Archivists in Isolation

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Man at desk surrounded by papers

Stanton Friedman in his office, Fredericton, N.B. Stanton T. Friedman fonds, ca.1950s – 2019, PANB

Meredith J. Batt

Contrary to popular belief, archivists are not solitary, isolated, introverted creatures, hidden away from view in a basement surrounded by dusty books and papers. In fact, our work often requires us to be front facing and social. We help students, researchers, journalists, lawyers, and tourists find the information they are looking for. We sometimes give tours and our institutions host local events which bring the community together.

With the onset of Covid-19, archivists across Canada have retreated to their homes. This retreat to home has left me wondering how other archivists are doing in this situation and if they are feeling the way I am: upset that I have been unable to finish that finding aid; wishing that I had had more time to help a client before the lockdown, etc.

As archivists worked from home, I wondered, were any archivists missing a particular collection and if so, did they wish they could have taken it home with them to work on? I reached out to archivists across Canada to see what fonds or collection they are missing the most. This is what they wrote back:

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Raegan Swanson, Executive Director – The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archive
Collection: Mirha-Soleil Ross fonds, 1990-2008

“Mirha’s collection was one of the first that was worked on when I arrived at The ArQuives in 2016. Originally, some material was donated in 2009, but in 2017 we really started working on processing the collection. The material was so amazing and unlike anything we had. The records showing the creation of Gendertrash From Hell  explained her, her co-creator Xanthra, and their friends’ experiences of being trans in the 1990s. Several additional boxes of material were donated in late 2019 and I was anxious to hire someone to process them. They sit in my office right now, and I got used to being able to see the treasures on a daily basis.”

Burron reading homophobia is a social disease

A button from the Mirha-Soleil Ross fonds, The ArQuives

Christine Lovelace, Head, Archives & Special Collections – University of New Brunswick
Collection: Nancy Bauer fonds, 1968-2001

“I am pining for this collection because every time I go to work on it, I get interrupted with other things, and having to leave it mid-process means I have to spend double the time reacquainting myself with it in order to continue processing. I think this is an important fonds to finish because Nancy Bauer is an important figure in New Brunswick literary circles and we are extremely fortunate to have her papers to add to our New Brunswick Literary collection.

Nancy Bauer is an award-winning author who was a member of the Ice House Gang (Tuesday Night Group), a group of New Brunswick writers who met in the former ice house (McCord Hall) at UNB from 1967-1983.  Bauer is also founder of the Maritime Writers’ Workshop and a founding member of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick.  The sooner I finish processing this material, describing, and getting it into our catalogue (The Gateway), the better for historians of New Brunswick literature.  It will compliment other NB literary collections in UNB’s Archives & Special Collections, such as the Alden Nowlan fondsRobert J. Gibbs fondsFiddlehead/Fred Cogswell fondsDavid Adams Richards fonds, and the Wayne Curtis fonds, among others.”

Darlene Brine, Archival Assistant – Nova Scotia Archives
Collection: Prat, Starr Family fonds

Sketch of mayflowers

Paintings of Mayflowers by Annie Prat, Prat, Starr Family fonds, Nova Scotia Archives

“The Prat, Starr family fonds documents the life of three sisters, Annie, Minnie and May Rosina. It follows their young life into adulthood and records their education in both Art and Bookbinding. Their careers took them far from home – Annie to the Chicago Institute of Art, and Minnie and May to New York City, where they opened the Primrose Bindery in the late 1890’s. Quite a feat for three young women from Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia!

Within the fonds I found wonderful family letters and genealogies, land and military documents, greeting cards, travel scrapbooks, sketches, artistic bound books, beautiful artwork and even a few love stories.

The vibrant colours of Annie’s flower paintings would bring joy into my home during these troubling times. This is of course not possible, however we can all enjoy them by going to the Nova Scotia Archives website.”

Sketch of wild roses

Paintings of Wild Roses (right) by Annie Prat, Prat, Starr Family fonds, Nova Scotia Archives

Sarah Glassford, Archivist – Leddy Library Archives & Special Collections, University of Windsor
Collection: Mike Graston fonds, ca. 1981-2016

“Since I’m in charge of my archives, I made the executive decision to bring home with me some non-fragile new accessions (ie. recent donations not-yet-processed) and archival supplies. One accession I brought with me is the work of longtime Windsor Star editorial cartoonist Mike Graston. The bulk of his collection is already in our vault, where it remains secure and climate controlled, but the most recent addition is here in my living room, being arranged and added to the existing finding aid. It’s a great collection to have with me in isolation right now because the content is clever and funny. There’s nothing like the work of a talented cartoonist skewering the foibles of local, provincial, national, and international politicians to keep things light and put a pandemic in perspective.”

Archival box with sketches in front

Photo courtesy of Sarah Glassford

Melissa McCarthy, Archivist – City of Edmonton Archives
Collection: MS-716 Edmonton Natural History Club ( 1964-2005, club existing since 1907 with some earlier records at the Provincial Archives of Alberta), MS-721 Edmonton Bird Club (1939-2005), and MS-743 Edmonton Nature Club (2005-present), the amalgamation of the two previous clubs.

“It’s an intriguing set of collections to work on. It reflects the growth of the city, the gradual coming together of Edmonton and Strathcona (the part of the city south of the river, formerly its own municipality), the changing but always vital place of the University of Alberta in the intellectual life of the city, the development of the Royal Alberta Museum, the relationship of Edmonton with the rest of Alberta and the rest of Canada, and the crystallization of the environmental movement in a province which has always had a rocky relationship with conservation. Tracing the various clubs and societies which joined and split off and reintegrated over the years, has been a great deal of fun.

I miss processing, I miss the feeling of tangible productivity that I just don’t get from computer work, I miss the mixture of physical and intellectual labour, I know this will be over someday, just another period in history finding its own traces in the archives, and all the current confusion will be tidied and smoothed away by some future archivist. That’s a calming thought in its way, my own inward-looking version of ‘this too shall pass.’ But in the meantime, as Rainer Maria Rilke said, ‘we must live the questions, living our way into the archival answer’.”

Joanna Aiton Kerr, Private Records Manager – Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Collection: Stanton T. Friedman fonds, ca.1950s – 2019

“Often, the typical response I get when I explain what I do is something along the lines of ’oh, you must really like history.’  Well, yes, I do, but… for the last year or so, I take a perverse sort of pleasure in talking about a recently acquired fonds that is large (5 cargo vans full), disorganized (chaotic might be a better word), in demand, a bit unusual (really unusual), and the biggest challenge in my career to date (20 years in) – the Stanton T. Friedman fonds.

At PANB, a single day can involve history, biology, law, geography, engineering, health, and so on.  Stan brought something new – ufology – into our lives, and it has been a steep, but fascinating, learning curve.  Working on Stan’s records is like entering a strange time-warp or vortex.  Hours can go by and one doesn’t really notice.  Letters detailing alien encounters or abductions, pithy sparring amongst ufologists, speaking engagements and itineraries, movie scripts, photos, audio tapes and video, piles and piles of research and Right to Information requests from archives around the globe, vials of strange unidentified substances, blow up alien dolls, glow in the dark frisbees and UFO inspired artwork… all mixed up in jumbled boxes. Who wouldn’t want to spend their days alone with this stuff?”

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There is a great irony in the fact that I helped set up a small traveling exhibition about the Spanish Flu pandemic at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick last November, not knowing that a few months later another pandemic would sweep across the country. Over time, archives across Canada will become home to traces and records of the pandemic. Already, the McCord Museum in Montreal is asking people to send two photos documenting their Covid-19 experience. The Rooms in St. John’s has also put a call out to Newfoundlanders for their objects and stories relating to Covid-19 and many other archives across Canada have started community collecting initiatives or digital archives connected to Covid-19. In these times of great change and upheaval, archivists have an important role ahead, capturing and preserving the traces of these difficult times.

Meredith J. Batt is an archivist at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick and is vice-president of the Queer Heritage Initiative of New Brunswick, an archival initiative which aims to collect the history of 2SLGBTQIA+ people.

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