Keepers of the Record: The History of Hudson's Bay Company Archives

By Deidre Simmons. Kingston, Ontario: Mcgill Queens University Press, 2008. 360pp. $95.00 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-7735-3291-5.

In her book Keepers of the Record: The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Deidre Simmons sets out to write a comprehensive history of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. There are numerous articles and books that examine the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but none regarding the archives. Simmons believes that the Company and its archives are intertwined rather than serving as separate entities. This belief comes from a statement made by noted British archivist Hilary Jenkinson regarding private documents. Jenkinson said, “[A]s for the older documents accumulated by Companies in their own keeping, preservation has been . . . a matter of chance while the Companies survived” (6).

How the Company administered its records, especially in regards to public access and publication, are a focal point of this book. For example, Simmons examines the Company’s relationship with journalist Sir William Schooling, who was commissioned to write its official history. Over a period of several years, the relationship between Schooling and the Company deteriorated over access to these records. One particular incident involved a Harvard professor named Frederick Merk who sought access to the Company archives for a paper he was writing. The Company claimed authority over such access even though Schooling was the designated Company historian.

Throughout her book, Simmons identifies a vast array of material from the Hudson Bay Company’s collection including ledgers, correspondence, ships logs, and journals. These primary sources document how and what business was conducted. The depth of research presented in her work makes Simmons’ study particularly intriguing. This is best exemplified in the records of the Company’s Columbia Department. These records show that the Company’s activities went far beyond the fur trade, including into the collection of information regarding natural history, geography, meteorology, and anthropology.

The scope of the records is another aspect of her analysis that is particularly strong. By examining what and how much was kept, Simmons clearly points to the strengths of the archives. From the perspective of a researcher, this information is invaluable. One example is from what is described as “the earliest repository for the Company’s records”—an iron-bound chest (39).

However, Simmons’ work is structurally weak. A work of such depth ought to have been divided up into several smaller chapters in order for the reader to grasp the concepts discussed. Specifically, Simmons spends the first five chapters alternating between discussing the early history of the company and presenting the archival records in the form of a finding aid. An example of this is when she lists the contents of one of the earliest company records dating back to 1683, which consisted of receipts and indentures for contracts. Compressing the history of the company, archival tradition, and company records into five chapters does not allow a lay person to truly appreciate the importance of the collection.

Although Simmons addresses the topics she outlined in her introduction, they seem to lack coherence when presented in the book. The first five chapters read like a reference work for archivists and researchers. In these chapters, discussion of the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company alternates frequently with explanations of records-keeping practices. In one instance, a discussion of storage practices in the first chapter becomes a discussion about an adventurer named Robert Vyner. No reason is given for this diversion.

Simmons work would have been best served by determining her audience at the outset. For researchers and students in archival studies, the first five chapters are a must read. As a straightforward historical account, the last three chapters weave a fascinating tale of how the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives came to be and its transfer from British to Canadian hands. Unfortunately, the lack of an effective transition makes it seem that Simmons would have been better served by publishing separate books—one a historical account of the Company’s archives and the other a reference guide for using them.

Ian Wilson