McGill University needs volunteers to transcribe historical ‘weather reports’

McGill University Archives’ request for assistance to transcribe more than 150 years of Montreal meteorological history seems rather timely this week. Weather is top-of-mind for many Quebecers.

Severe flooding continues today in more than 170 municipalities in Quebec, and Montreal and nearby Laval remain under a state of emergency because of rivers overflowing.

Flooding in Montreal’s Bonaventure Depot in 1886. Photo: George Charles Arless. Source: McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec, MP-1999.6.1.

In a few months, the university will launch a crowdsourcing project, called Data Rescue: Archives and Weather (DRAW), to encourage people to transcribe more than 10,000 pages of historic handwritten McGill Observatory meteorological observations.

McGill’s meteorological history and records date back to the 1863 founding of the McGill Observatory.

Historical climatologist Victoria Slonosky, who is a visiting scholar to McGill, said that making these records accessible is key to scientific research. The notes can help researchers further understand weather patterns, predict trends, and learn more about climate change.

Our ancestors’ weather
According to an article in McGill University’s Library Matters, “The Observatory ledgers are also full of interesting little notes about the daily lives of our ancestors.

“Did you know Montreal road conditions were very important even in the 1880s?

“In these official observatory ledger images, the type of transportation and frequency of vehicle use was noted. On March 25, 1884, there were a ‘few wheels on the streets.’ A few days later on March 30, the observer noted that the ‘sleighing [is] better, wheels in minority.’ But by April 1, ‘sleighing [was] done’ even though there was ‘large quantities of snow in place.'”

Beta stage
To participate in the transcription project, go to the DRAW website, click on Start Transcribing and follow the simple instructions to set up an account and transcribe your first meteorological observations.

Since the site is still in the testing and development phase and transcriptions are not being permanently saved, volunteers may want to wait until the full site is launched this fall before transcribing. This beta stage, however, should not stop anyone from signing up and exploring the website, tutorial, and FAQ section.

Flooding continues in Quebec
As for the flooding in Quebec, water levels are expected to peak today or tomorrow. The water may start to recede soon. These are some of the photos taken.

Library and Archives Canada
Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has not been directly affected by the flooding, but some of its services have because the majority of its records are housed in its facility in Gatineau, Quebec, a city across the river from Ottawa that continues to be ravaged by the flood.

LAC issued the following in a notice Monday:

  • Library and Archives Canada points of service at 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa will be open but service delays or a lack of some specialized service may occur.
  • Library and Archives Canada locations in Quebec will be closed. This includes the Literary Censorship in Quebec exhibition.
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One Response to McGill University needs volunteers to transcribe historical ‘weather reports’

  1. John D Reid says:

    Nice find Gail. As a meteorology graduate from McGill I’m pleased to see this initiative.

    I recall being told the McGill raingauge data needed careful quality control to account for students returning through campus in the evening having consumed too much beer.

    Victoria Slonosky was the scientist behind the compilation of 18th and 19th Century daily temperatures from the St. Lawrence River valley, useful for adding weather context to family history, which I blogged at

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