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Historian saves thousands of Environment Canada files at risk of government purge

University of Western Ontario’s Archives and Research Collections Centre. The HDM is a massive temperature and humidity controlled storage room that houses part of the Archives vast collection.

Michael-John Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

A thousand old boxes stuffed with pages of hand-scrawled numbers are taking up space in the basement of an Environment Canada research building and could easily have become part of a government purge.

But environmental historian Alan MacEachern, who recognized that their content is priceless, has hatched a plan to save it. Inside the containers are observations from thousands of weather stations across Canada dating back to 1840 – data that could be used to chart changes in the climate of this country since decades before Confederation.

There are also 250 volumes of journals, observations and correspondence created by weather watchers between the 1820s and the 1960s, including notes from the 19th century that detail the complex task of establishing a national weather service in a country as geographically large and varied as Canada.

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All of the paper would eventually have been lost to age. And, in a day when government research libraries are closing and surplus material is being discarded, Prof. MacEachern and his colleagues at Environment Canada decided the collection had to be preserved.

Over the course of the next few months, it will be moved to the University of Western Ontario where Prof. MacEachern is the director of the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE). The university has a massive, 10-year-old archive facility capable of storing the treasure trove of weather information under what the government and the university have agreed to call a long-term loan.

"Like any large organization, when stuff gets old enough, some people within Environment Canada found this material worthless and some people within Environment Canada found it priceless," Prof. MacEachern said in a telephone interview. "All of it, I would argue, is nationally significant and should be preserved, regardless, in paper form."

The idea of moving the weather data to Western was born in 2008 when Prof. MacEachern dropped in on some of the people he knew at Environment Canada's Downsview facility in the north of Toronto.

Because he is a historian, "they said 'oh, since you're here, do you want to see some old stuff?' So that's what they did. They took me down to the basement," said Prof. MacEachern. "There is a huge room and there's lots of aisles of these observations."

The Environment Canada researchers had already tapped into a portion of the material to create an online database of historical weather, Prof. MacEachern said. But they did not go back much further than 1900, and they did not pay attention to the written observations, he said.

Now that the raw data were no longer being used, the scientists were concerned about the work's long-term safety, Prof. MacEachern said.

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They tried, unsuccessfully, in the 1970s to have the boxes stored by Library and Archives Canada.

But the librarians at the federal archives likely decided "there were so many numbers that it didn't seem like the kind of thing that they usually carry," Prof. MacEachern said. And the need for historical weather data was not as apparent 40 years ago as it is today when scientists are searching for information related to climate change.

So the professor asked whether he could take the boxes off the government's hands. It took six years for the plan to transfer them to the University of Western Ontario to finally be set in motion.

Under the agreement reached between the university and the government, the material will be digitized by Western and will be available to the public, perhaps as early as late spring.

A spokesman for the the Library and Archives said his agency "supports and applauds this partnership between [Environment Canada] and the university and recognizes UWO as an institution that will meet the highest preservation standard."

Environment Canada agrees. The records, are "of great value to climatologists and other researchers who work in this field," said Mark Johnson, a spokesman for the department.

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The transfer means the material will be preserved in a climate-controlled space, Prof. MacEachern said. It will be available to researchers for the first time and it can be used in teaching, he said.

"I hope," he said, " it encourages other universities and other federal departments to get talking to one another about using this as some sort of precedent or inspiration for other efforts."

Gloria Galloway is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.

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