Recently I’ve been looking into some Loyalist records from early Canada. Thanks to government-funded digitisation programmes such as Héritage and the work of Library and Archives Canada, many sets of records once only available in the British Library or on 1960s-era microfilm at select national libraries are now online and free to access.
The digitised, handwritten documents found in such collections as the Upper Canada Land Petitions and the Haldimand Papers (two sets I’ve used quite a bit) also serve as excellent reminders that just because a source has been put up online does not mean that it will be easy to search through, read, or use. Even databases with an integrated online search application can give difficult or incomplete results due to many different factors. First, searches are often limited to name and location: content or subject is left out. This is promising for family history and genealogy research, but what if I want to know about early settlers to a specific region or find examples of cultural interactions between different groups? I’d have to go through page by page. The search engine (and, in some ways, the presentation of the collection) has therefore been aimed at genealogists rather than historians.
The search results may also be affected by the quality of penmanship and the skill of the archivist. Unlike many contemporary online databases of digitised, type-written documents, these records can not be searched automatically for a certain word using a browser’s find function. Any search results have to have been inputted by someone and this leaves room for errors and omissions (not that computerised searches are infallible!). Documents may have been misread or key elements, such as names, may be simply illegible.
Finally, these collections have been digitised as complete microfilm reels, not volumes, meaning that it is the format and limitations of film and the archival practices of the 1960s that is being reproduced online. As a result, search results include information meant for archivists and not the general user, online researcher, or family historian. In fact, the search applications and their results page are regularly not linked to the digitised copy of the source, or even to the online database as a whole.
For example, you can search the Land Petitions for Upper Canada by first and last name and/or place here at Library and Archives Canada, but the actual digitised documents are in LAC’s archived pages here. This can lead to hours of hunting online for the right database and then the page of the right volume that matches the specific details listed in what was originally a simple search. There are also cases in which only some of the records revealed in the online search have been digitised. You may still need to venture to a national library or the British Library to see the contents of the document. This can be very frustrating.
However, the hunt can be well worth it. A while back I was looking into some of the Loyalists in my own family history and starting to dig through the Haldimand Papers. Unlike the Land Petitions for Upper Canada 1763-1865 and the Land Boards of Upper Canada 1765-1804, the Haldimand Papers do not have an online search page for names or places mentioned within the text. I had thankfully come across the details of record for one of my ancestors in the published work of another researcher. It still took me almost an hour to track down the correct pages in the records, but it was great to finally find Jacob Anguish, my 6x great-grandfather, in the Haldimand Papers.
There is so much potential in these documents that has been left hidden by the partial or total absence of digitised finding aids, the decision to present them as microfilm reels rather than as the original volumes of records, the lack of additional metadata, and the focus on creating finding tools for family historians who are familiar with the archives in question and not researchers with broader interests (as evidenced by the prominent genealogy banner on Héritage’s homepage and the inclusion of ‘Genealogy and Family History‘ as the very first link on Library and Archive Canada’s homepage‘s list of Popular Topics).
I think that these databases are wonderful resources for family history researchers and historians alike; their organisation and search functions could go a long way towards making the digitised documents and collections more accessible and useful for everyone.