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No. 119
Before Mr. Lamb and Mr. Smith went to Ottawa - A look at the early years of two Dominion Archivists through their personal records:
William Kaye Lamb and Wilfred I. Smith

by Normand Laplante, Manuscript Division

The first is known as a pioneer of archival administration in Canada whose work as Dominion Archivist from 1948 to 1968 made the Public Archives of Canada a truly modern institution. During his tenure the documentary heritage of the Canadian government and post-Confederation records took their rightful place alongside colonial and private records predating 1867.

His successor has been praised as a leader, whose quiet but efficient leadership of the national institution through a period of expansion and growth, made it one of the most respected archival repositories in the world. He was also know as an innovator in various areas of archival work such as records management and conservation.

The contributions of William Kaye Lamb and Wilfred I. Smith to the National Archives and archives in general, have been well documented in various publications. 1Most of their personal papers kept at the NA relate to the period in which they led the institution from 1948 to 1984. Although their formative years have not been so extensively studied, some personal records in their fonds do provide some insight into the early experiences of Dr. Lamb and Dr. Smith. Reading them, we gain a better perspective on their decades of accomplishment in the archival field.

C-045505 : Dr. William Kaye Lamb (left) receiving the Public Archives of Canada Centenary Medal from Dr. Wilfred I. Smith, Ottawa, Ont., June 1, 1972

Dr. William Kaye Lamb (left) receiving the Public Archives of Canada Centenary Medal from Dr. Wilfred I. Smith, Ottawa, Ont., June 1, 1972.

“Keeping the Past Up to Date”

At the request of then Dominion Archivist, Wilfred I. Smith, W. Kaye Lamb agreed in 1984 to write his recollections of a career as an archivist. In the foreword to the document, Dr. Lamb does not define it as a memoir but “in less grand terms as a sustained memorandum, intended to provide the information on innumerable topics that Dr. Smith was anxious to have available in the years to come.”2The six hundred and fifty (650) page “memo” found in his fonds at the National Archives of Canada, constitutes an interesting account filled with personal observations on his formative years and his later career as a well known historian, librarian, archivist and administrator. In memories from his student days and his years as the Provincial Archivist and Librarian of British Columbia and as Librarian of the University of British Columbia, Lamb describes some of the influences and events in his life which led to his appointment as Dominion Archivist.

Born in New Westminster, British Columbia, on May 11, 1904, Lamb was sent to Vancouver to attend high school and University. As a youth, he had no interest in history, especially as he found Canadian history textbooks boring. His passion for history was ignited in his freshman year at the University of British Columbia with a course on modern European history taught by F.H. Soward. In his memoirs, Lamb says that Soward “made history immediate and relevant, expected us to follow current events, and devoted a good part of the weekly tutorial periods to a discussion of them.” 3 Nevertheless, the study of Canadian history still did not appeal to him because of its heavy emphasis at that time (“virtual obsession” accordingto Lamb) on pre-Confederation constitutional history.

However, new historical trends were taking hold within the academic community. Defending his graduating essay in 1926 on the causes and effects of the execution of Charles I, Lamb was taken to task for neglecting the economic and social implications involved in his work, by a new history professor at UBC, Hugh Keenleyside. He remembers becoming “conscious of a whole new dimension to history,”4 a dimension which would greatly influence his views on historical research and the importance of archival records.

The year 1928 was a self-described “turning point” in Lamb’s life. He was awarded the Nicol scholarship, a three year bursary given to a UBC student to study at a French University. In the fall, he registered as a candidate for a Doctorat de l’Université de Paris in humanities. Reminiscing about his studies in Paris, Lamb described his encounters with well-known French historians such as André Siegfried, Charles de Seignobos and Albert Mathiez, the foremost authority on the French Revolution at the time.

Forced to return to Vancouver for health reasons in the spring of 1929, Lamb decided to work on completing his MA at UBC. In the spring of 1930, his thesis on the origins of the British Labour Party was submitted and approved. In consultation with departmental authorities at UBC, Lamb decided to abandon the idea of obtaining a doctorate in Paris. Instead, he registered at the London School of Economics in the hope of doing further work on the emergence of Labour’s political independence in Great Britain. However, to retain the funding of the Nicol scholarship, he did most of his research in published materials and newspapers at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. His thesis supervisor at the University of London was the renowned socialist, Harold Laski. Lamb’s thesis was completed and defended in November 1933.


  1. See Danielle Lacasse and Antonio Lechasseur, The National Archives of Canada 1872-1997, The Canadian Historical Association, Historical Booklet No. 58, p.16-17; Ian Wilson’s articles, “The National Archives 1872-1997: 125 years of service” in The Archivist, No 113, 1997, p. 28-39 and “In Memoriam Dr. Wilfred I. Smith: An Archival Tribute”, in Archivaria, No 46, Fall 1998, p. 175-179; the special issue of Archivaria “Archives and Libraries: Essays in Honour of W. Kaye Lamb”, No 15, Winter 1982-1983.
  1. W. Kaye Lamb fonds, MG 31 D8, vol. 18, file 6, Foreword.
  1. W. Kaye Lamb fonds, MG 31 D8, vol. 18, file 6, p. 5.
  1. Ibid.