Canadian Genealogy

What you need to know to visit the BC Archives today (Sep 2022)

I last visited the British Columbia (BC) provincial archives in 2018. In the interim I’ve been researching every spare moment and like you, maximizing my online subscriptions. There comes a point when we need to step away from the internet and do research in person. For me, that point came this summer. Since May I’ve visited the City of Vancouver archives, the United Church of Canada archives, and Ocean View Burial Park (Burnaby, BC). Here’s my fourth and final archive visit for the summer: the provincial archives in beautiful Victoria.

Getting there and getting around

Flights: I flew directly from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Victoria, British Columbia with WestJet. I had leftover flight credits from 2020 that were on the verge of expiring, which helped minimize travel costs. The airport (airport code YYJ) is not located in Victoria but rather Sidney, 27 kms north.

photo of Victoria Airport Arrivals, Victoria BC
Victoria Airport Arrivals, Victoria BC. Aug 2022. Photo by the author.

Getting into town: There are four options to get from the airport to Victoria (from most expensive to least): rent a car, take a taxi, get a shuttle, or take the bus. (As of August 2022, Victoria does not have Uber.) I opted for the shuttle with the new service Lucky to Go, which runs shuttles from the airport to downtown (and vice versa). The cost of the shuttle from the airport was about half the cost of a taxi and it was clean and quick. Recommended.

Where to stay: In the summer of 2022, prices for accommodation were sky-high everywhere. Sites on AirBnB were charging as much as hotels (about $275-500/night before taxes). I looked for my favourite, Helms Inn, but it was booked. (Helms Inn is right behind the archives.) Instead I rented a private room at the Ocean Island Hotel and Hostel. Located at 791 Pandora, this little gem is a fifteen minute walk to the archives. Budget travellers can take advantage of the vast array of freebies: coffee, breakfast, and dinner.

Where I ate and drank: I don’t scrimp on food and drink on the road. As a single female traveller who is also watching her health, I prioritize comfort, quality, quiet, and safety over budget. For basics, I took the precaution of filling my carryon luggage with granola bars and a water bottle. I tried the Sherwood for breakfast (down the block from Ocean Island) where the breakfast was to die for and the coffee even better. My friend Cris treated me to a fabulous lunch at the Steamship Grill, which bills itself as the best patio in Victoria. Another day my friend Walter and I tried the food trucks. One night I went alone to the reliable Famoso Neapolitan Pizza, where the service was top notch and they kindly left me alone with my laptop. I even tried bubble tea at Yi Fang where the customizations would make Starbucks weep with envy. The most memorable dinner was with my sis on the patio at The Tapas Bar where the atmosphere was lively and the margaritas scrumptious.

Getting exercise: My one difficultly on this trip was keeping to my new workout routine. My room at the inn, as comfortable as it was, was not large enough, nor were there any suitable indoor spaces. Nearby parks were the homes of unhoused persons. Instead, I switched to morning walks through Chinatown and the waterfront.

The archives: FAQ

Costs: Researching at the archives is free to the public.

Hours: Because hours are subject to change without notice, here’s the link. It is important to know the archivists are not available the full day. When I visited, they were available until 4:00 pm, after which a researcher is welcome to use the self-serve drawers until fifteen minutes before close at 6:00 pm. Plan accordingly.

Lockers: Free and plentiful.

Masks: As of Aug 2022, the archives no longer require masks (but you are welcome to wear them).

Offsite retrievals: If you know what you want to see is not on microfilm, I strongly advise you request it well before your visit. Some materials take three business days to retrieve. Here’s the link to make those requests.

Parking: I didn’t have a car this trip but here is info if you are driving.

Registration: If it’s your first visit, you will need to register as a researcher. There is no charge. You can do this online before your visit or in person with photo ID. (If you are like me and it’s been a few years since you last visited, turn your researcher pass over to check the expiry. If it’s expired, still bring your card because it’s easier to renew than register anew.)

Search: Here’s the link to search the archives. I strongly recommend you do your preliminary search before you book travel. (I will talk more about this in my next post.)

Washrooms: Right outside the door.

Water: Water fountain right outside the room.

What you can bring into the room: computer (with cords, mouse), flash drive, loose papers, notebook, pencils, smartphone. I saw one researcher ask for and receive permission to bring a flatbed scanner. Another used a frame to hold a smartphone to take photos of records.

What you can’t bring into the room: Bags, drink, food, pens.

How to research using microfilm

How to load a film reader

In this section I’ll share with you the little details that I always forget about microfilm: the right way to thread the film onto the reels.

The left reel holds the film. It should look like this.

photo of microfilm reader
Microfilm reader showing correct feed of the left feed reel around the first pin and over the second pin, BC Archives, Victoria. Aug 2022. Photo by the author.

The right reel is the take-up reel. It should look like this.

photo of microfilm reader
Microfilm reader showing correct feed of the take-up reel and pins, BC Archives, Victoria. Aug 2022. Photo by the author.

When fast forwarding or fast rewinding, pull the tray towards you so the plates separate, thus minimizing wear on the films. It should look like this: photo and video below.

Photo of microfilm reader correctly loaded with plates separated for fast film forwarding or rewinding.
Microfilm reader with a reel correctly positioned with raised plates for fast forwarding or rewinding, BC Archives, Aug 2022. Photo by the author.
Rewinding microfilm back onto the reel, BC archives, Victoria. Aug 2022. Video by the author.

How to read the codes for vital statistic records at the BC archives

I’m excited to share this with you. Despite pulling birth, marriage, and death records (BMDs) back in 2018, I’d forgotten this little trick for reading registration codes and was utterly confused my first day. Now I’m sharing it with you (and my future self, who will forget again). There are two different methods depending on whether the records were produced before or after 1944. We will start with the easier ones: record produced after 1944.

How to retrieve BMDs from microfilm – 1944 and later

Step one: Look for your person using the genealogy lookup here. If there is no digital copy available, go to step two. In this example we have a death index for James Loo in 1979. There is no link, meaning there is no digital copy available.

Death index of James Loo, BC Archives Genealogy Search.

Step two: The BMD films are filed by event type (birth, marriage, or death) and then year. In this example, the microfilm number is B13596. The “B” means government records, while the 13596 will be the microfilm number. Get the reel from the cabinet.

Photo of microfilm records drawer at the archives
Death records at the BC Archives. © 2018 Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Step three: Follow the instructions at every digital microfilm reader and/or get a lesson from the archivist. Feel free to play with the buttons and glass setup until you get comfortable with the different speeds for fast-forwarding and rewinding. Ideally you want to get so comfortable you can use the fastest settings to get close to the record, then the medium speeds to refine your search.

Step four: Look at the numbering on the film – in this case records 010001 to 010500 – and estimate where your desired record might be. The record number is the last six digits of the registration number: 010429 (Volume 010, number 429). In this case, my desired record was near the end of the reel so the fastest way to locate it was to fast forward to the end and rewind.

Step five: Match the registration number on the index to the registration number on the record. It should be an exact match: 79-09-010429.

Excerpt, Registration of Death for James Loo, BC Archives microfilm, Victoria.
  • “79” – year of event, i.e., 1979
  • “09” – province of British Columbia
  • “010” – volume
  • “429” – record

How to retrieve BMDs from microfilm – 1943 and earlier

In the above example, the registration number was an exact match to the record. In the below example, you’ll see how pre-1944 records differ by looking at the 1904 death of Steave Cumye.

Step one: Look for your person using the genealogy lookup here. This is the index record for the death of Steave Cumye, died 6 Nov 1904.

Death index of Steave Cumye, 1904, BC Archives Genealogy Search.

Step two: The BMD films are filed by event type (birth, marriage, or death) and then year. In this example, the microfilm number is B13089. The “B” means government records, while the 13089 will be the microfilm number. Get the reel from the cabinet.

Step three: Follow the instructions at every digital microfilm reader and/or get a lesson from the archivist. Feel free to play with the buttons and glass setup until you get comfortable with the different speeds for fast-forwarding and rewinding. Ideally you want to get so comfortable you can use the fastest settings to get close to the record, then the medium speeds to refine your search.

Step four: Look at the registration number again: 1904-09-082490. The last six digits are the volume number (082) and the record number (490). Fast forward the microfilm by volume numbers until you get to the desired volume. This can be finicky to master until you get the hang of it.

Step five: Match the registration number’s last six digits to the volume number and last three digits of the record. In this case, volume 082, record (23)490.

Excerpt, registration of death for Steave Cumye, 1904, Royal BC Museum and Archives microfilm, Victoria.

Registration number: 1904-09-082490:

  • “1904” – year
  • “09” – province
  • “082” – volume
  • “(23)490” – record number

If you didn’t recognize his alternate name, this is Stephen Cum Yé Won (1862-1904), one of the six siblings of Alexander Won Cumyow (1861-1955). Stephen was born in New Westminster, worked as a butcher and court interpreter, and died at 41 (not 39 as shown on the index) of typhoid fever. He may have been the first Chinese baby born in New Westminster.

Next week: how I get ready for a big research trip

I had a successful research trip, gathering dozens of useful documents in only three days. In the next post I’ll share my methods for getting organized before and during my trip because every minute counts when you’re at the archives researching film- and paper-based fonds.

Thank yous

Thanks this week go out to the wonderful citizens of Victoria and surrounds for reminding this ex-BC girl why BC is beautiful. From the smiling woman who made my boba tea to the server who generously gave me two tables – one for my laptop, the other for my pizza and wine – thank you. Thanks to my seat mate Ben on the WJ flight YYC to YYJ for sharing stories. There were a lot more people on this trip but they’ll be getting special mentions in future posts!

5 thoughts on “What you need to know to visit the BC Archives today (Sep 2022)

  1. Thanks for the detailed instructions on reading the pre-1944 BMD records and locating them on the microfilm…I hope to get back to VPL Central at some point and this time I’ll have your instructions with me to see if they help with that tricky film I used last March, that seemed to make no sense (jumped around chronologically). Bad librarian for not finding out FIRST how to read those numbers.

    1. I hear that. I couldn’t believe how confused I was and of course I waited until after the staff had gone for the day. Luckily I had two more days!

  2. Thank you for this. I would recommend trying the Dutch Bakery on Fort Street just off Douglas for breakfast or treats.

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