International Archives Week: Plotting the course of the pandemic

Written by: Michael Gourlie, Government Records Archivist

Editor’s note: The International Council of Archives has designated June 8-14, 2020 as International Archives Week. Its theme, Empowering Knowledge Societies, highlights the ways in which archival institutions contribute to sustainable knowledge, trust and evidence, and the challenge of emerging technologies.

When historians decades from now look back at society during the COVID-19 pandemic, what will they see? Artifacts, documents and various media will certainly tell the story of how we dealt with an historic event. With the pandemic at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts, it seems timely to examine the holdings at the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA) that document other public health crises. Alberta has experienced pandemics such as the worldwide 1918-1919 flu pandemic (often referred to as the Spanish grippe or Spanish flu epidemic) as well as a series of more localized poliomyelitis epidemics in Alberta that occurred in 1927 and 1953. While history books in the reference library tell one author’s version of events, what do the original archival records preserved at the PAA tell researchers about other widespread outbreaks of disease in the twentieth century, and can they inform our current circumstances?

1918-1919 pandemic resources at the PAA

Starting in 1905, a branch of the Department of Agriculture managed the Government of Alberta’s public health programs until the province established a separate Department of Public Health in 1919. For reasons that are unclear, few records of the Department of Public Health appear to have survived prior to the 1940s. However, one incredible survivor of that era is a scrapbook created by Public Health that contains newspaper articles tracking the progress of the 1918 influenza pandemic across Canada, with a special focus on developments in Alberta. The articles detail the number of cases, the preventative measures (including the closures of schools and restrictions on public gatherings), announcements from medical officers of health and the death toll.

Excerpt from Public Health Scrapbook, 1918.  GR1975.0454
Excerpt from Public Health Scrapbook, 1918. GR1975.0454

While an overarching and comprehensive information resource, the scrapbook does not provide the entire story of the Government of Alberta’s response to the pandemic or the impact on the citizens of Alberta. So, without other records of the Department of Public Health, where can that story be found in the PAA?

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