Why I love government records

In celebration of Archives Awareness Week here in Ontario, I have decided to tackle a question I get asked fairly regularly: “What is it about government records that you love so much?”

People of Peel - Archives-3126

Colleagues and researchers often chuckle and/or raise an eyebrow when they notice the “I heart glorious government records” pin I often wear to work

I should state for the record that I actually love all archival records, be they “private” (created by a citizen, organization, or business) or “public” / “government” (created by a government department, office, or agency). As I suspect you will find with most archivists, I view my career as a calling, and derive true contentment and enjoyment from my work. That said, some archivists might argue that private records can be more enticing to both staff and patrons, containing as they do such things as love letters, travel photographs, diaries, news accounts, and the like. Without denying the awesomeness that is private records, I would counter that government records are glorious in their own way.

I should note that in Peel, “government records” are any records created and/or collected by the Region of Peel, the Cities of Mississauga and Brampton, and the Town of Caledon, as well as their municipal antecedents, or any records about the Peel area created by the Province of Ontario but which are currently on loan here (mainly land ownership records from 1806 onward). Municipal records can include council and committee minutes and recordings, by-laws, assessment and collector’s rolls, financial statements, correspondence, subject and project files, maps and plans, reports and memos, Official Plans and assorted amendments, photographs, voters’ lists, vital statistics ledgers, and more.

Without becoming too autobiographical, I suspect that my love of such records, strangely enough, can be traced back to a longstanding interest in espionage services, especially the growth and evolution of the British foreign secret service (better known today as MI6, of James Bond and Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy fame).

In particular, I have long been fascinated by the British Secret Services’ role in what is referred to as “The Great Game” or the “Victorian Cold War,” a protracted 19th century imperial rivalry between the British and Russian Empires, centering on Central Asia, the Ottoman Empire, Afghanistan, Iran (then known as Persia) and the surrounding regions.[1]

Above: A sampling of assorted government archival material from the UK’s National Archives documenting the British role in the “Great Game.” (FO65/867)

I researched this rivalry a great deal while completing my undergrad degree in history, and so when I was subsequently studying and training to become an archivist, I decided to take the opportunity to examine the evolution of the imperial intelligence record-keeping practices of the Victorians between 1854 and 1901. Research for that paper opened my eyes to the fascinating ways in which various government departments created, utilized, and stored a wide range of record types while undertaking their clandestine work.

Intelligence report, 1878

This is the document that arguably started my love of government records – it is a fascinating report found in the U.K.’s National Archives providing an overview of intelligence service in 1878 (WO 33/32 – 365514)

This interest in government bureaucratic processes and records was further enflamed when I won a coveted student archivist co-op placement at our national archives – Library and Archives Canada (LAC) – within their State, Military, International and Justice section. One of my projects was to assist with the review, for declassification purposes, of records documenting Canada’s relationship with NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), from roughly 1949 to 1970.  This was an absolutely fascinating and enjoyable project and continued my education with regard to the interesting ways in which past government offices created and utilized records in their day-to-day work.

NATO book 1970

This 1970 book was my “go-to” resource during the NATO project – I used it and its helpful diagrams to give me a better understanding of the context of creation of the records I was reviewing (it was actually a serendipitous find at a used book store in Ottawa).

So, when I emerged as a newly minted archivist I essentially had a love of government records baked right in. But what, you may ask, is so great about the government records in the custody of the Region of Peel Archives? Let me count the ways in which I love Peel’s glorious government records:

1. They play a critical role in ensuring government accountability and transparency within a healthy and vibrant democracy

To start, I would put forth that the retention, preservation, and provision of access to government records, especially council minutes, by-laws, and related reports, ensures that the local governments that have existed and currently exist in the Peel area are kept accountable to citizens and to posterity. This is done by guaranteeing that there exists a transparent, accurate, reliable, and authentic record of their decisions and actions that is available for review by citizens and other interested parties (i.e. journalists, historians, auditors, lawyers, etc.) now and into the future.

Township of Caledon council minutes page, January 12, 1931

Example of Township of Caledon council minutes from January 1931.

The value of verifiably accurate documentation of government decisions and actions (i.e. “facts and evidence”) cannot be overstated, for as archival theorist and advocate Laura Millar notes:

“Democracy is underpinned by a society’s acceptance of the law, the rule of law, and the legitimacy of facts and evidence. If people give up on evidence-based truth in favor of personal truth, we are all bound to collide with each other, aren’t we? And what comes of that? Factionalism; tribalism; extremism. Conflict. Chaos.”[2]

In other words, “[w]ithout access to authentic evidence, we have no way to verify facts. Without verifiable facts, we have no way to determine the truth. Without respect for evidence, democracy is dead.”[3]

Millar is not alone in lamenting the rise of “alternative facts” and “misinformation” campaigns and the dangers they represent in the 21st century. A former Librarian and Archivist of Canada, Guy Berthiaume, has said that archivists need to take an active part in combating false narratives: “The phenomenon of misinformation is so prevalent that librarians and archivists do not have the luxury of staying on the sidelines in this debate.”[4]

DyVKopOXQAcGwFA

One way that I can take up the challenge to strike a blow for the centrality and importance of evidence-based truth is to continually raise awareness of the wonderful collection of authentic and reliable local government records in our care, and to ensure that they are made available to the people (with all due considerations given to appropriate privacy, sensitivity, and copyright protections as provided by legislation) so that relevant facts and evidence can be discerned, scrutinized, and used.

2. They can protect the rights of citizens

On a related note, some of the government records in our care are used to protect the rights of Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon citizens. For example,

  • Property assessment rolls and voter’s lists can provide proof of a person’s or a family’s occupancy of a specific property at a given time. This information is often needed when patrons need to prove residency for citizenship requirements, pension eligibility, or benefit payment purposes.
AandC rolls

Front covers of some Township of Chinguacousy Township assessment rolls

Mississauga Assessment roll segment(1) - 1976

An excerpt from a City of Mississauga assessment roll from 1976

 

  • Land ownership records such as Abstract Indexes to Deeds and the aforementioned assessment rolls allow patrons to prove that they (or their ancestors) actually own their land. Such an extreme case is rare; more often than not researchers at our archives are trying to confirm lot and boundary lines during an ownership or jurisdictional dispute with regard to where one property ends and another begins.
abstract index toronto

Typical excerpt of a page of the Abstract Index to Deeds (in this case Book A, Toronto Township – now Mississauga)

 

  • Official plans, by-laws, agreements, council minutes, environmental assessments, and other related records help officials and citizens to identify land that might be contaminated by past landfills, gas/service stations, quarries, etc. Once identified, remedial steps can then be taken to abate any health and safety concerns that may arise due to contaminants in the land or underlying aquifers.
PN2017_00030-31

1967 land use map taken from the Township of Albion Official Plan (as passed in 1968). Among other things, it notes the location of  then current and former landfill sites.

Pits and quarries - Region of Peel

1987 planning map showing the location of licenced pits and quarries then known in Peel

 

  • Zoning bylaws can help residents avoid unnecessary financial hardship when they use them to demonstrate that their place of residence or business was properly built under the zoning rules then in place, and thus does not necessarily need expensive changes under newer rules (referred to as proving a “nonconforming use.”)

3. They often can answer “the” question you absolutely need answered in a high pressure reference situation

Archivists are often called on when a government official or staffer, local journalist, archaeologist, or lawyer absolutely needs to know a specific fact for a presentation, report, submission, or article. I have been saved by government records when a patron needed to know:

  • The population of a given village, township, town, or neighbourhood in a specific year
  • The legal incorporation date for an area municipality
  • When a specific County road was created
  • When electric power became available to residents in a given village or township
  • Photographic documentation of an obscure rail bridge or culvert
  • When and how a municipal border changed
  • The location of an old landfill site

While private records have at times been able to answer these sorts of questions, the definitive answer (if one exists) is more often found among the records of the area governments.

Electricity example:

 

TG hydro-electric agreement, 1926_Page_02

Anyone researching the development and use of Hydro electric power in Peel would be well served by agreements in our care. The one above was signed by the Township of Toronto Gore and reveals that they asked to be added to the Provincial power grid in 1926.

Municipal incorporation example:

Peel County by-law 431_Page_1

Anyone who wants or needs to know when Malton was incorporated as a Police Village only needs to look at Peel County by-law #431. The answer? 1913. The complete by-law can be downloaded here.

4. They have a grand sense of scale

Given the large scope of concerns of a municipality, their records will often serve to offer a microcosm of societal concerns and a window into social, economic, legal, and political continuity and change across time in a way that other records in our holdings might struggle to replicate.

Here I am mostly thinking of municipal by-laws. A complete or nearly complete set of municipal by-laws (which for some Peel municipalities will go back to the mid-1800s) will offer unparalleled insights into community history, the growth and evolution of municipal programs and services available to area citizens, and the changing mindsets of elected officials and public administrators. Writing a history of a local fire department? By-laws will help. Interested in the funding model for one-room school houses? By-laws will help. Want to know more about the types of sewer lines installed in your area? By-laws will help. I often tell researchers that when in doubt, “check the by-laws, for therein lies your answer.” And if not, they usually find something else of interest…

PN2020_00672

Interested in the types of “noxious” weeds that residents had to deal with in the 1920s? There is a by-law for that. I think that “Viper’s Bugloss” is my favouite. Interestingly, this Port Credit by-law (# 112 passed in 1921)  reveals that the person hired as the weed inspector for the village of Port Credit was not being paid for his or her services. I suppose the person just really hated weeds and was willing to do the work for free?

By-laws can provide information on an extensive range of topics, including, but certainly not limited to:

  • Regulation of public morals, food staples, and permitted land uses
  • The amount of money raised and spent on large government programs and projects
  • The role of government in stimulating and regulating local markets and businesses
  • Money raised for patriotic causes such as the First and Second World War bond drives
  • When particular roads or streets were surveyed and opened for use
  • The borders of the old School Sections and electoral districts
  • Formation dates for local boards and organizations – Library Boards, Hydro-Electric Commissions, and “Hook and Ladder Companies” (fire fighters)
  • The origin of local police forces
  • Names of civic officers appointed in any given year or term – i.e. the sheriff, clerk, engineer, etc.
  • Regulations surrounding the behaviour of “transient salespeople,” also known as hawkers and peddlers
  • The location of land expropriated (bought) by the government for public purposes. This is often done to allow for the widening of roads, the creation of parks and landfills, or the building of public buildings (recreation centres, airports, etc.)
By-law 441_Page_1

Page 1 of Town of Brampton by-law # 414 (passed in 1912) concerning the regulation of the delivery and exposure for sale of meat, poultry, game, flesh, fish, and fruit within the Town’s borders. This illustrates local government interest in maintaining public health.

In short, by-laws are an invaluable resource for those interested in the social, economic, and political history of communities in the Peel area. They are also incredibly useful when seeking to understand the many ways in which elected officials have exercised their powers as public administrators (see point # 1 – government accountability and transparency – above).

5. Grand sense of scale, part two

On a related note, the financial and human resources of a municipality will often dwarf those of a private records creator. As such, governments are able to bankroll the creation of expensive records that end up being extremely useful to a wide range of researchers but would likely not exist if not for government interest and involvement. Great examples include:

  • Aerial photography of the entire Peel area from the 1950s to the present
  • The wide array of maps and plans commissioned or collected by various levels of government in the course of their activities
  • The Township of Toronto bench mark book, offering up systematic photographic documentation of the Mississauga area in the 1950s (see my favourites, below)
TorTwpplan-3000-nobottomline

The 1968 Official Plan for the Township of Toronto (now better known as the City of Mississauga)

2014.029

1923 plans for a bridge being built over the Etobicoke Creek near the intersection of Hurontario Street and Wellington Street in downtown Brampton

PN2015_01862

Copy of an 1883 plan of the village of Belfountain in the Township of Caledon

Some of my favourite glorious government records

To conclude, I would like to highlight some of my absolute favourite government records found in our holdings.

County of Peel road system map, 1962

PN2019_00199 11 x 17

Here we have what I would argue is one of the most aesthetically pleasing records in our collection, but I know that I have peculiar tastes. Not only does it look great (with a soothing sepia tone accented with blue highlights), but it is incredibly useful if you need to know the location and numbering scheme of Peel’s County Roads in the 1960s. I would argue that anyone looking for some intriguing wall art would be well served by a scan of this map.

Township of Caledon Telephone system register, 1950s-1960s

This interesting ledger comes from a time when the Township of Caledon, one of the municipal predecessors of the Town of Caledon, operated a municipal telephone system. This ledger was used to record the names of the customers (people, organizations, and businesses), and noted what they paid for installation, rental, and use of their telephone.

It would be useful to researchers seeking information about people living in Caledon in the 1950s and 1960s (albeit only those that could afford a phone), but also for those researching the development of the telecommunications system in Ontario. Adding to its allure is its sheer bulk and interesting construction: it easily weighs 20 to 25 pounds, the cover is covered in corduroy fabric, and it is adorned with a gorgeous faceplate.

Township of Toronto Bench mark book photographs and map, 1957

PN2019_01680

I have spoken at length about these records before (herehere, and here), but I need to again because they are such an amazing resource.

The bench mark book is comprised of 285 black and white photographs that were created by the Township of Toronto Planning Department in 1957 to document the location of small metal plaques known as “bench marks” found throughout the township (now the City of Mississauga). The bench marks, which were located on various buildings and structures, were used by planning staff to assist in situating other municipal projects.

The photographs are individually numbered and those numbers link to two index maps that show where each photo was taken. Taken together, these records offer easy-to-navigate documentation of many long-gone one-room school houses, private homes, roads, bridges, and culverts throughout Mississauga. As such, they are an invaluable resource for those interested in historical structures in the city. And the index maps are likely among the largest in our collection, with each one completely filing an oversize reading room table.

20180205_163448

This is one of the index maps only partially opened; when fully opened it fills the entire table.

Town of Brampton electric light register, 1914      

20200325_132718

Electric lighting may be something that many of us take for granted. And interestingly enough, earlier in my career I fielded a great many questions about the history of street lighting and the provision of electricity to households and farms throughout Peel.

One of the better records for illuminating this topic is the Town of Brampton’s electric light register. It notes the name of each customer with an electric light, their general location (i.e. street name) and the related monthly charge. Mapping this record onto related assessment rolls or street maps could be a very interesting exercise if one was interested in the distribution pattern of early electric lights within the town.

Bridge and culvert plans, 1920s

Bridges and culverts are, in some ways, the unsung heroes of the modern transportation age, and I think we may often take for granted the vast network of relatively smooth roads that link our homes, workplaces, and other destinations together. The effectiveness of this network is hugely assisted by the presence of sound bridges and culverts that allow us to safely travel over both large and small waterways.

We have a beautiful set of bridge, culvert, and road diversion plans created and/or collected by the Peel County engineer in the 1920s. Here is a small sampling from projects in the Townships of Toronto, Toronto Gore, and Albion:

In the 1920s an increasing number of Peel residents were using automobiles to get around and the area roads needed to be upgraded with stronger bridges and culverts to accommodate the increased weight and speed of the vehicles.

Thus ends my argument in support of the glory of government records. I hope that I have managed to convince some of our readers of the inherent importance, beauty, and usefulness of government records!

Kyle Neill, Senior Archivist

Notes

[1] “The Great Game was a Victorian prologue to the Cold War. It was fought in the press as well as in Himalayan passes, it pitted aggressive hawks against cautious doves, it  witnessed the rise of spy services and proxy wars and inspired the grandiose theory that control of the Eurasian “Heartland” would assure mastery of the world.” Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac. Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia (Washington D.C.: Perseus Books Group. 1999) pg. xviii

[2] Laura Millar, A Matter of Facts: The Value of Evidence in an Information Age (Chicago: ALA Neal-Schiman, 2019), pg. 5

[3] Laura Millar tweet 21 Jan. 2020 https://twitter.com/MillarLaura/status/1219683891444797440

[4] LAC Tweet 21 Feb. 2019 https://twitter.com/LibraryArchives/status/1091360548602724352

7 responses to “Why I love government records

    • Thank you very much Diane! Archival records certainly do have an important role to play in countering “alternative facts” and false narratives.

      Like

    • Thank you for your loyal support Rosemary – hope you are taking good care during these difficult times.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s