Is There an Archive in Your Attic? Check Your Old Shoeboxes for Hidden Treasure!

September 1, 2016 | Suk Yin

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Farmer in the 19th century
On the farm in Nova Scotia, c. 1900 (Photo courtesy of Carl MacKenzie)

When my mother-in-law passed away 10 years ago, she left some precious family heirlooms. While my husband took pride in using the silver, bone china and crystal for special events, nothing gave him more joy than discovering, tucked away in our basement, shoeboxes of old family photos documenting his family’s early days as farmers in Nova Scotia, homesteaders in Saskatchewan and social workers in northern Manitoba.

Homesteaders in Saskatchewan
The homestead in Saskatchewan, c. 1910 (Photo courtesy of Carl MacKenzie)

It was exciting to go through all these family records which brought to life our family’s early history in Canada. Many of the photos had been labeled by his father and others were identified through a bit of detective work and delving into the memories of family members. For years, the photos were hidden away, until we got them organized and used a scanner and some common on-line tools to turn them into a large hardcover book showing life in the North. The photos are now well documented with names, places and faces permanently recorded in the scanned image files or on paper. Anyone can view the book online.

Our shoeboxes yielded treasures and memories that will enlighten and inform future generations and help them understand where they came from and how they got here.


York Street Public School 1923
York Street Public School 1923 (Toronto Public Library Digital Archive)

Chinese-Canadian Archive Project

This past April, the Toronto Public Library began the task of establishing a Chinese-Canadian archive to document the stories of the struggle, survival, joy, sorrow, failure and success of the Chinese immigrants in Toronto.

Hence we are seeking any related archival materials such as photos, letters, manuscripts, scrapbooks, documents, certificates, videos, etc. to help document the daily life of the Chinese in Toronto and Canada from 1878 to the present. With their blood, sweat, loneliness, suffering and desire for political justice, these pioneers worked hard to pave an easier road for today’s immigrants. The Toronto Public Library wants to document it all and build a collection that presents a holistic picture of the Chinese in Canada.


Archive in your attic: discovering family treasures

We are sure there are many shoeboxes, hidden in the basements and attics of many homes in Toronto (and even perhaps beyond) that will yield rich and poignant family stories that will make our archive come alive.

If you want to know more about discovering your family treasures through archiving, we invite you to join one of two upcoming sessions for Archive in Your Attic: Discovering Family Treasures:


Denise and her siblings reprise their parents' wedding
Denise Chong and her siblings reprise their parents’ wedding (Courtesy of Denise Chong)

Sat. Sept. 10, 2-3:30 at the Hinton Learning Theatre 3rd floor, Toronto Reference Library – presented by renowned author, Denise Chong.

Denise Chong had a nagging curiosity about the handful of black and white photos—all that was left from her grandparents’ time—and it ultimately led to her writing a family memoir, “The Concubine’s Children.” Denise will discuss how a writer, working with available materials, is a detective and inquisitor, triggering memories, documenting and imagining life as it was.



Lumb Family 1955
Lumb’s Family 1955 (Courtesy of Arlene Chan)

Sat. Oct. 22, 2-3:30 at the Hinton Learning Theatre, 3rd floor, Toronto Reference Library – presented by Chinatown historian, Arlene Chan.

Arlene Chan is the author of “The Chinese in Toronto from 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle,” a book which documents the history of her community for young and old. Arlene is a 3rd generation Canadian and grew up in Toronto’s original Chinatown, an area now occupied by Toronto City Hall. Chan’s parents owned a grocery store before opening a popular restaurant in Chinatown. Arlene will share with us about the importance of archiving family materials, preserving family histories and sharing family stories for future generations.