds the same information that we were looking at when creating the database, the MIKAN number for the entry in particular is included. Usually, this will be the top level of a fond, allowing the user to navigate through the sub-levels of the fonds on their own. In other situations, it might be a more relevant section in a larger fond.

What are we working toward?

The CNBH is working to amass in one online location references to collections and books that can help researchers find archival resources and books related to their work.  Once we have completed the first step, which is the actual locating and noting the different materials, we will be creating a searchable database that will be available to anyone interested in learning more about Ottawa’s business history.

Included in our database will be the following:

  • over 300 books in the Carleton library and the Ottawa Public Library, particularly the Ottawa Room,
  • over 200 archival fonds from institutions around the Ottawa area,
  • over 100 industrial classification codes from the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS),
  • businesses that range in physical location across the Ottawa area, from Orleans and Gloucester to Kanata and Arnprior;
  • archival resources that range from the 1840s to 1990s;
  • a short description of the resource including relevant information such as archival restrictions.

While our database has not be designed yet, we anticipate that users will be able to search by business name, the names of individual business people, NAICS number, and date.

Learning about the Ottawa Public Library

The Ottawa Public Library is a wealth of resources for researching; in addition to a collection of reference books spread out across the system, there are a few specifics that I want to draw attention to with this blog post.

First, there are business resources available at the library as well as a librarian specializing in business. While advertised more specifically for those with queries of a business nature, the librarian can also give insight into historical questions involving Ottawa’s recent business history.


Another gem can be found on the third floor of the main branch on Metcalfe Street. This is the home of the Ottawa Room, a special collection dedicated to the preservation of Ottawa’s history. Started in 1955, the collection is an interesting selection of resources that include rare books, maps, government documents, and a myriad assembly of items that help to flesh out the history of Ottawa. As well as covering the historical Ottawa, the collection also holds items originating from the municipalities now included in present-day Ottawa as well as neighbouring locales.


Learning about the Ottawa City Archives

I have a soft spot for the Ottawa City Archives, dating from research conducted at their old location on Sussex Drive. The staff are friendly, and as any researcher can attest, being able to rely on an archivist’s knowledge of their collection is a bit like knowing there’s someone watching your back.

The archive has recently moved to a new building at the corner of Woodroffe Avenue and Tallwood Drive, which is spacious, versatile, and – a bonus for me – much easier to reach by way of OC Transpo. I went to visit them as the second step in collecting resources for the Carleton Network for Business History, but not before I fired off a query to Hariette Fried. She’s like the Q of archivists, in James Bond parlance, and immediately she could list a few things for me to investigate when I arrived.

The City Archives is an amalgamation of three main collections: Ottawa, Gloucester, and Rideau. Each one originates from a former municipality or region now within the post-2001 boundaries of Ottawa; as a result, each collection has a different focus when it comes to what has been collected over the years. For material that will be included in the CNBH database, this is an interesting mix of resources.

Ottawa has the most straightforward collection, with fonds relating to long-time Ottawa businesses such as J.G. Butterworth & Sons, the Ottawa Electric Street Railway Company, and Morrison Lamothe Bakery. Gloucester has interesting resources relating to the dairy industry that used to exist there, and Rideau has the Manotick Pharmacy Fonds (although it’s restricted due to privacy issues for the time being).

There are also other resources that will be invaluable to researchers beginning their work into Ottawa’s business history, such as directories and fire insurance maps. I will go into details about those in future blog posts.

I finish this update by noting with glee that Hariette contacted me yesterday saying that she’s set aside more resources for me for my next consultation.


Learning about the Carleton Library

My first step for the project was to tackle the collection housed at the MacOdrum Library at Carleton, which includes microfiche, maps, government documents, theses, as well as your typical books.

Researching business history can be a challenge in a library, and the biggest difficulty I found was when the catalogue left me guessing whether a resource was appropriate or not. Often, there weren’t direct links between resources relating to the same industry or even the same company; the links came from my own cross-referencing when consulting the actual items.

My method for including items into the CNBH database began by doing a keyword search for “Ottawa business,” which is something like casting a giant net into an ocean. I came up with many useful results, and many more which were unrelated. I was looking at over 200 pages of results, ranging in publication dates from the 1800s to the present day.

When I was in a second-year Political Studies class, I learned a trick that’s always stayed with me. As I went to find a book on the shelf, I would investigate the books in the vicinity to see if there might be something my initial search didn’t uncover. As a result, I’ve found several interesting books on the Ottawa area that are included in my work.

Does this mean I’ve uncovered every book there is about Ottawa’s business history? Probably not. When we publish the database later on, I would encourage anyone to submit anything I’ve missed to the CNBH for future inclusion.

In a future post, I will give into further details about the different kinds of resources in the library.

Link to the MacOdrum library:  http://www.library.carleton.ca/