First impressions: LAC’s new Personnel Records of the FWW

LAC's new Personnel Records of the First World War Search screen

LAC’s new Personnel Records of the First World War Search screen

Today’s announcement by Library and Archives Canada caught me by surprise and so I’ve spent the last couple of hours checking out their new Personnel Records of the First World War database. If I’m honest I was a bit confused to begin with but after spending some time with the new interface, well, I’m still a bit confused.

Initially I was excited at the prospect of searching several new datasets including records relating to Imperial GratuitiesNon-Permanent Active Militia and Rejected CEF volunteers. However my excitement ebbed away as it became apparent that these are placeholders for future digitized records. It was kind of like opening a Christmas present and finding an IOU rather than a present. Although the announcement was a bit misleading LAC did make its intentions clear in the “What’s Included in the Database” section on their overview page, and of course I’m looking forward to the release of these records over the next few years.

I should mention that the Imperial Gratuities dataset does include one digitized record for Frank Archibald Waller so it will give you a taste of what’s on the way. Of course if you have a subscription to Ancestry.ca you may be aware that the digitized Imperial Gratuity records can be viewed there now.

The Personnel Records search screen includes a “Record Group” section that also includes a checkbox for the Canadian Expeditionary Force dataset. This returns the same results as the Soldiers of the First World War search page did and as of this evening the old Service Files of the First World War, 1914-1918 – CEF search page is still online. Thousands of digitized CEF Service files are being added every two weeks.

LAC has partnered with The Rooms Provincial Archives in Newfoundland to include Service Files of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and Newfoundland Forestry Corps. Over two thousand of these files were already available online in The Newfoundland Regiment and The Great War database however including those records here is helpful. What isn’t clear (yet) is whether the remainder of the Newfoundland files will be digitized in the coming years. I hope so because they’re a wonderful resource and in some ways more interesting than those included in the CEF files (more on that in a future article).

So why am I still confused and a bit disappointed? It makes sense to launch the new interface assuming the release of some of these new dataset records is imminent however I can’t understand why it was launched now when the search interface is as buggy as it is. For example,

  • I’d like to determine how many placeholder records there are in each dataset even if those records aren’t digitized. Unfortunately the search results are limited to 2000 records and how it determines which 2000 you see is unclear. If returning all the results isn’t possible then “displaying 2000 records of xxxxxx” would be helpful.
  • Choosing “No” in the Digitized File dropdown returns zero records every time. Even the CEF Service File database with over 300,000 un-digitized records returns no results. (Resolved: Oct 25/16)
  • Searching on the Regimental Number field will return the correct CEF Service File however it also returns records with the same File Number from other datasets.
  • The data displayed on the results page does not line up properly under the header columns(Resolved: Oct 25/16)

I know that all of these issues can and will be resolved but why it wasn’t tested properly prior to launch is both a mystery and a bit disappointing. I spent 18 years in government IT … I know what a shit show it can be and can empathize more than most when it comes to launching a website, database or app. Still there are plenty in the user community, including myself, who would have been happy to kick the tires and offer some feedback. Having  researched and blogged about Canadians in the First World War for years I’m at a loss as to why no one ever asks.

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