Spring-cleaner, spare that box of old photos!

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Three cheers for the diligence and hard work of archivists! Without their labour it would be next to impossible to write informed historical narrative. In this blog entry, David Brownstein conducts a conversation with Tom Anderson, Provincial Archives of Alberta, and with Peter Murphy, Forest History Association of Alberta, regarding the Canadian Forest History Preservation Project. The project is a collaboration between the Canadian Forest Service, the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), and the Forest History Society. The goal is to locate valuable forest history material in danger of loss or destruction, and aid in its transfer to an appropriate archive. The Canadian Forest History Preservation Project wants to hear from you if you know of any prospects: dbrownst@interchange.ubc.ca

David Brownstein: Tom, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Tom Anderson: In 2003 I graduated from the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, at the University of British Columbia. I began work at the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA) in Edmonton, in 2004. I was a government records archivist for 5 years before moving to my current position as Team Lead, Private Records, where I am part of the group responsible for acquiring, preserving, and making available non-governmental records.

DB: Describe the PAA forest history holdings for us.

TA: The Provincial Archives is the repository for government records of enduring value, as well as private records of individuals, businesses, schools, associations, and societies in Alberta. Our holdings cover the whole of the province, and we are lucky to have extensive forest, environment, and resource-related records, tracing the development and history of forests and forest professionals. We hold records of those in government responsible for forests from the federal field notes of timber and land surveys and management of timber berths, up to present-day provincial ministries, ranging from the departments of Mines and Minerals, Lands and Forests, and the Department of Sustainable Resource Development. The records, be they cabinet papers, memoranda, policy records, work diaries of rangers, films, photographs, forest cover maps, or even blueprints of ranger stations, cover all aspects of forest management.

We hold records related to forest officers and their training, forest protection, timber management, reforestation, land use and climate change, equipment, legislation and regulation, and research and recreation.

As our mandate to acquire records covers the whole of the province of Alberta and is not limited to government created materials, the PAA also has textual records, photographs and films of logging, mill owners, municipalities and their efforts to fight fires, environmental groups, aerial photographs created by Weldwood of Canada, records of various flyers and their companies, and even records of bush pilots in the province. The records either directly or indirectly document the change in forests and environment over time.

DB: How can people decide if they have anything of value that deserves archival protection?

TA: Any person, family, business, or group with forest history records can either contact you for assistance, David, or they can contact an archives to discuss the records in their possession. We look to acquire records that document the lives, work, history, and culture of the province, and donors that have some connection to forestry in any capacity should hold on to their materials and make sure to speak with us before throwing anything away! We get this question a lot, and so we recently published Family Histories: Preserving Your Personal and Family Documents, available in English and French, free to anyone who comes to the Provincial Archives.

In this case, we look for records that provide evidence of a life related to forests or forestry. We are interested in material created by industry workers, active or retired professionals in the area, students, families of workers, and those dedicated to forest preservation and utilization. We look for correspondence, diaries, photographs, albums, home movies, minutes and agendas of professional or business meetings, maps, plans, and of course writings on how the forests and environment have affected the lives of Albertans, and how we have influenced our environment.

ot Tom Anderson. Rather, it's a woodcutter at Bowden, Alberta, early 1900s (PAA Photo H592).
ot Tom Anderson. Rather, it’s a woodcutter at Bowden, Alberta, early 1900s (PAA Photo H592).

DB: From the point of view of a box of photos or letters, what is the difference between being kept at a private home in a basement or an attic, and being housed in the archives?

TA: I would say the difference is the length of time that the different places can preserve the records. Boxed in a cool, dark closet, protected from vast changes in temperature or humidity, paper and photos can last a long time at home. We have conservators on staff if people have questions about how to preserve materials at home. Many of us do not preserve our special records in optimal conditions, though, and there is always the possibility of a fire or flood in the home. There is no guarantee that a disaster will not happen at an archives; but depending on the repository, there are safeguards in place to ensure the safest possible environment for the records, and for the longest possible time. The Provincial Archives of Alberta for example stores all its records on site in special archival enclosures, in secured climate-controlled vaults, free of temperature or humidity changes.

DB: What should people keep in mind, when considering donating their material to the archives?

TA: Potential donors should consider that the records that become part of an archives is the legacy that we leave for future generations.

Archives strive to ensure accountability, protect the rights of the people, and document all aspects of the lives of citizens. We want the holdings to be used and accessed; records at the PAA are, for the most part, open and available and free for use by anyone. The Provincial Archives is very lucky to have a number of exciting forestry-related collections of records. People must always keep in mind that we are dependant on donors. If societies, associations, businesses, or individuals do not donate their records, we cannot build on the good work of those who have donated and preserved the records of the past.

DB: How have PAA holdings been used by various researchers?

TA: Students, academics, amateur historians, genealogists, artists and writers utilize our holdings. I know that environment and forest records were used in the creation of recent exhibits, and in research for park-related studies, books and presentations, including The Alberta Forest Service 1930-2005 and Laying Down the Lines: A History of Land Surveying in Alberta.

DB: Peter Murphy, tell us a little bit about yourself – how did you become interested in forest history?

Peter Murphy: I was raised in Quebec and my outdoor-loving parents introduced me to forests in the Laurentians. That led me to the University of New Brunswick, where I graduated with a degree in forestry in 1953. I worked in the west during summers on a ranch and in forestry. At the end of my third year I worked in forest surveys for the B.C. Forest Service and again for a year after graduation. In my travels through most of the province I was impressed with the history of logging and sawmilling that was so evident, from Lumberton with its flumes in the southeast to Sawmill Row in Prince George and the plank roads from McBride to wet forests south of Smithers. I came to Alberta in the spring of 1954 and saw much the same historical changes as I travelled with forest surveys to Lake Athabasca, East Slopes to Edson, Grande Prairie and Peace River. Forestry was very much in transition, as author Robin Huth later so aptly described in his book, From Horses to Helicopters.

I got into training for the Alberta Forest Service in 1956, and so worked and travelled with staff throughout the province and became engrossed with their history and that of the forest industry. When we got our own training facility at Hinton in 1960, then the Forest Technology School, we could begin to collect some of the traditional old tools and equipment that were becoming obsolete and were able to build a modest museum in which to display them. In that way we could also give students and visitors a historical perspective. Students and visitors also gave us an opportunity to start recording lectures and interviews. As well, we inherited parts of the old Dominion Forestry Branch pre-1930 photograph collection; with my colleague Bob Stevenson, who had rescued a major set of them from a garbage bin, and adding private donations, we eventually produced a collection of over 4,000 images available to search on a CD in 2005 with support of the AFS.

In the meantime, in 1963 I completed a master’s degree at University of Montana, and in 1968 had a six-month traveling fellowship in Britain, which considerably extended my appreciation of forest history. In January 1973 I moved from Hinton to Edmonton to teach forestry at the University of Alberta until retirement in 1995. In 1985, as an extension of a lengthy term paper as part of my PhD program at University of British Columbia, the Alberta Forest Service published my history of forest and prairie fire control in Alberta. That laid the groundwork for several enjoyable post-retirement forest history projects. And the search for references provided a first-hand understanding of the importance of both public and private archival collections—both appreciation of their availability and despair at their absence. In retrospect, I seem to have bumped into forest history at every turn and enjoyed the many opportunities to explore it.

Peter J. Murphy
Peter J. Murphy

DB: Peter, as a researcher who has made extensive use of the archives, can you elaborate on Tom’s account of how archival material has been used to write Alberta’s forest history?

PM: I was lead author for Alberta Forest Service, 1930-2005, and can attest to the value of PAA. As well, I have drawn on PAA resources for A Hard Road to Travel, Learning from the Forest, and Forest and Prairie Fires in Alberta. In addition, I wrote two chapters for I. S. MacLaren’s book Culturing Wilderness in Jasper National Park, for which I also drew on resources at PAA.

PAA is a leading repository for those studying forestry and forest-related topics, but is not the only one in Alberta. Archives such as University of Alberta, Glenbow Museum, and Whyte Museum of the Rockies also have much to offer. They, along with many local archives, such as the Jasper Yellowhead Museum and Archives, serve as important complementary sources of reference materials and photographs. There are also a few private collections of photos and documents that I hope can be consolidated into safer havens and made more conveniently accessible to other researchers. And, although our discussions have focused on the Alberta scene, we need also recognize the substantial collections and services of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and the Forest History Society in Durham, North Carolina, of which I have been a member for 30 years and a past president.

The importance of archived records was impressed on me during the early 1980s when I was researching the contributions of the Dominion Forestry Branch (DFB) to forestry in Alberta. Until 1930 the forests of Alberta were a responsibility of the Dominion government. There were few DFB files available at PAA, so on my first visit to the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) in Ottawa I was surprised that there were relatively few files there, too. I understood from one of the LAC archivists that upon the Transfer of Resources in October 1930, the government of Alberta insisted that all active files be sent to the Alberta Department of Lands and Mines in Edmonton, so that there were relatively few files left in Ottawa to be later transferred to LAC. I recalled then that when I started work with the Alberta Department of Lands and Forests in Edmonton in 1954 that there were great stacks of Dominion files in the basement of the Natural Resources Building, which, I understand, were soon after disposed of. My impression was that, unfortunately, the number of files was so overwhelming, that many were just stored, later to be thrown out. This was before PAA had been established, and which now ensures preservation of provincial government files.

However, that experience indicates that identifying and finding homes for privately held materials is also a matter of ongoing importance.

The forest history preservation project being conducted by NiCHE, the Forest History Society, and the Canadian Forest Service, is especially important in identifying which Canadian archives are able and willing to accept donations of new forest history collections. The next phases of the NiCHE project will be equally important—first to identify privately held collections in danger of loss or destruction and then to match them with suitable repositories that would accept and make them reasonably accessible for researchers. It is encouraging to see this project progressing so expeditiously.


Bott, R., P. Murphy and R. Udell. 2003. Learning from the Forest: A Fifty-year Journey towards Sustainable Forest Management. Foothills Model Forest and Fifth House Ltd.

Huth, Robin A. 1980. Horses to Helicopters: Stories of the Alberta Forest Service. Alberta Forest Service, Energy and Natural Resources.

Larmour, Judy. 2005. Laying Down the Lines: A History of Land Surveying in Alberta. Brindle & Glass Pub.

Murphy, P.J. 2007. “‘Following the Base of the Foothills’: Tracing the Boundaries of Jasper Park and its Adjacent Rocky Mountains Forest Reserve.” In Culturing Wilderness in Jasper National Park, edited by I.S. MacLaren, 71–122. University of Alberta Press.

Murphy, P.J. 1985. History of Forest and Prairie Fire Control Policy in Alberta. ENR Rep. No. T/77. Edmonton: Alberta Energy and Natural Resources.

Murphy, P.J. 2007. “Homesteading the Athabasca Valley to 1910: An interview with Edward Wilson Moberly, Prairie Creek, Alberta, 29 August 1980.” In Culturing Wilderness in Jasper National Park, edited by I.S. MacLaren, 123–54. University of Alberta Press.

Murphy, P.J. with R.W. Udell, R.E. Stevenson and T.W. Peterson. 2007. A Hard Road to Travel: Land, Forests and People in the Upper Athabasca Region. Foothills Model Forest, Hinton and Durham, NC: Forest History Society.

Murphy, P.J., R.E. Stevenson, D. Quintilio and S. Ferdinand. 2006. Alberta Forest Service, 1930–2005: Protection and Management of Alberta’s Forests. Pub. No. I/133. Edmonton: Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.


Provincial Archives of Alberta: http://culture.alberta.ca/archives/

NiCHE forest history newsfeed: http://niche-canada.org/foresthistory

Forest History Society archival guide: http://www.foresthistory.org/research/archguid.html

Canadian Forest Service: http://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/

There are forest history societies in four provinces, each with websites in varying stages of development – from east to west:

Société d’histoire forestière du Québec: http://www.shfq.ca

Forest History Society of Ontario: http://www.ontarioforesthistory.ca/

Forest History Association of Alberta: http://www.albertaforesthistory.ca

Forest History Association of British Columbia: http://www.fhabc.org/



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David Brownstein is the Principal of Klahanie Research Ltd (www.klahanieresearch.ca). He is also a longstanding UBC sessional instructor, and the continuing co-ordinator of NiCHE's "The Canadian Forest-History Preservation Project" (still facilitating archival donations after 11 years).

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.