How to Find Old Pictures of Ontario Online
This post is part of Digital Literacy Week at Toronto Public Library, a week long celebration of Toronto's digital skills and technology capabilities.
Each website gives you instant access to items digitized by a library, archive or other heritage organization. No library cards or accounts needed.
(Only a tiny fraction of items in most physical collections are digitized. Learn about Canada's National Heritage Digitization Strategy.)
Archives of Ontario
Extensive database with thousands of images documenting "the richness and diversity of the province's history and landscape." Archives of Ontario also features online lesson plans based on primary sources.
City of Toronto Archives
Toronto-focused collection with aerial photos, street views, Works Department photos, Globe and Mail photos (1922-1953) and documentation of major infrastructure projects. Also includes digitized maps of the city. (OldTO, by Sidewalk Labs, is an interactive map of Toronto with content mainly from City of Toronto Archives.)
Digital Archive Ontario
Province-spanning database of photos, maps and postcards from Toronto Public Library. Most images are part of the Toronto Star Photograph Archive (1900-1999). You can also browse by Ontario community or primary source sets.
Digital Public Library of America
Site that aggregates millions of items from American libraries, archives, museums, etc. Happens to contain thousands of Ontario images. (Collections often extend past their institution's geographic region — or, in this case, national borders.)
A search engine with literally billions of images. Not to be overlooked. It can be invaluable, especially if you use long, detailed searches — however, results may lack contextual information available from other databases on this list (e.g. copyright info). Also features reverse image search.
Library and Archives Canada
A single search tool lets you explore Library and Archives Canada's various databases, which you can easily limit to images. Contribute notes to images using its Co-Lab tool. The award-winning Project Naming "enables Indigenous peoples to engage in the identification of photographs."
Partner and aggregator of Ontario heritage organizations — from local libraries to historical societies — with millions of digital items. You can search all images or limit your searches to certain contributors. The site is part of OurDigitalWorld, a not-for-profit organization. OurOntario.ca also hosts Gateway to Northwestern Ontario History, a repository managed by Thunder Bay Public Library.
Royal Ontario Museum + Art Gallery of Ontario
Small but wide-ranging digital collections. Unlike photo-heavy databases, these sites contain many documentary artifacts and art. Images in ROM Collections, for example, range from Indigenous-made arrowheads to watercolours of Ontario towns.
Online exhibits with the option to search individual images, from "the world's largest independent collection of LGBTQ+ documentary heritage." Though its digital collection is small, this Toronto-based archive offers vital visual documentation to LGBTQ+ history in the province and beyond.
...and local libraries, archives and museums
Many public libraries, university libraries, community archives and other heritage organizations across Ontario have digital collections. These online databases — sometimes in the form of Flickr or Pintrest pages — help you find pictures of specific communities or topics.
More search tips:
- Try using terms that would have been used at the time. Example: "physician" (older term) instead of "doctor" (newer term).
- Check if the place you're searching for has changed names. Example: Kitchener was "Berlin" from 1854 to 1916.
- Be mindful that a given name of a place might refer to multiple places. Example: "Ontario" is also a city in California.
- Broaden your search to a larger, associated region if your search for a place has too few results. Example: instead of "Dwight" (small community), try "Lake of Bays" (township containing Dwight) or, even broader, "Muskoka" (district municipality containing Lake of Bays).
- Sort your search results by date (though keep in mind that Google Images sorts by upload date only).
- Limit your results to only digital items. Databases may include records of both physical items (for in-person access) and digital items (for instant access).