Treasures Revealed Episode 1 – Cat Letter

Greenish stylized treasure chest with Library and Archives Canada maple leaves at the bottom and rays rising from the chest at the top. Numbered #01. 

In this new podcast series, Treasures Revealed, we’ll speak to a Library and Archives Canada (LAC) employee and highlight an item that they consider a real “treasure” in the collection. For this first episode, we hear about a letter that Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty wrote seeking reimbursement for an odd expense in 1908.

Duration: 14:17

File size: 14 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: August 11, 2021

  • Transcript of Treasures Revealed episode 1

    Théo Martin (TM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Théo Martin. 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.

    Welcome to Treasures Revealed!

    In this new podcast series, we’ll be showcasing certain items in the Library and Archives Canada collection. Each episode, we’ll speak to a LAC employee and highlight an item that they consider a real “treasure” in our collection.

    They may be rare items, perhaps unusual or valuable, or items with historical significance. Perhaps they will have a compelling or interesting story to go along with them. More importantly, all of them will showcase our vast and rich collection that is the shared documentary heritage of all Canadians.

    Now, on to Episode 1, “Cat Letter.” Our guest on this episode is LAC archivist Emily MacDonald.

    But before we get to Emily, and to give the first episode and this series as a whole some context, we thought it best to give you some background on LAC.

    Library and Archives Canada houses the fourth largest library collection in the world. As a federal institution tasked with acquiring, preserving and making Canada's documentary heritage accessible, it 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.

    Most people probably don’t know that the archives actually started as a program “for the collecting of Public Archives” in the Department of Agriculture in 1872. It was then transformed into the autonomous Public Archives of Canada in 1912 and renamed the National Archives of Canada in 1987. The National Library of Canada was founded in 1953, and in 2004 the collections, services and personnel of the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada were united, forming what we now know as Library and Archives Canada.

    Sir Arthur George Doughty, Dominion Archivist from 1904 to 1935, saw the Archives as a vital factor in developing historical awareness among Canadians. His vision of archives involved the collection of all forms of documentation, and included service to both the historical profession and the general public.

    One of the most quoted statements made by Sir Arthur George Doughty concerned the essential value of keeping and maintaining good and full records in an organized national archive when he said:

    "Of all national assets, archives are the most precious, they are the gifts of one generation to another, and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization. As a rule the papers of a given generation are seldom required after their reception and primary use; but when all personal touch with that period has ceased, then these records assume a startling importance, for they replace hands that have vanished and lips that are sealed."

    As with many of our episodes, in this series you will repeatedly hear the term “fonds.” A fonds, spelled f-o-n-d-s, is not unlike a collection in the sense that both consist of accumulations of documents. The difference between them lies in how they were accumulated. Collections are accumulated or intentionally grouped because they have something in common. A common owner, theme or a common type of object, like stamps. A fonds is accumulated naturally and refers to a body of records and archives of an organization, institution or person, in any medium, created and accumulated during the course of one's life or career without specific intent on the owner's or creator's part.

    Emily MacDonald (EM): Hi, my name’s Emily MacDonald, I’m a Senior Archivist at Library and Archives Canada, and I’ve been working here for six years.

    TM: Emily, tell us about this “treasure of LAC.”

    EM: So this document is from the fonds of the National Archives, which was the separate archives part of Library and Archives Canada before we amalgamated in 2004.

    So this excerpt is from a 1908 letter book belonging to Arthur Doughty, the Dominion Archivist. Before the advent of efficient copying methods, it was common to keep a book with records or copies of the letters you had sent to them—so a letter book, where you could keep track of everything. This particular entry describes the text of a letter from Arthur Doughty to the Deputy Minister of the Department of Agriculture.

    In this letter, Doughty explains to his boss certain purchases he’s made. These aren’t exactly the normal expenses you might see in an archives, though. Doughty is asking if he can be reimbursed for several pints of milk. Why does he need so much milk? Well, he explains that one of the neighbouring buildings to the public archive was recently torn down, and that the archives building has now become a home for the mice that were living in the other building. To stop the mice destroying the archival books and papers, he’s brought some cats in, and he needs this milk to feed the cats. He seems to sense the unusual nature of the letter. At the end, it’s saying that he knows “an account like this would cause a great deal of comment,” you know if it were to get out.

    TM: How did this letter come to light? How did you discover it?

    EM: So I actually can’t take any credit for discovering the item. Several of my colleagues have come across this one. It seems to be pretty popular. One of them even has a copy of this letter on their cubicle wall; you know, you just read it as you go by. It really just seems to resonate with people. I guess people just really love cats!

    TM: Sir Arthur Doughty, archivist and historian, was born on March 22, 1860, in Maidenhead, England. He was educated in England and came to Canada in 1886. After a number of years spent in journalism and in the Quebec public service as joint librarian of the Legislative Library, he became Dominion Archivist in 1904, succeeding Douglas Brymner. The Arthur George Doughty fonds, held here at LAC, consists of textual documents, medals, including the Royal Society of Canada Flavelle medal, as well as Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire medal, over 900 photographs and over 50 watercolours.

    In 1908, Mr. Doughty, having found several documents damaged by rodents, decided that enough was enough. He therefore brought in three cats to solve the mouse problem. Of course, he had to feed the felines so they would stay. That’s what he writes in a letter to the Deputy Minister of Agriculture, George F. O’Halloran.

    TM: Do we know if Sir Arthur Doughty ever got a response to his request to be reimbursed for the milk he bought?

    EM: Well, this is the difficult thing with archiving letters, is sometimes you only have one side of it. So as far as I know, I haven’t looked too intensely into it, but I don’t think he got an answer about it. He did say in the letter, I think though, that he was willing to pay for it himself, he was just asking just in case if he could get some money back for that.

    It is really interesting, especially because you know he’s kind of, he says, you can tell that he’s saying, you know, okay well I know you might not give me the money for this, but I did pay for it and I’ll hold the expenses if I have to, but I’d prefer to be refunded please. So it’s just interesting.

    TM: We know you’ve been dying to hear it, so here’s the letter in full, written to George F. O’Halloran, Deputy Minister, Department of Agriculture, in December 1908.

    Voice-over:

    Dear Mr. O’Halloran,

    Since the houses were removed in front of the Archives, this building became overrun with mice, and often in the morning we found that the books and edges of papers had been destroyed. As this appeared to be a very serious matter and I had asked for some cats, but did not get them, I got the boy to bring three to the Archives. We seemed to be getting rid of the mice in this way, but it was necessary to feed the cats, and I have been obliged to take a pint of milk each morning for some time past. The man brought me the enclosed account to-day which I have paid, and I suppose we must continue to take milk for some time to come until we are sure that there are no more mice. I have no doubt that an account like this would cause a great deal of comment, and I do not care whether I am repaid or not. Anyhow I think I have simply done my duty in getting rid of the mice.

    Yours faithfully,

    A.G. Doughty

    Dominion Archivist

    TM: Emily, why do you consider this letter from Sir Arthur Doughty a treasure?

    EM: I think it’s special because it demonstrates that some things never change, even over a century. As odd as it may seem, I can see a link between our current work and the challenge that Doughty faces. Well, we don’t have to resort to feeding cats to keep our documents safe anymore, we do still have to work to protect our material. Fortunately, we have much more sophisticated preservation systems and processes in our state-of-the-art facilities, and we have a whole team who is devoted to keeping our records safe so that everyone can consult them in future.

    TM: For more information on our state-of-the-art facilities, check out our podcast episode and blog articles on the Preservation Centre in Gatineau, and our plans for our new storage facility currently being built. To see images of the letter, photos of Sir Arthur Doughty, and even the original Archives building on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, head over to LAC’s Flickr page. There, you will find an album of images called Treasures Revealed. We will update that album with each episode, giving you a chance to view the treasures that we will be highlighting. We will also add a link to the Flickr album in the Related links section on the episode page for this podcast.

    Thank you for being with us. I’m Théo Martin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Emily MacDonald. Special thanks also to Isabel Larocque for her contributions to this episode.

    Treasures Revealed theme song provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

    This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox.

    If you liked this episode, you’re invited to subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through the RSS feed located on our website, Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you get your podcasts.

    If you’re interested in listening to the French equivalent of our podcast, you can find French-language versions of all of our episodes on our website, Apple podcasts and Spotify. Simply search for “Découvrez Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.”

    For more information on our podcasts, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.

Host: Théo Martin, LAC archivist

Guest: Emily MacDonald, LAC archivist

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