So what brings you to the Provincial Archives?


Editor’s note: this is a long-form blog post; sit back and enjoy the read!

In the past, if you needed a photo, video or map for a project, you had to go to an institution that held that information and spend a considerable amount of time finding the records. Today, if you need material for an assignment or project, you go online and find what you need – usually in a matter of minutes.

Online content is ubiquitous in pretty much everything we see, read and study; however, sometimes you still need to go directly to the source to get the correct information and best quality media. In Alberta, that source is the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA).

The PAA is open to the public and is an incredible resource that is the keeper of our past.  One of the mandates of the PAA is to acquire records that reflect Alberta’s history, including material of individuals, businesses, organizations, associations and communities from across Alberta. The PAA collects everything from textual records and photographs, to film, sound recordings and maps. These items are then organized and made available for everyone to access.

So who exactly spends their time pouring through photos, videos and audio recordings at the Archives?  You may assume they’re mostly folks with a general interest in their local or family history – that photo of a great-grandparent or a map of the location where your family first settled in Alberta – or an academic or historian. In reality, the people that access the records at the PAA are as unique as each of the items available in the Reading Room.

For example, Sheila Willis is the Executive Director of the Friends of Historical Northern Alberta Society, and for the past couple years, she has used the PAA as a resource to develop the History Check app. This mobile app lets you search for museums, historic points of interest and traveller information across northern Alberta.

Sheila Willis App Image2

Sheila Willis, Executive Director of the Friends of Historical Northern Alberta Society (FHNAS) researching at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, 2017

“Northern Alberta is one of those places that didn’t have huge historical events,” Willis said, “but instead consisted of the smaller day-to-day events that contributed to the history of the entire province.”

Willis said she relied on homestead files at the PAA to help confirm details about unique stories in the area and she supplemented these stories with maps, place names and field notes.

Another researcher with a need for archival material is Dylan Reade, an Edmontonian who has spent the last 25 years travelling the world and shooting IMAX films. You may have seen his work in the Oscar-nominated documentary Fires of Kuwait, on which he worked as first assistant camera.

Reade has developed a process to convert archival content (e.g. photos, maps, conceptual paintings) into stereoscopic (3-D) spaces that provide geometrically accurate perspectives. He can also add movement (smoking chimneys, moving streetcars) to transform archival material to look like you’re right there, standing behind the camera when a picture was taken a hundred years ago.


Original archival image from the PAA, Photo # B3471 (Ernest Brown photo collection)
Macdonald Hotel site looking S. Grandview Hotel and Barkers Store 

The hundreds of hours Reade spent researching at the PAA over the last couple of years was partly in support of a project with the Edmonton Heritage Council: Retrofuture: Edmonton and the City Beautiful. This project could not have happened without access to archival material, as well as the context of a photo or map and how they connect to other media at the PAA. The Ernest Brown fonds, Reade said, were invaluable to his research:

“I believe that the Ernest Brown fonds are one of the greatest treasures at the Archives… not just the photographs that he accumulated, but also the staggering amount of essays, unpublished manuscripts and research documents that he has left for posterity.  He structured the handwritten index of his photographic collection as a sort of primitive precursor to hypertext with links to thematically related photographs.  It makes for a time-consuming journey of discovery to trace through all of his suggested links manually, but he has set this information up in a way that anticipates and is perfectly suited to being staged as hypertext links in digital browser.”

Episode 4_Hays_Bulletin_Interview copy (2)- DR

Enhanced still image from “Macdonald 100” a three dimensional archival celebration of the centennial of Edmonton’s iconic hotel directed by Dylan Reade, 2015

What’s unique about Edmonton’s history as it relates to the acquisitions that the PAA has collected over the decades, Reade says, is how the history of the city is connected to photography:

“Edmonton is young enough that our entire civic history coincides with the history of photography. The first images of Edmonton were captured when there was almost no other building outside the fort – the earliest image of our downtown core was taken in 1871 when there were only two log buildings east of 101st Street and two buildings west of Groat Ravine — at least on the north side of the river.  Remarkably, it appears that photographic images of all of these buildings have survived, most of them at the Provincial Archives.

We have access to surviving images that document our entire civic history from the fur trade, to the earliest homesteads, to the first businesses, to our era as a frontier boom town, then Klondike boom town and then the building boom a century ago that transformed us from a farming village to a modern metropolis in little more than a decade.  It is profoundly important that these images have been preserved.”

For information on the programs and services available at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, as well as info on 50th anniversary celebrations and exhibits, visit


Original archival image from the PAA, Photo # B6218 (Ernest Brown photo collection) Grand Trunk Officials leaving after visiting the Edmonton District, 1904 (left)

A second enhanced still image features an archival photo from the PAA with the addition of local actors Gord Marriott (as Charles Hays, president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway) and Tom Edwards (as Edson Chamberlain, 2nd in command) who appear in an “Edmonton Bulletin Newsreel” man-on-the-street interview about the future hotel.  This newsreel in turn is staged on a screen within a Glenbow photograph (ND-3-2146) of the Monarch Theatre into which additional actors are inserted as audience.  In the film the actors (centre rear of train) dissolve into the image, replacing the archival characters. Charles Hays delivers a speech to the immobile Edmonton crowd while Edson Chamberlain looks on warily from behind him. Film: “Macdonald 100”, 2015 (right)

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