Public Library a hub for local researchers

Kaitlyn Watson, Senior Reference Technician, at Microfilm scanner

Like the ever-expanding universe, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library continues to offer more sources of local history for authors, students and folks simply looking to enrich their knowledge of the city’s history.

The Sault Star, essentially the Sault’s wikipedia for decades, is still very much front and centre when locals seek to extract stories or even nuggets of information from the area’s past. Library members have for years been able to peruse full editions -including ads and special sections – of The Sault Star on microfiche and
more recently, microfilm. Editions of The Star on microfilm date back to 1901.

If time is truly of the essence, researchers can access the library’s Sault Star scrapbooks. Beginning in the mid-60s, clippings were put into scrapbooks by topic, ideal for more targeted bit of research. “That way, people who don’t want to take the time to go through microfilm reels researching, can go through some of these scrapbooks,” says Sharon Wigney, manager of public services. “Sometimes people aren’t sure what they’re looking for and are just looking for something on a topic. It’s not totally comprehensive and it was only done for a certain time period (starting in the mid-60s) but it’s a good starting point.”

Sharon Wigney, SSMPL Manager of Public Services, with a May 1955 edition of The Sault Star.

Politics and Government, Native People, Bon Soo, St. Joseph Island Groups and Clubs and The Arts are just a few of the titles featured on the library’s huge shelf of scrapbooks.

It was during the pandemic that the James L. McIntyre Library experienced an informational Big Bang of sorts. The Sault Star was moving out of their building on Old Garden River Rd. and contacted the library officials about taking in much of their resources which included clipping files, biography files and photographs. Biography files are stored in a large cabinet in the lower levels of the library. Patrons can access them by notifying the desk and a library staffer will pull specific files on request.

“It’s a very extensive collection,” explains Wigney. “They (Sault Star) had a wider subject area that they were indexing. We were indexing for local history purposes primarily, we didn’t go into other topics. It expanded our coverage of information and news from the area when we got that collection.

“We’ve taken those and we’re still working through them, indexing and separating things out, so that we have our Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma District in one area and the things outside of that, to be kept separately. It’s really supplemented what we’re able to provide.” Wigney recommends library visitors looking for historical information for the Sault and Algoma District make the reference and information desk their first stop. It can save them time and spare them possible frustration.

“All of our staff are very well trained in local history and how to do research. That’s the (ideal) first step.”
The more information patrons can provide for their search, says Wigney, the better. Names and even a range of dates can go a long way to speeding the search.

“It’s like a treasure hunt for our staff,” she says. “If someone is researching a family member or ancestry, if they know the person lived in the city during a certain time period, we have our city directories. We can pinpoint where they lived in the city and what they did for a living. That’s gives them a starting point.”

The Main branch also has cemetery transcriptions from the Sault and District cemeteries. Birth and death dates and burial sites can be gleaned from these. Sometimes, notes Wegney, the transcriptions will also include the names of other family members. The library is also able to assist with people looking to research local businesses.

“We have the city directories that tell us what years a business was in business and their location, etc. We have local history books, too. People have written books on histories in the area and some of those businesses might be included there. The Sault Star would come into play on that one, as well, if there were articles on that business.”

Kevin Meraglia, SSMPL Archive Technician (with Bondar training outfit)

The library has atlases, fire maps for the city, from as far back as the early 1900s. “We also have what we call our OGS (Ontario Genealogical Society) collection,” says Wegney. “When they closed down their office they donated their collection of materials to the library and we agreed to keep it as an OGS collection so their members could come in and still find their materials.”

Wegney credits the small army of people, including former staff of the library, who through the years, displayed the wisdom to hang on to articles, and build scrapbooks. “It shows a great deal of foresight on their part to recognize the importance of this information and making it available for future generations.” she says.

Oral histories is a recently added and growing source for historical perspectives of Sault Ste. Marie. The volunteer group Living History Algoma handles the interviews and filming, providing the library with a
copy and the original film. The library then uploads the interviews to its website.

“It’s an audio diary,” says Wegney.

Some of the more familiar interview subjects include the late former Sault Mayor Ron Irwin, singer Debbie Lori Kaye, and the late local hockey legend, Angelo Bumbacco. Up at the Public Library’s North Branch, is another treasure trove of information and artifacts.

The storage facility is a near-3000 sq ft room containing an estimated 100,000 documents. Algoma Steel, Algoma Ore, Algoma Central Railway and the Abitibi Power and Paper Company have been major donors of materials, and collections from the big four account for close to 80 per cent on the facility’s documents. Cash books and year-end reports from ASC are prominent and ACR’s collection features payroll ledgers (from 1900 to 1960).

Collections from Dr. Roberta Bondar, Algoma Art Society, Sault Opera Society and Algoma Fall Festival are among other significant contributors.

The archive includes some interesting items including the Olympic torch Dr. Bondar carried through the streets of Toronto in 2009, and one of her training outfits when preparing to be part of the space shuttle Discovery’s 1992 mission.

“Everything works as donation,” says Kevin Meraglia, Archive Technician for the SSMPL. “When an organization or person comes in to donate, they fill out a donation form which stipulates they are donating to the library, which means they are transferring copyright and ownership to us.” Meraglia says “between 80 and 90 per cent” of of inquiries and searches are centred on photographs and in response the library has focused their digitizing efforts on visuals.

Searches can be conducted for material at the facility itself but Meraglia says researchers can initiate their search by tapping in to the library’s archive online.

Donations have always been a key and welcome component at the public library. They continue to play a role in expanding its resources. Wigney says cityscape photos and those of formerly undeveloped properties are particularly welcome as they help build out the story of the Sault’s past. Wegney herself donated a 1940s photo of massive flooding at Wellington and John streets. She had the pic digitized and scanned and kept the original, plucked from her Mom’s photo album.

“(Patrons) don’t have to give us the originals,” Wegney stressed. “But if they would let us scan a copy to put into the collection they can still retain the original for their family. It just gives us that wider collection and perspective of that the city might have looked like at a point in time.”


  • Ron Jokelainen

    Ron has returned to writing and reporting after 27 years with Ontario Lottery & Gaming. He began as a staff writer with OLG in 1994 before moving to Sports Marketing in 1997. He retired as a Senior sports analyst in 2021. Prior to OLG, Ron worked in radio and print journalism in the Sault and Simcoe. Folks may remember Ron "Williams" with CFYN-CHAS in the early 90s A graduate of Windsor's St. Clair College Journalism program, Ron lists drumming, gardening and walking among his favourite hobbies.

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