Transcript of podcast episode 58
Josée Arnold (JA): Welcome to "Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage." I'm your host, Josée Arnold. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada's documentary heritage.
As the custodian of our distant past and recent history, Library and Archives Canada is a key resource for all Canadians who wish to gain a better understanding of who they are, individually and collectively. Library and Archives Canada acquires, processes, preserves and provides access to our documentary heritage and serves as the continuing memory of the Government of Canada and its institutions.
On today's episode, we will explore how LAC acquires this documentary heritage through donations, purchases and through the transfer of government records, by focusing on some Second World War items recently acquired by LAC.
First up, to talk about how LAC acquires items through donations, is Katie Cholette. Katie is an archivist in the private specialized media section of LAC.
"My Darling Dearest Jeanie." That's how Joseph Gaetz began every one of the more than 530 letters he wrote to his fiancée, Jean McRae, during the Second World War. Stationed in England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany during and after the Second World War, Joseph was, at times, desperately homesick. His deepest desire was for the war to be over so that he could return to Canada and marry his sweetheart. Between July 1943 and November 1945, Joseph wrote to Jean whenever he could, sometimes sending both an airmail and a regular letter in the same day. He also collected a number of souvenirs from German prisoners that he sent to Jean with his letters.
In 2017, his three daughters donated his letters and souvenirs to Library and Archives Canada.
We asked Katie to give us some background on Joseph Gaetz.
Katie Cholette (KC): Joseph was born in 1915 in Alberta, in a small town called Faith, Alberta, and he was the son of Russian immigrants, so he spoke English and German growing up. He was 27 years old in 1942 when he decided that he was going to enlist and he was farming his own land at that time. He was also dating Jean McRae, who was a young woman from Turner Valley, Alberta, which is a small town about 60 kilometres southwest of Calgary. He attested in the Calgary Highlanders on May 13, 1942, and he and Jean became engaged about five months later.
He was sent to England in early 1943 with the Canadian Infantry Reinforcement Unit, and in August 1944 he was sent into action in France. He subsequently went to Belgium and Holland with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. As soon as his supervisors realized that he could speak German, they realized that they could use him as an interpreter with their scout platoon. This meant that he went on a number of expeditions behind enemy lines to bring back German prisoners and act as an interpreter.
JA: Joseph ended up serving in Europe until the end of the war, and stayed on for a number of months afterwards with the Canadian Army Occupation Force. The entire time he was serving in Europe, he wrote letters to his fiancée, Jean.
Joseph came back to Canada in November of 1945 and was discharged in Calgary on January 18, 1946.
We asked Katie to tell us more about the letters that Joseph wrote to Jean…
KC: Well, the letters are pretty interesting, partly because of the huge quantity of them. There are over 500 letters that he wrote to Jean. Joe was tremendously loyal to her throughout the war and this is apparent in the letters. He was also very homesick. He was often lonely and he was sometimes frustrated and bored and this comes through in the letters.
He was a dedicated letter writer. He wrote to her whenever he could, sometimes twice in one day. He would send an airmail letter written on special blue airmail paper and he would write an ordinary letter on ordinary letter paper, which he would then send through the regular mail. The letters are interesting because they follow the same formula. Each of them began with exactly the same words, "My Darling Dearest Jeanie." It was almost as if it was a ritual for him to write the letters in the same way.
They'd start with inquiring about her health. He'd ask her how she was doing, reassure her that he was fine. Then he'd tell her that he had received the most recent letters and comment on the news that she had given him. Then he discussed the weather or something inconsequential and then he'd get to the meat of the matter: what he was doing in his work. He wouldn't get too specific, probably for reasons of censorship and also I think because he also wanted to protect her from the realities of what he was going through.
Joseph Trivers Narration:
"My Dearest Darling Jeanie
I had two very sweet letters from you darling. An ordinary letter dated Dec 23 and an airmail dated January 1st. Thanks for the New Year greeting sweetheart. It certainly doesn't seem possible that we have never had a Christmas together, but wait when we do. It will be a good one sweet. I wish I could have sat on the chesterfield with you like we used to and listen to the gramophone. There isn't a day goes by that I don't remember those days we had together darling. Remember the last time we looked at the Christmas tree and lights? What wouldn't I give to be home with you my sweetheart. At least I know you are waiting for me. That's more than quite a few chaps can say. Some are going to come home with a very bitter attitude. This is no picnic. I must close now dearest. Remember I love you and won't let you down. I know you are doing the same for me. Goodnight Sweetheart. Forever your faithful darling, Joe. I love you."
JA: You just heard an excerpt from one of the letters Joseph sent home to Jeanie dated January 14th 1945.
In 2016, LAC was approached by Cathy Gaetz-Brothen, one of the daughters of Joseph and Jean, asking if we would be interested in acquiring the letters.
KC: The request was forwarded to me as an archivist in the private military section and I said, yes, we certainly were interested. We didn't have any fonds that had that amount of letters in them. As far as I know, there weren't really any other institutions in Canada that had comparable material. So we had back and forth discussions and it was determined that yes, we would be very interested in acquiring these letters. Then Cathy talked to her two sisters and they agreed that they would donate the letters to LAC.
JA: Besides the letters, was there anything else that they donated?
KC: There was! There were a number of other items. There is a photo album that has over 150 photographs of Joseph's experiences around the time of the war, and they predate his time in Europe. There's photos of him and his family, there's photos of him in training camp in Canmore, there's photos of him and Jean the day after they got engaged. It's a lovely photo; they both looked extremely happy. There's photos of him in Europe and there's photos of places that he moved through with his unit.
There's photos of the destruction of war. There's photos of some of the families that he was billeted with, in particular him posing with the children of the families that he billeted with. Then there's photos of the aftermath of the war. There's several photographs of German troops surrendering at the end of the war and there's photos also of him on vacation. He had at least one vacation where he went to the UK to visit some relatives and there's photos of that as well.
As well as the photographs, there are some very interesting items that I wasn't expecting when I opened the box. They gave me a little bit of a shock at first because what these are is, they're items that he acquired from German prisoners. There are some medallions and medals, there's a German Iron Cross. There's other German items that have Nazi insignia on them. There's a Nazi armband, a cloth armband that's heavily sweat-stained that presumably was taken off somebody when they were being taken back as a prisoner. There was also a small pack of Woodbine cigarettes and a sprig of lucky heather, both of which he apparently kept in his breast pocket as a lucky talisman throughout the war. He credits these things which he kept along with a photo of Jean as one of the reasons why he came safely through some of the conflicts that he was involved in.
JA: Why were these letters especially important and significant to Joseph's daughters?
KC: Well, they're really important because Joseph died at the age of 41. He had chronic hypertension and died from that. When he died, the youngest daughter, Cathy, was only a year old. Her mother kept these letters carefully tied up with ribbons and all of the items that he had brought back, including postcards and other memorabilia. It was only when Cathy reached adulthood that she read the letters and got to know the father that she had no memory of.
So they have enormous sentimental value to the family and I was frankly very surprised that they were willing to donate them. I thought it was an extremely generous offer for them to do this. Jean, the mother, Joseph's wife, had stipulated that she wanted the letters to go to an institution or organization where they could be used for educational purposes. When they arrived at LAC and I anxiously opened the box to see them, there was a lovely note from Cathy on the top of the box that thanked me for taking possession of her most prized possession, so it was really quite touching.
JA: We asked Katie how this donation will be used at LAC.
KC: Well, the donations have been, actually, enormously useful to me as an archivist at the moment. I've used the material in two blogs, one a general one on the letters and another one that came out in February of 2018 to coincide with Valentine's Day. In the future, we hope that they will be used by scholars and researchers because they are such a rich resource.
JA: Katie went on to mention how donations are enormously important to LAC and we wouldn't have the collection that we have today if it weren't for donors.
Katie, any final thoughts?
KC: I just wanted to say that it's donations like this that really make my job so worthwhile. I feel a responsibility to preserve their father's memories in archives for future generations. And really it was a privilege and a pleasure to work with Cathy on this donation.
JA: Library and Archives Canada's collection is the shared documentary heritage of all Canadians and spans the entire history of our country. The collection contains materials in all types of formats from across Canada and around the world that are of interest to Canadians.
Our vast collection grows through a number of ways: donations, purchases, legal deposit, as well as LAC's central role in the care and disposition of the records of the Government of Canada. This vast collection, assembled over the past 140 years, includes:
- some 20 million books, from rare artists' books and first editions to literary classics and popular fiction
- more than 3 million architectural drawings
- about 5 billion megabytes of information in electronic format
- nearly 30 million photographic images
- more than 90,000 films
- more than 550,000 hours of audio and video recordings
- over 425,000 works of art
- approximately 550,000 items constituting the largest collection of Canadian sheet music in the world (As featured in episode 12 of this podcast, entitled "Between the Sheets")
- the Canadian Postal Archives
Following with the theme of acquisitions and the Second World War, we next speak with LAC librarian and curator of the Jacob M. Lowy collection, Michael Kent. He will tell us about a recent purchase LAC made.
But first, we wanted Michael to tell us just what the "Jacob M. Lowy collection" and the "Lowy Room" [are]…
Michael Kent (MK): So the Lowy is a room where we hold the Jacob M. Lowy collection, which is a collection of rare Judaica. When I say rare, I mean starting in the 1400s and going through pretty much to the end of the 1800s, though with some stuff from even the 1900s and 2000s if they're particularly scarce, unique or special. It's a collection of rare Judaica, so heavily focused towards religious text.
But we're also interested in telling the history of Jewish printing around the world, as well as understanding the origins and development of the Canadian Jewish community as expressed through printed material.
JA: LAC is constantly trying to find new items for the Jacob M. Lowy collection. Michael tells us about this recent acquisition…
MK : I imagine you're asking specifically about the book Statistik, Presse und Organisationen des Judentums in den Vereinigten Staaten und Kanada as that is one that's probably [gotten] the most media attention, that I can say, [in] my experience here at LAC. I take it you prefer I translate the title into English. So in English, we would call this Statistics, Press and Organizations of the Jews of the United States and Canada.
In terms of what this is, it's a statistical report. It's a very census-style document that gives an overview of the American and Canadian Jewish communities. When I say census, I mean: How many Jews lived in Canada? How many Jews in the United States? What was the state-by-state breakdown, province by province breakdown? What was the city-by-city breakdown? How did those populations of Jews compare to the broader populations in those communities?
What was the ethnic origin or country origins of those Jewish immigrants that arrived in Canada and the United States? What languages [do] they speak? Then a solid section doing a presentation of the major Jewish communal organizations in North America.
JA: Do we know what the purpose of this census or book was?
MK: This requires a bit of historic interpretation and I think anybody who knows history recognizes that history is an interpretive art. I think the best description I ever had of history was that history is like a court case. That you put pieces of evidence together and you make a case and you hope a jury or a judge accepts your presentation. One thing about this report is it's a statistical report. It's an internal publication for the Nazi regime so there's no propaganda, there's no politics in there. So we do need to do some guesswork.
Why would the Nazis commission this? Why would [they have] collected this information? There's bits of information in there we can look to. I think one of the most intriguing questions I get asked, people ask me, "When was the report written?" You'd think this would be an easy question, right? Actually, when a book is written is for me often one of the hardest questions to answer. As a librarian, I much prefer the very easy to me question, "When was a book printed?"
I can tell you when this was printed quite easily. That's 1944. Anyone who's ever done serious writing understands that from getting a project commissioned or inspired to actually doing the research, to actually putting that down on the page and then to actually having that printed is a longer-term process. Is that something that could happen with a report in three months? Sure. Is that something with a report that could take five years? Sure.
Trying to figure out when this report was actually commissioned probably tells us a lot more as to what the purpose of this report was. If I had to guess, and I'm making this with I think some evidence, I would say 1942. I say this for several reasons. 1942 is the year the United States enters the Second World War and we see the Nazis have a great deal of interest in researching the United States and making plans for the United States.
We see this as a major year [when] the America bomber project moves forward, that being a project to develop a long-range bomber that could attack the United States. We see the saboteurs active in the United States, who are trying to attack and sabotage important sites in that country. It's when we see a major increase in U-boats in the St. Lawrence River here in Canada, but also along the eastern seaboard of the United States. So certainly, a time when the Nazis were interested in the Americas.
I think it's also telling that when we go through the named sources in this document giving the historic information or the current statistical information, the latest date we see there that I found is 1942, suggesting that [it's] 1942 when information is being collected. I think, in 1942, we don't know who's going to win the war. When this report actually gets published in 1944, it's pretty obvious how the war is going to play out. In 1942, we have no idea if the Nazis are going to win the war or the Allies are going to win the war.
So let's say it is 1942. The Allies might lose the war, the Nazis could legitimately win the war. They could be functioning out of the assumption that they're going to win the war and actually invade and conquer North America. If that were to happen, I think it's quite reasonable to expect that the Nazis would implement the Holocaust here in North America as they did in many other countries they invaded.
Again, we're doing some historic interpretation here and some historic guesswork. However, given that the Nazis, when they invaded France, went after the Jewish population there as well as several other communities; given that when they went into Russia or [the] Soviet Union, they went after Jewish communities and other communities there, I would expect them to behave similarly to as they did in other countries they invaded.
So if that's potentially what inspired the creation of this document, then collecting this information could have been necessary in implementing a final solution in Canada, in terms of knowing what cities to go to to find Jewish people and how many to expect to be there.
JA: Do we know how they got this information on Jewish populations in North America?
MK: In terms of how they got this information, I think there's a couple of stages to answering this question. Let's right off the bat start with: Who was the researcher/compiler who put this report together? His name's Heinz Kloss. In terms of his academic background, he's a linguist. His specific area of interest was German-language communities that lived outside of Germany. This included German expats living in the United States and he actually went to the United States of America in 1936 and 1937 to conduct fieldwork studying these communities.
During that time, he actually developed a lot of contacts in North America amongst other Nazis or Nazi sympathizers who likely sent him information later on. In terms of his style as a researcher, he was someone who established relationships with other researchers and did share information when possible. Someone whose style of research would be to collect information from sources outside of Germany.
In terms of the specific sources he's using, he's again a proper researcher so he actually—in footnotes, he mentions some of the books he uses. Telling in the Canadian section [is that he] mentions the seventh census for Canada—so the 1931 census—as one of his key sources of information on learning about the Canadian Jewish community.
JA: Michael, how did this book come on your radar?
MK: As an acquisitions librarian, one of the core aspects of my job is trying to find this stuff. Some of that, we wait for dealers to send us catalogues or auction houses to send us catalogues. One of the challenges of this, especially when it comes to private dealers, is first come, first served. Somebody decides to buy it before we do, they're buying it. I have sometimes called book dealers four minutes after they sent me a catalogue [only] to be told the book has already been sold because somebody called them two minutes before I did.
So, in response to this, I've gotten in the habit of following certain significant book dealers on Facebook or through other social media platforms, as well as reading in [some] cases, sometimes their private blogs. And what this allows me to do is, sometimes someone acquires something and they get excited about it and it ends up on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or their private blog before it ends up in a catalogue or their store or formal listing. When this happens, I actually reach out to the dealer before other people and hopefully start the conversation to purchase this item earlier.
So I first became aware of this book while reading the private blog of one the book dealers we purchase from regularly. I saw this and I said, "Oh, this is clearly a special item." As chance would have it, I saw this the day before leaving for the Association of Jewish Libraries Conference and I said, "This is probably an item I can have some conversations with other people about as opposed to having to rush at."
This dealer himself is a Jewish fellow and seemed keen, from his description of the item, that [it] go to a correct home. And that meant I was less worried about having to compete with a private collector. At this conference, I spoke with a few other librarians representing different collections around the world and [it] seemed to be the consensus there that the right home for this item was at the National Library for one of the two countries mentioned in the report, so either Canada or the United States.
When I returned to Ottawa, I called the dealer and I mentioned I'd seen this on his blog and asked him if he could send us a formal purchase offer. And from there we had a conversation on our end and with a few other people, and we were able to negotiate the purchase.
JA: So social media really changes the landscape of purchasing in 2019.
MK: It really does. Last night, I was getting ready to leave work and that's when I pulled out my personal cellphone and went on Facebook just to do a little mental detox at the end of the day, as many of us do, and I actually saw one of the book dealers that I follow post a little video of him going through a building that's actually getting demolished today. He mentioned that he had got permission to go in there yesterday and pull [out things] of significance.
I saw him mention Canada in the little blurb so I called him and hopefully next week we're actually going to get a list of broadside posters that were in that building about significant events that happened in Canada. And [it's] not something I would have had been able to do pre-social media and really get that first chance to pursue those items.
JA: LAC purchases items through dealers, as well as at auction. We asked Michael which one happens more often and are there benefits to one or the other?
MK: It really varies because the acquisition process is very responsive: you can only purchase what's for sale. Sometimes it's a significant auction, and our purchasing tends towards auctions; other times it's dealers and you go that direction. There's benefits to both. At auctions you know pretty much right away whether or not you've got the item, and there's been times that we've [gotten] absolute bargains at auctions.
The private sales, we do a lot as well through book dealers. And again, the book dealer has to have it in stock, they have to find it, and we have to connect with them. And I think it varies year-to-year and opportunity-to-opportunity.
JA: On that note, how much did LAC pay for this book?
MK: So, we purchased it for, in American dollars as this was American book dealer, $4,500. I would have to check the exact exchange rate of the day, but around Can$6,000. Because this was a purchase from a book dealer, there was no auction commission. Sometimes at auction houses, there is an auction commission that can range from 20 to 25%. So, for example, if you purchase something for $5,000 and you have a 20% auction commission, it really becomes a $6,000 purchase. So for us it was a straight $4,500 American.
Looking at what other comparable items sell for, and looking the rarity of this item, we thought we actually got a bargain on this item. I've actually heard [from] a couple of book dealers since I bought this and, [when] they found out about it and how much we paid, [them] being shocked and telling me they would never price it that low. We were quite happy about that. We were fortunate: Again, the book dealer specializes in Judaica, [is] a Jewish fellow himself and understood the importance of selling this to the right home.
As I mentioned, I spent time looking for comparable items to understand the price point. And, of course, it's difficult with a small internal report like this because there's really not that many copies floating around out there. The handful that do exist are in institutions in Europe mostly. One Hitler item, if we go based off provenance, I found that went up for auction was a pair of his underwear that sold in auction for $5,000 American before that auction premium.
JA: Why was it important for LAC to acquire this book?
MK: There's two answers we can give to this. I think one is a very easy bureaucratic answer and the other may be a more philosophic answer that talks about why we do what we do. The bureaucratic answer would be, we have a collections development policy and that collections development policy as the National Library for Canada is to have every Canadian book ever and our aim is for two copies.
So what do we mean when we say a Canadian book? We mean it's one of three things: either it is published in Canada, it is either written by a Canadian or, in the case of this particular volume, it's about Canada. Just as an aside, the biggest way we get these books is through legal deposit and that's books published in Canada. The publishers are required to give us two copies. For books like this one, published outside of Canada and about Canada, we do purchase and it's a normal thing we do. We believe it's essential to properly understand the historic and cultural story of Canada to have every book either about Canada or by a Canadian. So this was a book about Canada, we didn't have it, [and] we had an option to purchase it. Just a straight collection development policy is that we explore the opportunity to purchase this.
Sometimes we'll decide not to purchase a book if it's mispriced, by which I mean significantly overpriced, or it's in particularly bad condition. In those situations, we might hold out for other opportunities. But otherwise, if the price and condition are reasonable, then we often pursue those purchases.
If I were to then maybe give my second answer, this more philosophic answer of why I thought it was important for us to purchase this: What are we? Yes, we're a library, we're an archives, but [at] our core we're a memory institution and it's our job to make sure that the past is remembered and preserved for future generations.
And we believe that the lessons of the past, even the sad or difficult stories and lessons, have important messages for us to remember now. And by acquiring this item, we're doing a very important part in our role as a memory institution in preserving the memory of the Holocaust. And I think we can go even farther with this and recognize that this is a crucial time to do this. Many of the Holocaust survivors who spent the last 20, 30 years sharing their stories are now starting to pass away and we don't have many Holocaust survivors left to share those stories. So who's going to share these stories and how are we going to remember them?
And I believe that preserving the historic documents and artifacts that tell the story of the Holocaust are an essential aspect of Holocaust memory moving forward.
JA: What was the condition of the book when we acquired it?
MK: It was in rough shape. I think we made a bit of an exception to the rule that we try to buy books in good shape for this item because we recognized how scarce it really was. If you were to hold it and touch its paper, it really feels like newsprint. We have to remember this is a World War Two wartime publication. This is cheap paper, it's high acidity, it's brittle, but it's a wartime publication, [so] that's to be expected.
The spine was heavily damaged, the book has had a life before it came to us. Thankfully we have a really fantastic book conservation lab here, that was able to do really amazing work rebuilding that spine and actually getting the book into a shape that we can actually handle it.
JA: How do we know this book is authentic? And is it true that it was actually in Hitler's library?
MK: So in terms of how do we know it's Hitler's, I think there's two steps to that question. Let's start with the big question of: Is this a genuine copy of what we've been calling "The Kloss Report"? I'll soon answer that question—there's no doubt. The material, the wear and tear on the book shows us that it's a wartime publication from Europe. The paper, the ink, just the deterioration over time.
In terms of being Hitler's copy, if you were to open the front cover of the book, on the inside of that cover there's a bookplate that says Ex-Libris Adolf Hitler. This is the bookplate that he put on his privately owned books. If you were to go to the Library of Congress or Brown University in the United States, for example, you would find many other books that were previously owned by Hitler with his bookplate in it.
This, of course, raises the question, "Well, since people know what the bookplate is, how do we know the bookplate wasn't faked?" This [is], again, where some of those material questions come in. A book conservator could probably answer some of these technical questions much better than I, but this is where you have to look: Is the type of paper it's printed on correct, is the ink correct, does it show that wear and tear from over time?
If you look closely at this bookplate, you'll see black gunk, and smudges that have built up from 50-some-odd years of people touching that bookplate, likely the private collector who'd had it before us showing it off. All [that] material stuff is exceedingly difficult to fake because you need the exact right paper and ink, and even if you get that, it's very difficult to fake 50 years of gunk and dirt. Because it's such a soft and a high-acid paper too, a bookplate attached at a more modern period should be bleeding through the paper, which we're not seeing.
Then there's also a bit of a logical issue. This report itself is rare and is valuable. If I were a forger, this is not a document I would attach a bookplate to, because I don't raise the value too much and I run the risk of damaging the item that's already valuable. If I were a book forger and I was going to attach Hitler bookplates to books, I'd buy online random German books from the 1920s I could buy used for three, four dollars. Attach a bookplate on them and significantly increase the value of the book.
JA: What does LAC plan to do with the book? Any chance of it being digitized to be made available online to the public?
MK: So the book is actually, as we speak—not as we listen, I guess is this will be played a while from now—with the digitization team here in Library and Archives Canada. Because of some issues with the spine, we're limited on the amount of pages that we can actually digitize. Because of how tight the spine is, we can only open the book so much. We're going to likely digitize sections at the beginning of the report. Hopefully the Table of Contents, the introduction, something that would give anyone who wants to research this a good sense of the item. We hope to digitize sections near the back of the report [that are] specifically about Canada.
We are fortunate the National Library of Germany also has a copy of this report—not with the same provenance, but a different copy of this report. Their copy is completely digitized, which takes some of the pressure off us in having to digitize the whole report as a digital copy is out there and accessible to the public.
JA: If you're interested [in learning] more about the Lowy Room, check out episode 45 of this podcast, entitled "Mr. Lowy's Room of Wonders," where you'll hear more from Michael and discover some of the incredible items in the Lowy Room.
In that second segment featuring Michael Kent, you may have heard him mention "legal deposit." This is another way that LAC acquires items. Legal deposit in Canada has been in effect since the National Library of Canada was created in 1953. Initially applied to books, legal deposit was later expanded to include serial publications, sound recordings, multimedia kits, microforms, video recordings and CDs. It also includes maps and digital publications.
This legislation requires all Canadian publishers and producers to submit copies of their items. Through the legal deposit program, LAC collects all materials intended for sale or public distribution. We are then able to make the material available for the public to consult and to preserve it for future generations.
Here at LAC we have an Acquisitions Advisory Committee. The committee members represent diverse perspectives from across Canada, coming from the archival, library, museum, academic, Government of Canada, historical and art history communities. The mandate of the committee is to provide advice and recommendations on acquisition policies, strategies, orientations, plans, tools and select acquisitions, taking into account Library and Archives Canada's mandate and major client groups.
Library and Archives Canada is also mandated to be the continuing memory of the Government of Canada. One way this is done is by acquiring the documentary heritage of Government of Canada institutions.
LAC archivists help document the involvement of the state in the lives of Canadians by identifying the records that best do this, and taking custody of them.
So let's talk government records! Joining us to do just that is military archivist, Alex Comber! We first asked him how long Library and Archives Canada has been acquiring government records.
Alex Comber (AC): Oh, boy. In one form or another the Public Archives of Canada, the National Archives, since the days of Sir Arthur Doughty as the Dominion Archivist and even before that… I'm maybe not the best qualified to speak of the long history of LAC acquiring government records, but it was in the late years of the 19th century that we started.
JA: Do all government departments send us their records?
AC: Well, all departments under the Library and Archives Canada Act are required to transfer their records to us, what we determine is archival, to our custody. There are other types of government institutions not under the Act and that's where our Private Archives division comes in and the archivists on that side arrange for the transfer of records. In addition to corporations and private donors, I believe certain agencies you might consider the Government of Canada, like the Supreme Court of Canada for example, fall under that side of the operation.
Currently, the Department of National Defence and the units of the Canadian Armed Forces are our major clients. I'm a Government of Canada military archivist, after all. But there are other independent agencies that are also under the Minister of National Defence's portfolio that we also need to document. My colleagues and I, in the division, are also responsible for the records of the predecessor agencies, and that goes back to all the way to Confederation.
So we're talking about, like, the Department of Militia. For example, LAC holds huge amounts of records for the First World War Canadian Expeditionary Force, like the service files of all of the officers, the soldiers, and the nursing sisters.
JA: Turning our attention to military records, LAC recently took possession of over 900 boxes of Second World War documents from the Directorate of History and Heritage. Can you tell us more about what these files are, and what exactly is the Directorate of History and Heritage?
AC: It's actually… It is part of the Department of National Defence. It's the Directorate of History and Heritage. It's one of their organizations under DND. The Directorate of History and Heritage, they're our colleagues. There's the military archivists there, there's historians on staff, there's folks to deal with the honours and award side of their mandate. Those DHH staff also make records available to members of the public and they can visit their facility in the south of Ottawa.
But the 2016 and 2017 transfers alone add up to about 12,000 files, as you said, in about 900 boxes. We already had [a] large extent from DHH. They are continuing this year to send us more pre-1946 records. These are mostly textual records, so reports and documents that focus on the organization of military units, the planning for operations, intelligence documents about enemy forces, but they also include photographs, maps, technical drawings, which are attached to those records.
These are an incredible record of Air Force activities from before the RCAF (the Royal Canadian Air Force) was created, up until the jet age. We have some First World War records but the focus is on the massively expanded Air Force of the Second World War. So we have planning documents from the highest levels of command. We have aircraft patrol reports, combat and bombing reports from the various squadrons flying active operations in Europe, in coastal and long-range maritime patrol, anti-submarine patrols and in other theatres of the war.
There are operations record books for squadrons. These are the equivalent of the army unit war diaries, if we're familiar with those. They do a great job at documenting the day-to-day activities and operations of each squadron of the RCAF. These records complement a large collection of operations record books that we already have. There are reports on the various British Commonwealth Air Training Plan units, training all across Canada.
There are personal narratives, prisoner of war interviews with downed pilots and crew who were in captivity in occupied Europe. It's a huge range of material. All these records were all originally pulled together by DND historians for the purposes of preserving important records of military activities, and also to use these to produce the authoritative official histories of the land, sea and air forces of Canada.
They were organized into a classification system called Kardex. For listeners, I'll spell that out. That's Kilo, Alfa, Romeo, Delta, Echo, X-ray. Just because you might want to go to our archive search and key that in. Kardex is similar to a library system like the Dewey Decimal Classification System. In archive search or beta search, if you type in Kardex, you'll encounter a huge range of records, especially from the Army and the Air Force, that might be of interest to clients.
These records show the Armed Forces, and especially the Royal Canadian Air Force, going through enormous transformations. They go from a force flying biplanes in the early 1920s to all-weather jet interceptors deployed overseas to support the NATO Alliance in the 1960s.
JA: If the Directorate of History and Heritage has had these records since the 1940s, why did it take so long for them to come to LAC?
AC: I believe it's mostly because DHH's operational role is to write those histories. It has an ongoing use for those documents up until the point where it produces that official narrative, that official history and then they're able to begin transferring the records to us.
JA: After the files are transferred to LAC, military archivists like Alex take steps to describe and arrange them and make them accessible to the public. They can also take steps to flag any conservation issues or threats to the collection that the files may pose.
At this point, LAC may also decide to digitize these government files to make them more accessible to researchers.
So Alex, as a military archivist, when the government records get transferred to LAC, and the items come in, it must be very exciting for you?
AC: Absolutely. [Laughs.] It's very exciting to see the transfers. We already had a very strong collection of military records on the government side, and it's always getting stronger. I'm very happy because we can take steps to protect that heritage and preserve it for Canadians for generations to come, make sure it's stable, and make sure it can be housed. We get a lot of reference requests, sometimes Access to Information requests as well. So I really enjoy having the opportunity to go hunt down areas of the collection and find more interesting stories.
JA: Do you and your colleagues ever get surprised by anything that gets transferred that you weren't aware of?
AC: Well, we hope there aren't too many surprises. We know generally by the titles what should be coming in, so we don't get too many surprises. Sometimes, it's not in the ideal box, it needs to be protected in a different way, it needs to be housed differently, a map maybe needs to be flattened, things like that. But DHH actually has been amazing at providing extremely detailed listings of what they have. Probably most clients know that the number of military abbreviations— It's like government abbreviations are really difficult to know, but the military abbreviations are really challenging because each specific armed force has its own set of abbreviations, and they keep on changing through all periods of history.
So you'll get one set of abbreviations that might work for the Navy during the Cold War, but you can't apply them backwards to the Air Force in the interwar. It would make no sense. But just developing a detailed view of what those abbreviations even mean is really challenging. DHH took the effort of fully unpacking all the acronyms and expanding them, which makes them way more accessible to our clients on our online catalogue as well.
JA: Library and Archives Canada is a unique institution; not only is it a national library and government archive, but it also holds many treasures and collections from private archives, as featured in this podcast. Whether it is from purchases, transfer or donations, LAC's collection keeps on growing every day and is made accessible to all Canadians.
If you're interested in learning more about acquisitions here at Library and Archives Canada, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca.
Thank you for joining us. I'm your host, Josée Arnold. You've been listening to "Discover Library and Archives Canada—Where Canadian history, literature and culture await you." A special thank you to our guests today: Katie Cholette, Michael Kent and Alex Comber. And thanks also to Isabel Larocque, Joseph Trivers, Théo Martin, Sylvain Salvas and Karine Brisson for their contribution to this episode.
This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox.
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