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Glenbow’s archival photographs

“8th Avenue and Centre Street looking east, Calgary, Alberta”, 1912, [NA-644-9].
Courtesy of Glenbow Archives, Archives and Special Collections, University of Calgary.

Glenbow’s archival photographs: The visual history of Western Canada

Glenbow’s archival photographs are truly amazing. The collection, which includes some two million historical photographs, is notable for its size and its scope. It covers practically every region and topic, including the history of Indigenous people, from the 1870s to the 2000s. Given the size and scope of the collection, now housed at the University of Calgary, it has come to embody the visual history of western Canada.

An easy way to gauge the influence of the Glenbow Archive’s photo collection is to look at the image credits of nearly any book or website about Western Canada: “Glenbow” will most certainly appear.

Many of the individual fonds or collections are also particularly rich. A great example is the Calgary Herald collection. It’s a treasure trove of 36,000 photographic prints that accompanied Herald stories beginning in the 1900s. It also includes all of the negatives from staff and contract photographers from 1875 to the 1980s.

The Glenbow Library and Archives digital collection is a good place to see this diversity first hand. The digital collection currently contains 121,174 photographs, illustrations and posters. Although the digital collection offers a relatively small sample of the overall collection, its diversity is impressive. Look forward to seeing this collection grow throughout the year while the University actively works on digitization projects for these materials.


Going digital

The Glenbow was one of the first cultural institutions in Canada to offer an online photo database. Most of the images in the current digital collection can be traced back to that project.

Anita Dammer, a digitization technician at UCalgary who works specifically with Glenbow’s historical photographs, has worked with that collection for 34 years now. Dammer first began working at the Glenbow in 1984 as a darkroom technician. She later started working there as a photographer and digitization technician.

She was part of the Glenbow’s digital revolution and helped move the collection from analog to digital. Even though there were some bumps along the way (namely poor quality images from early scanners and digital cameras), Glenbow’s mass scanning effort introduced the collection to new audiences.

Suddenly, Glenbow’s photos were no longer the domain of researchers, historians and educators. Instead, anyone with a computer and an internet connection had access to the photographs.

“It was huge,” says Dammer about Glenbow’s move to provide online access. “In the end, the Glenbow archives had more images available, and it was used more often than any other institution across the country in terms of the numbers,” says Dammer.

“All of a sudden you’ve got students, you’ve got community members, you’ve got people from all over the world accessing these images, and they’re also writing and doing research.”

The online access also brought the collection to artists, designers, marketers and event planners.


Helping others connect

One of those designers who makes extensive use of the Glenbow’s archival photos is Edmonton-based Randal Kabatoff. A storyteller at heart, Kabatoff loves to help people connect to the past. He understands the importance of being rooted in the places we call home, and he wants to help others appreciate that, too.

This is why his company, Soul of Canada, produces calendars and framed history showcases that share and celebrate Canada’s social and industrial history. Both of those products combine historical photographs and text documenting the history of forestry, oil and gas, ranching and farming, settlement, road construction and First Nations.

But rather than the typical approach, Kabatoff has a different idea. Each showcase and monthly spread in the calendars features three or four photographs and a few hundred words of text about the subject. For example, the February 2020 spread in the Ranches, Rodeos and Work Horses calendar, shares the history of western Canada’s first ranches, again in text and photos.

Using this approach, Kabatoff hits the high points of the history without getting bogged down in the details. The result is attractive and engaging. And as Kabatoff points out large photo collections like the Glenbow’s provide the opportunity to tell numerous stories.

“Thousands of stories can be done; it’s really a matter of budget and marketability,” he says.

Beginning with a hotel

Despite actively using Glenbow’s photographs for the past 40 years, Calgary historian, speaker and freelance writer Harry Sanders has yet to be stumped. He finds something applicable every time he goes in search of a photograph to illustrate a story or topic.

Sanders first began accessing Glenbow’s archival photographs in 1980 at the age of 13. He went in search of photographs of a Drumheller hotel his father and his uncle had owned in the early 1900s. (There’s even a photograph of 13-year-old Sanders in the collection.)

The history bug took hold of him during those early visits. He relies on the photographs of the Glenbow Archives to illustrate his books, articles, presentations and near-daily Twitter posts. By his own estimate, Sanders has likely used over 1,000 images from the Glenbow collection over the years.

“I just adore that collection,” says Sanders, adding “You can find anything in there.”

Sanders is chiefly interested in exploring how Calgary has changed and the Glenbow collection allows him to illustrate that change.

“(Photographs) are a critical aspect of telling the story, of understanding the past and communicating it and appreciating it.”


Making your own discoveries

Indeed, as Sanders and Kabatoff have learned, there’s many stories waiting to be discovered among Glenbow’s archival photographs.

To make your own discoveries, start with the Glenbow Digital Collection. It’s a great place to see a sample of what’s available in the photograph collection. High-resolution digital images can be ordered through the digital collection, as well.

Otherwise, the Glenbow Library and Archives webpage is a great starting point, too. For questions and information, call 403-210-6450 or email The Glenbow Western Research Centre, meanwhile, is open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

So please join us as we continue to explore the Glenbow’s collections. Subscribe to the Glenbow blog for updates and look for the next post in two weeks.