Reports from New Directions in Active History: Opening doors, gathering communities: Making archives active through events

By Jay Young and Krista McCracken

This post comes out of a workshop on “Active Archives” at the New Directions in Active History conference in October 2015 in London, Ontario. 

Danielle Manning, Outreach Officer at the Archives of Ontario, shows visitors the Archives’ exhibit area at Doors Open Toronto 2016

Danielle Manning, Outreach Officer at the Archives of Ontario, shows visitors the Archives of Ontario exhibit area at Doors Open Toronto 2016

Archives, as places of knowledge, sometimes have the reputation of being intimidating for the uninitiated. Outreach activities—from social media engagement to student workshops—help overcome this stereotype, and show that archives are exciting, integral repositories of collective memory.

Events are an important aspect of outreach at archives. Although the Archives of Ontario and the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre have different institutional histories and collections scopes, both archives show that events can be a great way to connect with the general public or specific communities.

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The Archives of Ontario, the provincial archive of Ontario, was established in 1903. The second largest archive in Canada, its mission is to collect, preserve, promote and facilitate access to Ontario’s documentary memory. The Archives’ modern public facility is located on the campus of York University in Toronto.

Doors Open Toronto is a key annual event in the Archives’ outreach calendar. Over the past six years, hundreds of visitors—many of whom are experiencing the Archives for the very first time—come through the doors to see why the Archives is a dynamic and important place.

The Archives of Ontario’s public facility

The Archives of Ontario’s public facility

Building tours are always a highlight of Doors Open Toronto at the Archives. Visitors, often with cameras in hand, enjoy a guide-led tour of the Reading Room and the current exhibit on display in the Archives’ onsite exhibit area. In addition, visitors are shown the state-of-the-art preservation lab and onsite record vaults—areas typically reserved for staff only.

The Archives of Ontario links special programming to the annual theme of Doors Open Toronto as a way of engaging visitors and connecting with the larger event taking place across the city. For example, the Doors Open Toronto 2015 theme was “Sports, Recreation and Leisure,” so the Archives featured a display of records from the Jackie MacDonald fonds. Jackie was a trail blazer for amateur sport in Canada who represented Canada in shot put and discus in the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, and Pan Am Games during the 1950s. The Archives also featured a life-sized cut-out of Jackie, and she made a special appearance at the Archives for Doors Open Toronto. She even participated in a tour with other visitors!

Archives of Ontario staff with Jackie MacDonald at Doors Open Toronto 2015

Archives of Ontario staff with Jackie MacDonald at Doors Open Toronto 2015

Children’s activities in the classroom also feature prominently at the Archives’ Doors Open Toronto event. Families enjoy engaging with activities inspired by archival records and learning about our education programming (in 2015-2016, more than 3,600 students and 180 educators learned about the importance of archival records through the Archives’ curriculum-based, education programming aimed at students from grades 3 to 12). The Doors Open Toronto 2016 theme was “Re-used, Re-visited and Revised” and children got a kick out of designing their own building blueprint from reproductions of architectural records at the Archives of Ontario.

Social media is a significant component of the Doors Open experience – visitors often use social media to share fascinating things they’ve learnt or seen. The Archives of Ontario encourages Doors Open Toronto visitors to mention their visit on social media, and the Archives uses its own social media channels to connect to the larger Doors Open Toronto conversation. For example, this past May, its Twitter channel (@ArchivesOntario) featured a full month of tweets that showcased the Archives’ architectural records.

When a Doors Open Toronto tour finishes, it’s common to see a great sight: a visitor approaches the Archives’ reception desk and asks for a researcher card!

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The archival holdings held by Algoma University’s Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre (SRSC) began as a grassroots community archives started by survivors from the Shingwauk Indian Residential School following the 1981 Shingwauk Reunion.

Shingwauk 1981 Reunion poster.

Shingwauk 1981 Reunion poster.

The 1981 Reunion invited survivors, former staff, family members and others connected to the School to return to the Shingwauk site and begin to talk about their experience.  Eleven years after the closure of Shingwauk the organizers of the event had no idea how many people to expect. Over 300 people showed up to this first reunion to begin the process of healing, community building, and reconciliation.

Many individuals arrived with photographs, documents, and experiences in hand. They wanted a way to share this material with other survivors and the broader residential school movement.  Enter the Shingwauk Project, the establishment of the Shingwauk archives, and the founding of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association (CSAA).

Thirty-five years have passed since that first reunion and the desire to engage with community, tell residential school experiences from the survivor perspective, and teach others about the legacy of residential schools is still thriving.  Since 1981 twelve reunions – now known as Gatherings – have been held at the former Shingwauk site, now home to Algoma University.

Gathering participants looking at residential school photographs during the Shingwauk 2006 Reunion.

Gathering participants looking at residential school photographs during the Shingwauk 2006 Reunion.

The Gatherings are a great example of active archives, community outreach, and the living nature of the SRSC holdings. During the Gathering the SRSC helps support the CSAA in delivering educational programming and by providing logistic support.  SRSC staff also invite event participants to engage with the material held in the Centre’s archives.  Reproduction photo albums of residential school photographs and access copies of archival documents have been a mainstay at the Gatherings. Survivors and community members are invited to flip through photographs, write the names of anyone they recognize on the images and SRSC staff provide copies of photos free of charge.

This photo identification outreach, alongside formal oral history projects and unstructured conversations about residential school experiences, are part of what defines the SRSC as an active archive. The SRSC’s mission of ‘Sharing, Healing, and Learning” is firmly linked to the Centre’s approach to archival management.  The archive is constantly changing to respond to new information provided by the residential school survivor community and programming decisions are based on interaction with the community of people who founded it.

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Public outreach events open up archives to new kinds of users and help raise awareness of the wide range of services provided by archives. As events at the Archives of Ontario and the SRSC demonstrate, these activities are one way in which “active archives” are making strong connections with the general public and community groups.

Jay Young is an Outreach Officer at the Archives of Ontario and a founder of

Krista McCracken is an Archives Supervisor at Algoma University’s Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre and Arthur A. Wishart Library.  She is a co-editor of

Records and stories from the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre archives will be featured in the Archives of Ontario’s next onsite exhibit, Family Ties: Ontario Turns 150, which will launch in September 2016.

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