[The following was written by Manfred Nissley, currently working for the UBC Archives in the Work Learn student employee programme]
A year after starting at the University of British Columbia as an archival science and library science student, a work-learn position opened up in University Archives. I applied for this position because I saw it as an excellent opportunity to put my archival science education into practice.
As an archival processing assistant for the University Archives, my job is to process accessions acquired according to University Records Management schedules or through donations from private parties. I have discovered the clear differences between these types of accession. These differences mean there is often something unique to consider during processing.
Each project I have worked on has come with its own unique challenges. These challenges often depended on whether the creator of a fonds had a coherent records management system, a typical situation for university records, or if a private party simply tossed documents and ephemera in a box without a clear order of arrangement. While extra time must be spent with a disorganized fonds, the extra time needed allows the processor to become intimate with the materials. This intimacy would prove to be rather valuable for me during the CoVid-19 pandemic.
I have worked on so many projects that detailing all the projects I have completed is impossible. So, I am only going to highlight some of my favorites and state that my projects ranged from only a few centimetres to several metres. Some of these projects ended up providing opportunities to make personal connections with fonds creators. Others featured random situations that caused me to reflect on the importance of my work preserving records for family members and future researchers.
One such random situation came while I processed the School of Social Work fonds soon after I was hired. The records were from the late 1980’s to the early 2000’s and were rather convoluted. The fonds contained personal identifiable information (PII), deliberately preserved organic material, random coins, and student art that had been distorted due to severe off-gassing. Decisions had to be made throughout the processing about how to best preserve or destroy (especially the PII) these items or their storage containers. Halfway through the project, I became curious about the creators of the records, so I decided to begin my research for the administrative history section of the finding aid by looking into the histories of the administrators. When I researched Elaine Stoler, the department director from 1993-1998, I was surprised to learn she died a few days after I started processing the fonds!
Another favorite project featured several boxes of random ephemera and records belonging to multiple fonds. My task was to research these items, discover to which fonds they belonged, and process any unprocessed fonds. Some of my favorite finds included President Frank Wesbrook’s portfolio case (my all-time favorite find), a box of specimen slides of ocean dwelling microorganisms from the late 19th century, numerous medals and plaques, and the unprocessed accessions of Laurence Meredith and Valerie Haig-Brown. This project is a great reminder of the importance of documenting storage and recovery activities, especially during a crisis. Some of the ephemera had been temporarily misplaced in remote storage after a break-in at the archives many years ago. This misplacement resulted finding aids being updated over time to include notes about missing items.
The processing of the Meredith and Haig-Brown fonds was interesting as well. Both of these UBC Alumni and Ubyssey writers had storied careers. Valerie Haig-Brown, like her father Roderick, is an author and a particularly important conservation activist in the Pacific Northwest. She was a high-school track and field star who joined the Vancouver Olympic Club and was in consideration for the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games.
Laurence Meredith, also a writer for the Ubyssey, was initially a high school teacher upon graduation. However, he soon moved to London and became a reporter for United Press International, eventually being made head of the Portugal office. He joined the Royal Air Force during WW2 and survived a parachuteless 1000 foot fall that did not end his military career. His fonds was sent around the world to UBC after his death in 1990.
Another project featured Florence McNeil, also a Ubyssey writer. Florence, an author, married Mr. McNeal, but she kept McNeil as her nom de plume. According to a memorial published in Trek magazine, McNeil was known for being evasive about her personal details. To ensure that McNeil can be properly identified in the future by archivists and researchers, statements about her husband’s name and nom de plume were included in the fonds’ Finding Aid.
One of my recent projects featured the fonds of Professor of Creative Writing Keith Maillard, who is also writer by profession. As a genealogist, this project was particularly interesting because the fonds includes a significant amount of family history and genealogical research. It also included a large amount of ephemera of Keith’s estranged father, which is discussed in Keith’s memoir Fatherless. I was curious about Keith’s genealogical story, his anti-war history, and the potential original order of some records. So, I reached out to him. He ended up sending me a signed copy of his memoir Fatherless, which is a must-read in my opinion.
I mentioned earlier that in some cases intimate knowledge of a fonds contents is a benefit. During CoVid-19, I was relegated to working from home. To keep me busy, I was given the main task of creating and editing Wikipedia pages dedicated to the people whose fonds on which I worked. The intimacy allowed me to use memorized information to recall what appropriate search strings and additional sources I needed to use to create and edit those pages according to Wikipedia standards.
One further note. It is rather interesting to me that many of the donated fonds I have processed were created by individuals who were editors and writers for the Ubyssey. As a genealogist, I find this relationship with the Ubyssey as almost a familial bond. It is my belief that that ties like this should be used by archives to promote the facility to those were part of that long standing culture. To that end, if you are reading this blog post and you were an editor or writer for the Ubyssey, please consider donating your papers to the University Archives. Your papers will be preserved and be in good company with other Ubyssey alumni. And don’t worry, if you moved to another nation, we can still take your papers – for example, Laurence Meredith’s archive travelled halfway around the world to get back to UBC.