Beyond the shelves

Toward a more complete understanding of history

Sophie Brzozowski, Arts & Entertainment Editor, February 5th 2019

Sandwiched between the crowded, cubicled floors of the McLennan library complex lies a trove of meticulously-catalogued treasures. McGill’s Rare and Special Collections, on McLennan’s oft-bypassed fourth floor, is positively teeming with peculiar artifacts; for instance, McGill boasts the largest collection of books about Abraham Lincoln in all of Canada, not to mention the 2,714 books and journals from the 19th to 20th century about puppet theatre, belonging to McGill’s much revered Rosalynde Stearn Puppet Collection.

To some, preserving these relics of the past might seem indulgent—especially considering the amount of resources and space dedicated to housing these trinkets and curiosities that bear little interest for the average individual. But, to the contrary, archivists insist that, hidden among the stacks, there is something for everyone—so long as they are willing to look.

“‘Heterogeneous’ is definitely the word I hear used to describe the Rare Books Collections,” librarian Elis Ing said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “So many different times and places are represented. Some of the collections are really big, some of the collections are literally one sheet of paper, but that one sheet of paper could be amazingly rich in terms of its research value.”

Ing joined McGill’s team of archivists in July 2018 after she was hired as the liaison librarian for Special Collections and Rare Books. She spends her days tracking down the most relevant materials for the researchers who approach her, working with conservators to ensure that the older, more delicate materials are stored safely, and creating a thorough, navigable inventory of the collections.

“One of the coolest things about our services […] is the fact that anyone can walk off the street and come up to this fourth floor and request our materials,” Ing said. “We’re not stuck in an academic bubble.”

“One of the coolest things about our services […] is the fact that anyone can walk off the street and come up to this fourth floor and request our materials,” Ing said. “We’re not stuck in an academic bubble.”

While one of the primary functions of an archive is to make its information available to the surrounding public, the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS), a research unit based at Concordia University, weaves its community mandate into the very curation of its materials. On top of being an oral history archive, COHDS acts as an equipment depot and computer lab and hosts a variety of educational events led by scholars, artists, and students.

“Anyone who feels like they could benefit from our services [...] can affiliate themselves with us,” Sonia Dhaliwal, the archives Coordinator at COHDS, said. “The only thing we ask in return is that you then provide something to Concordia, like, a workshop based on your skill set, a talk. There [are] no financial costs associated with our community [….] In that sense, COHDS’s archive is very much by the people, for the people.”

From 2007 to 2013, the Community-University Research Alliance produced a project called Montreal Life Stories, a collection of life-story interviews with over 500 Montreal residents who had been displaced “by war, genocide, or other human rights violations.” The interviews, all available online through COHDS, have since been used as primary sources in academic research projects, art installations, films, and museum exhibitions.

COHDS’s website links viewers to an extensive list of projects pertaining to oral history and digital storytelling created by their affiliates. The ability to consume the research in the form of a video, an art project, or even an audio walk allows viewers to interact with history beyond the didactic methods used in a traditional classroom.

During the 2018 Winter Semester, McGill Professor of the History and Classical Studies Department Suzanne Morton taught a course entitled HIST 437: Issues in Canadian History. For the final project, Morton had her students conduct research on the history of the school using the McGill University Archives. She gave her students the option to present their findings in the form of an essay, podcast, or video.

As a pedagogical experiment of sorts, Morton decided to participate in the project as well; her own research culminated in a video entitled "Colour, Colonialism, and the McGill Redmen: A Short History."

Her video condensed nearly a century’s worth of information and documents into six minutes that have now accrued over 11,000 views from Morton’s personal Facebook page alone. Using a wealth of archival materials gathered from McGill’s collections, Morton traced the usage of the name back to the 1930s.

“The ‘red’ part most certainly came from McGill’s school colours, but it had traction and stuck because [the full name] fit into existing North American traditions of giving sports teams Indigenous names,” Morton narrates in the video.

“The ‘red’ part most certainly came from McGill’s school colours, but it had traction and stuck because [the full name] fit into existing North American traditions of giving sports teams Indigenous names,” Morton narrates in the video.

Morton’s video used visual aids such as newspaper clippings, old yearbooks, and even an n-gram that sourced information from Google Books to track the usage of the word over more than a hundred years. The resulting video offered objective evidence that the team name had its roots as an Indigenous slur and dispelled widely circulated myths in one fell swoop. Morton says she was moved to make the video in response to the multiple circulating narratives regarding the origins of the name.

“It’s something I care deeply about, something I’m concerned about,” Morton said. “It’s also a situation where people were making statements that just simply weren’t true, and I thought, ’this is an area where it might actually be useful for people to actually see evidence.’ Not understanding the indigenous roots of the [team name] makes things invisible.”

The video entered into the newsfeeds and consciousness of students at a time when McGill staff and students were coming to terms with the harsh realities of McGill’s colonial history. Students and faculty had expressed frustration with the administration’s hesitance to change the name. The debate has become part of a larger conversation about how McGill’s and Canada’s history in general are commemorated.

Though statues and team names are frequently a media flashpoint for such debates, librarians are working to come to terms with their own role in the discussion. An evolving school of thought in archival and librarian communities is that of ‘Critical Librarianship.’ Critlib, as it is colloquially referred to on Twitter, acts as a framework to interrogate and understand the ways in which libraries and archives participate and encourage longstanding systems of oppression.

“One of the kind of new mantras is this idea that libraries are not neutral,” Ing said.

“One of the kind of new mantras is this idea that libraries are not neutral,” Ing said. “In the past, we presented ourselves as a neutral body, just providing information. But increasingly, there’s a lot of people saying, ‘well no, that’s not true,’ and I tend to agree with them.”

A significant part of an archivist’s job is to provide context for their collections, which can cause bias to manifest in unexpected ways. Ing gave the example of the subject headings in the Library of Congress—the international standard for archival practices.

“One issue that a lot of people have been campaigning about is that the Library of Congress uses the phrase ‘illegal aliens,’ which is not really used in Canada at all,” Ing said. “A really important development that’s come out of Critical Librarianship is this idea that words matter, especially in a library and archival context, where we’re constantly describing things and classifying things, which, again, is quite problematic, the idea that part and parcel of our jobs is to put things into categories.”

Oral historians face a similar burden when it comes to cataloguing their materials. In a discipline that relies literally on word of mouth, knowing what information is credible and worth preserving is a contentious subject. Instead of evaluating the material based on traditional standards of accuracy, the field focuses on the more nuanced, subjective truths that arise from recording unfiltered accounts of stories from individuals.

“The thing about oral history is that you’ll get stories and you’ll get perspectives that you wouldn’t normally get in any other recorded history,” COHDS’ Digital Media and Projects Coordinator Sarah Lake said. “That’s what makes it pretty unique. And, you might have to counter-balance that with the fact that memory is very subjective and people’s stories are very personal. [But] I think that the […] benefit of oral history as a method does outweigh those potential negative parts. I think people are becoming much more interested in that. You know, public histories, people’s stories.”

Indeed, the constant evolution of archival studies is widening the scope of the histories that they preserve. One of the more dynamic fields of interest among oral historians and archivists is memory studies. A relatively recent and ever-evolving area of research, memory studies aims to examine individual and collective memory.

“There’s this idea of a walking oral history, where you actually walk with a person, and that’s how you’re recording the interview, and then as they’re walking and they’re seeing things, you […] talk about it,” Dhaliwal said. “In the audio walks, there will be clips of interviews where people are retracing places where they’ve lived, places where they’ve worked, and so, as you’re standing there doing a tour, you might be looking at, like, condos, but it used to be the Northern Electric Company.”

For all of the field’s constant evolution, to study archival sciences is to be constantly confronted by the simple truth that, the further you get from the past, the more difficult it becomes to preserve and understand. Archivists work to ensure that our relationship with the past is not a passive one, and that our methods and language are adapting to suit the changing contexts.

The McGill Library and Archives Master Plan, originally created in 2015 and currently up for review, states that McLennan library will focus its energy on acquiring digital materials and will re-shelve portions of the existing print collection in hopes of maximizing study space for students—an issue rendered all the more pertinent with the impending closure of Schulich Library. While most contemporary archivists support the acquisition of digital materials, they caution that it is not a one-stop solution where money and space is concerned.

“The process of digitizing, [as in] converting something from analog to digital itself, is extremely time and resource-consuming, and, then, once you’ve digitized something, you have to maintain it, so, that takes up a lot of space, too, which costs money and takes maintenance,” Dhaliwal said.

Data and methods, like terminology and social standards, can become obsolete. Archivists working with digital materials must constantly work to ensure that the file types or software used to scan or record the materials is readable on currently available technology.

“We like to think that ‘okay, I’ve digitized it, now it’s forever, it’s permanent,’ but that’s not really the case, digital files actually don’t last that long,” Lake said. “File types fall out of favour, and, you always have to be migrating it to different formats, always making backups of it.”

The work of an archivist or a librarian extends far beyond the preservation of materials. It all comes down to making informed, thoughtful, and, at times, courageous decisions about how we choose to navigate history.

“As soon as you make a choice about what to keep and what not to keep, […] you’re making a choice,” Lake said. “There [are] no archives in the world that are going to be objective, you can’t take everything, you can’t keep everything, but every history has a home.”