Navigating archival research roadblocks

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By Jenny Prior

A whole lot of research ... Mel Starkman viewing records in the Archives of Ontario’s stacks. Photographer unknown [ca. 1968]. Archives of Ontario photographs, RG 17-43, I0009024

A whole lot of research … Mel Starkman viewing records in the Archives of Ontario’s stacks. Photographer unknown
[ca. 1968]. Archives of Ontario photographs, RG 17-43, I0009024

So you’re hard at work, creating a World War I exhibit based on hours and hours of archival research. Or maybe you’re not. But doesn’t it sound like a fascinating and daunting task?

Just ask Stewart Boden at the Archives of Ontario. As our in-house curator of three interconnected World War I exhibits highlighting our collections, Stewart’s been on a rollercoaster ride of discovery, frustration and rewards.

We wanted to share some of the research challenges he’s encountered with this intense undertaking, as well as the ways he’s navigating through them.

A very big subject.

You can’t have an exhibit on “World War I”. Too unwieldy. But deciding which angle to take can be potentially paralyzing.

There’s no quick way out of this quandary. The only solution is to methodically go through the materials you have to work with, narrowing down your options, and eliminating the themes that aren’t translatable into a comprehensive and engaging exhibit.

The archival collections you’re using must support your themes. This can be problematic if you’re dearly attached to an idea you want to explore. When the research doesn’t complement it, you need to realign your vision. Assess exactly what kinds of records you’re dealing with before committing to an overarching thread.

Concentrate on the stories you can tell. In the case of the Archives of Ontario’s collections, Stewart ruled out military history very early on. Our records simply don’t support this kind of narrative. First-person accounts, like letters and diaries, are where we really shine. The beauty of these documents is that you’re immediately connected to someone’s inner world. Stewart is capitalizing on this strength.

So. Much. Paper!

Archival correspondence can be a riveting read. And the temptation might be to digitize every letter so that audiences can wade in for themselves. When it comes to producing an exhibit, this is less than realistic. In just one of the collections, Stewart had to work through a year’s worth of correspondence that stacks up to two full boxes of records.

You need to pinpoint the moments that will speak to audiences most effectively, illuminating your themes. This takes discipline. Putting things in the non-exhibit pile can be difficult, especially when you’ve become deeply involved with your research. By getting tough and discerning, you can weed out the extraneous elements and get to the heart of the story.

Don’t leave me hanging…

Sometimes there’s too much paper, and sometimes there’s not enough! It’s challenging when non-surviving records are referenced in the documents you’re reading. But it’s also intriguing and can make your exhibit richer and more thought-provoking.

Stewart has encountered meaningful mentions of photographs that aren’t part of the collection. He’s also dealing with one-sided letters – soldiers writing to their doctor after the war. The doctor solicited these missives, but we don’t have his replies. Were they clinical and cold? Or warm and personal? We won’t ever know. Sculpting exhibit content around missing information can be trying, but there’s an appeal to having mysterious elements that exist beyond our grasp.

It’s all part of the unique process of primary research.

Great. Another group photo.

Almost everyone loves poring over archival photographs, but it can turn into a slog when you’re on the hunt for something arresting. You might study photo after photo, and nothing pops out. Naturally, you know that life, death and drama were taking place under the surfaces that were presented. You need to include tantalizing sparks to up the ante of your exhibit.

Stewart has found a silver lining in all the looking: finding these very quirks and details that demonstrate a personality, or hint at bigger meaning. Subjects are often telling their own stories through expressions and subtle actions, like young soldiers goofing around in a candid moment.

The trick is to find the gem.

War is awful.

Reading wartime letters and diaries, you can get attached. And being immersed in the unrelenting devastation of World War I may get you editorializing in your exhibit text. It’s easy to start projecting, and speculating on how these people were feeling.

You have to stick to the evidence of the documents. Stay impartial. An exhibit can’t help but be marked by the person who created it. But it’s important to avoid bias. Use the pure motivation of unearthing untold stories. Let the records speak for themselves, because they’re more than adequate on their own.

We hope your interest is peaked, because the online version of our WWI exhibit is now live! Please check it out, and be on the lookout for future posts on documenting our progress on the onsite and travelling versions, our educational programming, and our outreach activities honouring the centenary.

Jenny Prior oversees the Archives of Ontario’s popular travelling exhibits program. If you’re a heritage, cultural or educational organization looking to book an exhibit, please contact her at

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