The Photographic Holdings of the Archives of Ontario

Mary Ledwell, Archivist

Mary Ledwell, Archives of Ontario

It was a pleasure to have Mary Ledwell tell us the story of the Archives of Ontario and its photographic holdings. This fine institution, established over a century ago in 1903, is the largest provincial archive in Canada. Their mandate is to  "acquire and preserve records in all media that have enduring significance to the history and people of Ontario". 
Most of the holdings originated in the various government offices. These are joined by a large number of private sector records from people, businesses and other organizations in this province. Picture 157 CN Towers end to end - this equals the height of the Archive's textual records! Now add 50,000 reels of microfilm, over 40,000 maps, 200,000 architectural drawings, over 40,000 audio, video, and film records, and nearly two million photographs. The photographic holdings alone grow at a rate of 15 to 20 thousand new images per year. 

undated Autochrome from Hammond fonds

The photograph collection is of great value and interest to historians. It includes examples of every photographic format used since 1839 from daguerreotypes to digital images including two 18.5 by 2.5 feet panorama prints recently discovered under the floor boards of the Ontario Legislature at Queen's Park. The images were taken and printed by Toronto photographer William Thompson Freeland in 1912/13. At the time, they were considered "the largest one-piece, one-exposure enlargement in the world".  

Mary relates that in the early 1900s, it was common for the government departments to employ staff photographers to record ministry activities and programs. The images were available for communication and promotional use over the years. By the mid 1990s nearly all departmental photo libraries had closed with the Archives benefiting by the transfer of hundreds of thousands of images. Today departmental photographs are taken with digital cameras and often outsourced creating new challenges for the Archives. Media used to store digital files are not archival and cannot be read except with legacy hardware or resorting to expensive recopying as technology evolves. 

Private collections, which represent about 45% of the photographic holdings, come from both professional photographers and amateurs. The holdings include the work of William Notman, John and Thomas Connon, Herb Nott, M O Hammond, Peter MacCallum and Julien LeBourdais.

While the archives have both images and papers in the fonds, they do not have any cameras or other historic equipment, leaving those items to museums with the necessary space and expertise. Every effort is made to track down copyright ownership and if it is still in effect, transfer the rights to the Archives.

Images are carefully stored in archival quality packing which in turn is stored in a controlled environment specific to the media. All originals are handled with cotton gloves to reduce the risk of damage. The creation of working copies is underway to reduce the need to pull originals from storage.

Indexing the holdings is a major undertaking. For collections that come with an indexing system, the index is retained. Collections without one are arranged according to the creator's functions and activities. Descriptions of all the photographs are kept in the Archives "descriptive" database. Like the majority of museums and archives today, the Archives is moving from printed catalogues to public access via the internet. Scanning of the Archives  photographs began seven years ago in 1998. Each print is scanned at a resolution of 600 dpi.  Today, about 13,000 images can be viewed (low resolution jpegs) and ordered online as high resolution prints or CD compilations. The creation of an online catalogue and a move to new facilities is resulting in more accurate and complete indexing and information about the holdings.

Queen's park construction 1891 - Department of Public Works
Hamilton dental clinic c1930 - Ministry of Health
Redan Fort - Crimean War 1853-6 - James Robertson
Wickett and Craig Tannery c1990 - Peter MacCallum
Seed judging c1910 - Ministry of Agriculture
QEW near Port Credit c1940 (1950?) Ministry of Transport
Wickett and Craig Tannery infirmary  c1990 - Peter MacCallum
OCA students c1931 by M O Hammond
Board of Trade building, Toronto c1890 - Josiah Bruce
Hurricane Hazel 1954 - Gordon Powley
Restoring the Freeland panorama print
Eaton's 1930 Santa Claus parade
Uncurling and flattening prints
A of O reference desk at 77 Grenville
Deterioration of acetate negatives
A of O reading room at 77 Grenville
Deterioration of a glass plate negative

The Archives is based at 77 Grenville Street in Toronto. The holdings have overflowed into other owned and rented facilities in the GTA. Over the next year or two, most of the holdings will be consolidated in a new building in Bolton, Ontario built by Archive One. The building will have modern temperature and humidity controlled storage vaults and improved security. Any originals removed from storage will be acclimatized before shipping to Grenville Street for viewing. Certain items will remain at 77 Grenville such as glass negatives and glass cased images, fragile photo albums, oversize items, etc. People wishing to view any archived material will continue to use the reading rooms at Grenville Street. The facility is open to the public from 8:15 am to 5:00 pm Monday to Friday. Items from Bolton will have to be ordered up in advance.

Mary wrapped up her talk with some highlights on the risks presented by certain materials and the means to restore them. For example, each of the two large panorama images mentioned above were glued to a metal plate and varnished for protection. Today, Archives staff are removing the now yellowed varnish from the surface. Once finished, they will carefully remove each print from its metal backing and roll it up for safe transfer to the Archives. 


You can visit the Archives in person, or online at

The images shown on this page were taken with a Nikon Coolpix 990 and adjusted and sized in Photoshop CS. Hovering over an image will show its title. Clicking an image brings up an enlarged version.

All images from the presentation are copyright the Archives of Ontario. The other images are copyright the PHSC and may be freely used if the source is credited to the PHSC. Questions? Please contact me at

Robert Carter

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