Environment Canada Observation, Goderich, ON November, 1913. Source: Environment Canada

Environment Canada archival collection coming to Western

Environment Canada Observation, Goderich, ON November, 1913. Source: Environment Canada

First published 30 January 2014.

It’s nice at the end of the coldest month in memory to report some warming news – and weather-related news at that.

A large, nationally-significant Environment Canada archival collection is coming to Western University on long-term loan, for preservation, research, teaching, and digitization. Climate change is the most pressing environmental issue of our time, and understanding climate change requires climate history; this agreement ensures that an important slice of Canadian climate history is preserved and available for study. From what I can tell, this is the first such archival loan arrangement between a federal agency and a university in Canada.

The collection is in two parts. The first consists of all extant meteorological observations generated at thousands of weather stations across Canada, from the predecessor agencies of Environment Canada, between 1840 to 1960 – about 1000 boxes in all. Environment Canada has already extracted the data it wants from these observations to create the National Climate Data and Information Archive but the forms contain lots of unexplored information of interest to environmental and historical researchers. The observers’ textual observations have never been studied, and much of the quantitative data – related to, for example, hail or wind – has not been extracted and has only been studied piecemeal. The second part of the collection consists of 250 volumes of journals, observations, letterbooks, and correspondence related to Canadian meteorological and climatological history, and spanning the 1820s to the 1960s.

This long-term loan results from a visit I made to Environment Canada’s Downsview office in 2008. Being a historian, I was shown the old stuff. The collection was being handled with care in the basement, but staff was well aware it was not a facility equipped to maintain historical material at archival standards. And there were concerns about the collection’s long-term prospects. That visit began a five-year conversation that University Archivist Robin Keirstead and I had with Environment Canada, Western, and Library and Archives Canada to have the material come to London.

Letterbook of George T. Kingston, Toronto Observatory, 1855

Letterbook of George T. Kingston, Toronto Observatory, 1855

Western Archives will preserve this fragile paper collection in its temperature- and humidity-controlled High-Density Module storage room, right outside its reading room. The collection will be available to university and public researchers, probably by the summer. (I have also negotiated enhanced access to NiCHE members, so if you see yourself coming to Western to research the collection, let me know.) It will be available for teaching, too; I will be incorporating it into a new climate history course this fall. And Environment Canada has granted license for Western-based researchers to have the collection digitized; a longterm goal is to have the collection available to researchers and an interested public everywhere.

If you have any questions, please share them in the comments below. Josh MacFadyen and I will be rolling out more information about the collection in the coming days and years. Watch the skies.

Thank you to all who made this long-term loan happen. From Environment Canada, Bob Hamilton, George Enei, Michael Minuk, Ross Gordon, Mike Manore, Terri Fraser, Hoppa Lau, Chris Kocot, Anna Deptuch-Stapf, Irene Lizotte, Christine Best, and Morley Thomas. From Western, John Capone, Paul Elochuk, Jeff Renaud, Elizabeth Mantz, Josh MacFadyen, and Robin Keirstead. 

Media mentions of the loan:
-Globe & Mail (18 March, 2014)
-GeogNews No 286 (February 3, 2014)
-London Free Press (Jan 31, 2014)
-Western University  Original Press Release
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Director of NiCHE. Also: dad, husband, graduate chair, author of "The Associate" column in University Affairs, editor of the Canadian History & Environment series at University of Calgary Press, & too-occasional researcher & writer on matters Canadian, environmental, historical, or all three. Reach me at amaceach@uwo.ca

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7 Comments

  1. Sean Kheraj says:

    Congratulations, Alan! This is a tremendous achievement and, perhaps, a model for future “rescue” efforts for orphaned federal archival records.

  2. This is a fantastic (and serendipitous) arrangement and one that reflects well on Western and Environment Canada.

  3. Thanks, Will & Sean. University Archivist Robin Keirstead & I have been getting some nice notes from Environment Canada staff past & present. Here is an especially gratifying one, posted with permission:

    Over the past few months I have been very concerned about the closing of federal government libraries and archives. This morning I became aware of the move to transfer the Atmospheric Environment Service. There are several reasons why this particular event is of interest to me and a source of great pleasure.

    First, in 1966 I graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a PhD in atmospheric physics. Subsequently, in 1969, I joined Environment Canada, the Atmospheric Environment Service, where I was involved in atmospheric research for 30 years.

    Second, when I retired I did some consulting work for a small environmental firm in Ottawa. My first contract was to develop a document on the historic climate of The Bahamas. This document became part of the Bahamian submission to the UN FCC at which time they requested admission to the climate change initiative, popularly known as the Kyoto Accord. The Bahamian historical record was not nearly as comprehensive as that for Canada, however it included a daily record book handwritten by a meteorologist starting around 1909. With that book and more recent records, I was able to put together a fairly accurate account of the weather/climate over a century.

    The point is that archives are treasures because they tell us what we did and what happened at the time. They are benchmarks often. We learn from their history.

    What a pleasure it was to see my old alma mater rescuing archives relating to the atmosphere, the focus of my whole professional life.

    Sincerely
    Hans Martin
    King City, Ontario

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