Canadian Genealogy · Genealogy How Tos

Don’t overlook free digital records with my Library and Archives Canada / Heritage Canadiana hack, part 1

[updated 21 Sep 2023 re: LAC and HC roles.] I’ve been researching Library and Archives Canada (LAC) lately. The new Collection Search is good, but I’m looking for what else LAC holds. And maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be an increasing gap between the finding aids at LAC and the matching digitized collection at Héritage Canadiana (HC). Here’s how you can make sure you’re not missing any of these “secret” digital collections.

Background: the difference between LAC and HC

Before we proceed, let’s make sure we know what we’re discussing.

LAC is the national archive of Canada. It holds government records (and much more). If you have ever tried to research citizenship, immigration, federal taxes, laws, parliament, or voting, you are researching government files. As the national archive, LAC has devoted decades of time and effort to categorizing and filing things that are hard to catalogue and file. Archivists have written detailed finding aids which help organize the chaos. Put simply, an archive is responsible for the records.

Not everything is digitized. In fact, the vast majority of records at LAC are not digitized. When a microfilm is requested, LAC creates the digital files and then sends them to Heritage.

Héritage Canadiana is the storehouse of records. It provides the images in its freely available database where you don’t even need a username or password to access millions of documents. Its metadata is restricted to the mikan description. This means there is no nominal search or granular (single record or single fact) search capability.

Mikan description for reel T-3487: 161420 or 180182. Heritage Canadiana.

To be clear, the main business of LAC is archives. The main business of HC is holding records.

This presents two big issues: you don’t know when you search HC or LAC if there is corresponding information in the other site. Second, you’re wasting your time with nominal searches. This means that you are likely to miss an important collection at HC, or if you do stumble on it, you’re unsure of its context. They’re not secret but they’re the next best thing. Let’s close this knowledge gap with my new trick.

Think of HC and LAC like two sides of the family that don’t speak to each other

It would be so great if the HC/LAC connection was obvious.

But it’s not.

Now that you know, here’s how to use them together.

Step one: Research at LAC

Let’s start with LAC. To illustrate, I’m going to use a government ledger that kept track of Chinese head tax certificates: a C.I. 36 register.

Read all the “Show detail” options for important information. In this view, we see the hierarchy of folders: “Department of Employment and Immigration fonds / Immigration Program sous-fonds / Chinese immigration records / C.I. 36 register.” These categories tell you what the record sources are called – an important clue. In this case, “Chinese immigration records” is the key title.

Read the “Scope and content” description to understand the record source: what it is, when the records were created, what information is held and where, and who was affected.

Take note of the microfilm reels. If there’s a microfilm reel number, there is a chance it’s been digitized. THESE ARE THE KEY BITS OF INFO. In our example, “3486” and “3487” are the reel numbers.

Before you move to another screen, double check there is no link to a digital archive. Now go to Step two.

Step two: Check HC for a “secret” digitized reel

Go to Héritage Canadiana. Type in the microfilm reel number. Let’s try “3487.”

Here are the results. At the top it says, “Chinese immigration records [other stuff]: T-3487.” Note the title “Chinese immigration records” matches the LAC category “Chinese immigration records.” Click on it.

Here are the results. In this reel, we can see images 001-149 are the C.I.36 register. HC does not provide all the details. If we want to know, we refer back to LAC’s finding aid. Remember: LAC is the archive, HC is the entity that does the digitizing.

Before we assume this is everything available, remember there are two microfilm reels. Let’s look for reel #3486. Using the same process as before, we find “General register of Chinese immigration: T-3486.”

Microfilm reels often contain several groups of documents. We find the C.I. 36 register, reel no. 3486, beginning on image no. 725. (In this case, there is a detailed finding aid describing the contents of this reel and five related reels: T-3484-85, 9510-13. Use the aid to help find what you want at HC.)

Now you can proceed to check the digital records without needing to make a trip to Ottawa (or other LAC Points of Service in Halifax, Vancouver, or Winnipeg) or even sign up for a username and password.

What I love about HC is being able to see the entire reel, one page at a time. And what I love about LAC is how much detailed info you can get from the finding aids. It’s the best of both worlds and now you know how to connect them.


This weekend, I saw several reels digitized at Héritage Canadiana with no links back to Library and Archives Canada. They really are like two sides of the same family that have stopped speaking to each other. Maybe one day they’ll sync up seamlessly and a researcher won’t need to check two sites for the same record.

Until that happens, check for the “secret” reel connection between HC and LAC.

[Update 21 Sep 2023] I had the pleasure of meeting with HC and LAC today. The updates in this post are informed by our conversation.

Next post: Don’t overlook free digital records with my Library and Archives Canada / Heritage Canadiana hack, part 2

In this post I’ve shown how we can check LAC to find a matching digitized reel at HC. Next time, we’ll do it in reverse: use the codes at HC to find the finding aids at LAC.

Thank yous

Thanks to the active members of my Facebook group, Genealogy for Asian Canadians. Without your lively discussions, I wouldn’t have been motivated to have another look at LAC and HC, and I wouldn’t have discovered this hack.

8 thoughts on “Don’t overlook free digital records with my Library and Archives Canada / Heritage Canadiana hack, part 1

  1. Whew! Quite the back & forth – one wonders… Thanks for the great descriptions of this LAC/Héritage hack, LInda,

    1. I remember the first time reading the finding aids and thinking: what on earth does all of this mean?

      I’ve been corresponding with Heritage Canadiana. They are friendly and responsive. (Of course, any misunderstandings about the site are entirely my own.)

    1. For sure. Be sure to come back and check periodically though because I do update my posts when new information comes up.


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