So without any real plan, let alone authorization, I offered to take the collection off Environment Canada’s hands.
At the time, I was a dyed-in-the-wool environmental historian increasingly feeling that I had somehow neglected the most pressing environmental issue of our time, climate change. Helping protect a nationally-significant climate history collection seemed like good karma.
I went straight from Environment Canada to my university archives. Thankfully, a few years earlier the archives had moved into a new building containing a high density module capable of holding one million volumes. Thankfully, too, University Archivist Robin Keirstead was excited by the idea of having the collection come to Western University, so it could be better preserved, more accessible to researchers, and made available for teaching purposes. Robin and I formally contacted Environment Canada and LAC, expressing Western’s interest in receiving the collection.
It took years of negotiation, but what ultimately made the transfer happen was that some folks at Environment Canada thought these old records were priceless and others thought they were worthless, so both concluded it would be great if they were at Western.
In 2014, the collection arrived at Western on long-term loan – here is a full listing of it. There are several hundred volumes of correspondence, letterbooks, and journals related to Canadian meteorological and climatological history between 1828 and 1967. But the real jewels of the collection are the almost 900 archival boxes (an estimated 1.6 million pages) containing all of Environment Canada’s extant daily weather observations between 1840 and 1960. From what we could determine, this was the largest archival arrangement ever made between a Canadian university and the federal government.
Mission accomplished. …But now what?
To begin, we are focusing on the qualitative remarks that observers included alongside their quantitative data. Although Environment Canada long encouraged (or, in some eras, tolerated) observers’ remarks on such matters as extreme weather, farming conditions, and changing seasons, it had never figured out a way to utilize these remarks, including in its climate archive. This qualitative data remained untapped.
Students and I are working to change that. In the past year, we have begun creating a database of remarks from the collection. We are transcribing everything the observers thought worth observing (with the important exception that we are ignoring the hundreds of thousands of entries such as “Clear,” “Fair,” or “Rain”). There are many entries on crop conditions and the status of harvests, on smoke from forest fires, on Northern lights, on matters of local political or social interest. There are also many entries that offer insights into the history of the meteorological service itself.
The database that Western History students and I are creating already has tens of thousands of tagged entries. In the near future, we will shift to the creation of a website that allows for geographical, temporal, and thematic searching of these observations, at micro- to macro- scales. Interested in Ajax, Ontario or in all of Canada? In your birthday or in a fifty-year timespan? In reports on earthquakes, orioles, or lilacs, or on all extreme weather, all fauna, all flora? We certainly hope to use this for research purposes, but our project’s ultimate goal is to make these observations available to climate researchers, and to the public, so that they make findings of their own. More good karma – climate research requires it.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions about the Environment Canada collection or research access to it.