An Historical Account of Labrador Writing and Records
Content provided by: Wallace McLean
Books, journals, magazines and newspapers are all very nice, and they are very valuable for anyone seeking to reconstruct the past. But books and articles are only written and published on those subjects that writers and publishers can be bothered to write about and publish. If you are looking for more detailed material, or you are entering uncharted research waters, sooner or later you will have to enter the strange but rewarding world of manuscript.

This is a basic guide to archival research in the context of Labrador history.
Record vs. Relic
The difference between published materials and archival materials is often described as the difference between record and relic. A record is a piece of writing that has been deliberately set down to stand as a record of contemporary events, or for posterity. A good example of the former is the daily newspaper or news web site. A good example of the latter is an autobiography or memoir. In either case, the writer is making a deliberate effort to record events, opinions, or feelings.
A relic, on the other hand, is a piece of writing which has been preserved not necessarily deliberately, but often through lucky accident. The writer, often having had no intention of laying that information before the public, is often more open, honest, and interesting in relic than in record. We may take secret pleasure at reading someone else's diary or letters, and they may often be more revealing about themselves and others in such documents than they ever would be in a deliberate record. Relic also preserves facts which people would not consider worthy or interesting enough for deliberate preservation, but which still reveal important information about the past. For example, few would ever consider publishing a business ledger-book, but when these documents survive they are often valuable for anyone studying economic and social history, and even genealogy.

Archival documents can be either record or relic. People may write memoirs or recollections, document their speeches or correspondence, with a view to posterity. Along with published material, that constitutes record. But the joy of archives often lies in the accidental and haphazard preservation of tidbits -- letters, telegrams, sketches on the back of an envelope -- that reveal often surprising bits of our past. That is relic.

The downside of the haphazard nature of archival collections is that they can often be incomplete. Collections can sometimes become disorganized through use, or items can go missing over time. Or some material may have been lost or destroyed before it the collection made its way to the archive. Or it was deliberately excluded by the donor, or not considered for conservation by an archivist. Or material you would like to find may simply never have been created in the first place. A diarist, for example, may not have recorded any entries from March to November, 1875.
Catalogue vs. Finding Aids
Libraries have primary research tools called catalogues to guide you through their holdings. Once upon a time these catalogues consisted of card indexes, with hundreds of thousands, even millions, of cards arranged alphabetically by author, title, and subject according to Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress rules.

Most card catalogues have gone the way of the dodo. Every major library now has an electronic catalogue, which not only speeds up the process, it can often be done remotely. Over the internet, you can access library catalogues from across Canada and around the world. Large national or research libraries, due to their long histories and collection policies, often contain rare or unusual items that are hard to find any place else. Some of the more important ones are:

The collections of archives, on the other hand, are penetrated through research tools called finding aids. The first-order finding aid of an archive is often called the "General Inventory", or "Main Entry Catalogue", but the similarity to a library catalogue usually ends at the name. The Main Entry Catalogue contains entries at the highest level of organization, the collection (or "fonds") level. That is, it describes each collection, which is often a discrete donation of material from, by, or pertaining to one person, group of persons, organization or corporation. Collections are then often broken down into series, volumes, files, and individual items. Series often reflect the natural sub-organization of a collection by topics, stages or interests of a person's life, or the original organization of the material. Volumes are boxes, or more rarely, bound volumes of papers. Files are like files in your cabinet at home or work, a collection of very closely-related items, such as letters, reports, or other individual documents.

While every collection contains items, the extent and complexity of the collection will determine how it is organized in between. Some collections consist entirely of one individual item, perhaps one diary or ledger-book. Obviously, there is no need for further organization. Some collections are not broken down into series, and sometimes there is no division between the volume level and item level.

First-order search resources of archives with important Labrador-related materials include:

Other important institutions, but without on-line research tools, include:

Cutting Your Archival Teeth
To take a concrete example, go to the Archivia link above. Click "General Inventory", which is the Main Entry Catalogue for the National Archives Manuscript Group records. (Manuscript Group describes private papers at the National Archives, as opposed to Record Group, which contains official government files, or the Photography, Cartography, Documentary Art, or other collections.) You will be prompted to search the database. Use "Labrador" as your keyword. One of the hits that is returned is:

Sir Donald Alexander Smith, Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal fonds

This is the collection or fonds-level entry. Clicking it gives you the Descriptive Record for this collection, which you will see is then broken down into series (Strathcona Papers, Strathcona Trust, etc.) There are several promising-sounding series that may contain material pertaining to Labrador. The "Hudson's Bay Company" series contains one volume, while "Fur Trade Papers" contains three. The scope and content describes, in a general way, the chronological scope and the subjects or content of each series, but there is no detailed inventory at any level below this. The scope and content for "Hudson's Bay Company", however, contains the promising annotation that "A chronological descriptive list precedes each part."

Archives describe their collections at the series and volume level, and often the file level, but item-level descriptions are very rare. How do you find what you are looking for? By a combination of logic, guesswork, and being open-minded about what you are looking for! Let yourself be surprised. How do you surprise yourself? Deliberately. That may sound like a contradiction, but what it really means is that you have to develop some research habits that will help you stumble across material you would otherwise never find.
Be Fuzzy
Fuzzy searching means that you don't just look in the obvious or logical places for material of interest. You also should look in other places. For example, a search of private records at the National Archives turned up material pertaining to Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona. But Donald Smith was also a Member of Parliament and Canada's High Commissioner to Great Britain. There should also be material on him in the official records of the Government of Canada. Go back to the Archivia link above, choose Government of Canada Files, and use the search engine to search for Strathcona or Donald Smith. Do the same for the Prime Minister's Fonds section of Archivia, which indexes the correspondence of the Prime Ministers of Canada. And if none of the hits look promising, you have still achieved something important: you have eliminated lines of research. If you know where stuff isn't, you can concentrate on finding where it is!

Being fuzzy also means thinking about associations, linkages, synonyms, mis-spellings and other ways of finding what you are looking for by looking for something else. Not finding something on "Donald Smith"? Look up "Lord Strathcona". "Belle Isle" may yield an empty results list, but what about "Bell Isle" or "Belle Ile"? Perhaps your search for material on "Labrador" hasn't turned up anything. What about searching for "Newfoundland", which may turn up hits that look promising for including material about Labrador. Try both variants of "Wilfred" and "Wilfrid" if you want to find something about Grenfell. Or you are looking for something about the Grenfell Mission? Why not try searching for "Harry Paddon" (remember the variants of his name!) or Jessie Luther?
Primary and Secondary
Primary and Secondary sources are like ore and ingots. You smelt ore to make ingots. Similarly, researchers smelt primary sources into secondary ones -- books, articles, reference book entries, etc. Primary sources can be both archival materials and published material, but they share the characteristic of being raw material. Secondary sources are syntheses, summaries, or descriptions of a topic, and are often based on research using primary sources, other secondary sources, or usually a combination of both. Using secondary sources, often as the first step of your research, can save you a lot of time and energy, in several ways.

First, many books, and all the most credible ones, have indexes. Use them. Find the chapters, sections, or pages of that book that pertain to your topic. Read those parts of the book, getting a sense of the time lines and linkages involved in your topic. For example, the book Cain's Legacy, about the development of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, may give you the names of some of the key players in that development. You can take those names and search library catalogues to see if they wrote books of their own, or you can plug them into archival databases to see if there are archival collections or items by or about them. Learn as much as you can about your topic through secondary sources such as books and articles, and you will be able to develop a feel for where you can find more information.

Second, many books and articles, and all the most credible ones, have bibliographies or other lists of resources that the authors or compilers used in their research and writing. There are sometimes also bibliographic essays, which are more than mere lists, but actually provide some insight into the location, extent, value, and accessibility of various works or archival collections. Examine these bibliographies closely, looking for other books, articles, archival documents, or other materials that bear on your topic. Then go look them up. (This process can quickly snowball, but that's half the fun.)

Finally, many books and articles, and all the most credible ones, have notes, whether footnotes or endnotes. These can often provide specific archival item references, specific page references to other books or articles, or general information on a collection or the author's own success (or lack thereof) in locating some material that you may also be interested in.

If someone else has gone through the trouble of researching and writing something on a topic similar to the one you are interested in, you should go through the trouble of making the best use of their hard work and effort. Build on what they learned and wrote, and go deeper into the subject than they did.

Apart from the library catalogues described above, two further excellent resources for primary material about Labrador are:

An excellent overview of the most important published sources on Labrador to 1993, by Dr. Mel Baker and Robert Cuff, is at:

Finally, the individual volumes, and the collected indexes to Them Days magazine are a useful tool, especially for early 20th-century Labrador information and research leads.
Don't Just Search... Browse!
The internet has made us lazy. We want information on turnips, and we want it now. So we punch "turnip" into Google, and either find the information we want, or, not finding the hits we were hoping for, decide that the information doesn't exist.

Unfortunately, the only research tool that works like Google is Google. If you don't find exactly what you are looking for in an archives database, a library catalogue, or a book index, you have to become natural curious about the stuff you do find, even if it's not right on topic. For example, you could find a reference to a letter from Sir Wilfred Grenfell to Prime Minister Laurier. You look it up in its place on a microfilm reel, and discover that it's not actually that interesting. But don't rewind the reel just yet. Is that letter in the middle of a whole series of letters by Grenfell? Or a whole series of letters about the Grenfell Mission? Or from various people writing about Labrador, or the Labrador boundary dispute? Look at the context of the letter, look at its neighbours, and something may jump out at you and surprise you. Or perhaps you will get a better feel for the times, simply by looking at other contemporary material. Or you will see a reference in a seemingly unrelated letter or document that will later tweak your memory when you do come across something of interest.

Maybe you were directed to page 466 of a book on religious missionaries or mineral exploration in Canada. Don't just think about page 466, think about the whole book. Flip through the table of contents, flip through the index, flip through the bibliography. If you don't find "Labrador" indexed in a book or a research tool that you thought was promising, try "Newfoundland". Or maybe both are too general, perhaps "Strait of Belle Isle" or "Moravian" or "Inuit" will come up with something useful.

Perhaps your research will lead you to file 47 in volume 25 of some collection. However, volume 25 may actually contain files 33 to 51. Be nosey. Take a peek at the subject headings of those other files before and after 47, browse through their contents. Go back to the main catalogue entry or the finding aid for the whole collection; something may be lurking there that you never thought of before.

If nothing else, these habits will help you eliminate sources or lines of research, but very often, they will lead you to stumble across something you never even imagined existed, or make an association with something else that lets you put two and two together. In the research business, you can often make two plus two equal five or more!
Researching Labrador history in libraries and archives is frustrating, time-consuming, but very rewarding. The material is scattered all over the world, in a wide variety of institutions, and in several languages. The research process requires patience, good habits, sometimes good luck, and in many cases specialized skills, such as a second language, the ability to read an archaic script, or even just good eyes and instincts for reading someone else's handwriting.

Serious scholarly research on Labrador is really just in its infancy, but academics, university students, professional researchers, serious amateurs, genealogists, and the developing network of historical organizations in Labrador, all have a role to play.

The tips and techniques in this brief overview can help interested persons develop the necessary skills and habits, and locate the scattered sources, that will help us paint a vivid and detailed portrait of all aspects of our collective past. And perhaps in the not-so-distant future, many of those sources of Labrador history will be collected, physically or digitally, so that they can be studied in Labrador, and not just St. John's, Ottawa, Quebec, London, or wherever else the originals are to be found.

Webmaster Login