Thursday, December 16, 2010


What we go through!

Two disparate event occurred today. The twenty-six year-old billionaire creator of Facebook was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for revolutionizing how personal information and news are shared around the world.

And on a lesser stage, I wrestled a dinosaur.

I spent the morning at the Library and Archives Canada, reading the 1907 editions of the Western Star, a weekly newspaper from Birchy Cove, Newfoundland. The newspaper was on microfilm, encased on a small spool in a box. First I had to figure out how to load the spool, thread it through the viewer and ensure it would be picked up on the receiving spool. Not since my graduate school days of reel-to-reel film have I had to wiggle reluctant celluloid onto spool. The instructions were on the machine, but the light was so dim and the print so small, that no matter how I tilted my head, I could not get the diagram to focus on the right spot in the graduated lenses of my glasses. So I winged it. And ended up with the newspaper upside down. After much cursing, delivered under my breath since this was a library, after all, I abandoned the diagram, reversed the spools, threaded the tape backwards and then ran the whole thing in rewind.

Triumph. A mere fifteen minutes in, I was looking at the first available page (April 1907) of the Birchy Cove Western Star on a screen of tiny, pale print. The middle was in focus, but the top and bottom were blurry. More squinting as I tried to decipher the directions labeled “Focus” and “Zoom”. The “zoom” was apparently as big as it was going to get. Next time I resolved to bring a magnifying glass. The “focus” was handy, but as one part of the page came into focus, another faded into blur. It took me fifteen minutes to skim the first month’s worth of the weekly. It was an interesting glimpse into another era. I learned that Miss Cornelia Leggo had arrived from St. John’s to visit her brother, Mr. Jonathan Leggo, on Friday, and departed by return train on Sunday. I learned that “woman’s trials”, the result of thin, tired blood, could be cured by Dr. William’s Pink Pills. In subsequent editions of the weekly, I learned that Dr. William’s Pink Pills could cure just about anything.

By the time I had ploughed through two months, I was tiring of Dr. William’s Pink Pills, and those of his rivals, as well as the endless tedious reports of the Newfoundland House of Assembly. I really only needed to know information about the slate quarries and the Grand Falls pulp mill, or news of the family of Thomas Currie, my grandfather. But microfilm offers no search option. No way to distill my essentials from this background chatter of the times. My head ached, my eyes burned, and my neck had a crick from trying to see to the top of the screen.

So I went home, knowing that I would be back, because I had several years of newspapers to skim through, not to mention many other period sources to read. They afford a wonderful glimpse into another time. An essential gift of authenticity for a writer. And yet I felt a strong yearning for the good new days.

The days of the internet, with information and search options at one’s fingertips. The days of Google, of searchable sources, of Facebook. Perhaps today Thomas Currie would have a Facebook page on which he would share personal updates and family photos, giving me much easier access to his life than I can obtain by squinting through the “Personal Mention” columns of the Birchy Cove Western Star. Circa 1907.

But whoever said the life of a writer was easy?

Barbara Fradkin is
a child psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. In addition to her darkly haunting short stories in the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, she writes the gritty, Ottawa-based Inspector Green novels which have won back to back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead, which explores love in all its complications, is hot off the press.


  1. some 30 years ago, i spent 2 weeks at the historical museum in the town where i was born, researching 19th century theatre in the style of what was once called an "opera house" - everything was in the print archives, i handled 100 year old newspapers - but for a project somewhat like Barbara's, i once spent nearly a month in the Brooklyn Public Library looking at a "microfiche" collection of 200 year old American plays - i nearly went blind, staring at something so close and so small

  2. If you're having problems using the readers as you decribe ask for help at the desk just inside the microfilm room at LAC. It's what they're paid for. They may have others to assist first, which means a short wait, but they can often help give you a better experience.

  3. Your description brought back the months and months of tedious research in the Archives when I was writing a history thesis - too bad all the files can't be transferred to an easier to read format. Don't you find that you get sidetracked and interested in information that has nothing to do with your search?

  4. I did, Joan, which is partly why it took me two hours to go through nine month's worth of papers. It did cross my mind, though, that now that so much of our communication is fleeting and online, what will researchers have to wade through in a hundred years' time? A valuable social historical record is being lost these days.

  5. I agree that putting all our eggs in the computerized basket is risky. At one point the government was threatening to shred old birth certificates and other documents once they were scanned. Genealogists were horrified. I wonder what happened to that.