York welcomes new University archivist

When you don’t find him in his office at York, Michael Moir, the new University archivist, will most likely be somewhere about town offending people’s ears – or not, depending on your opinion of bagpipes. Like most proponents of the ancient Celtic instrument, Moir says “it’s one of those things, you either really like ‘em or hate ‘em. They tend to be an instrument that people do not feel indifferent about.”

moirMoir joins the University from his most recent post as director of corporate record systems and city archivist for the City of Toronto. He succeeds the esteemed Kent Haworth, who died in January 2003.

Right: Michael Moir with some newly acquired archival material

With a master’s degree in Scottish history from the University of Guelph, Moir says his new post represents an opportunity to indulge a passion for archives and research in an academic setting. It’s a change he welcomes after serving political masters for the past six years since Toronto’s municipalities were amalgamated. “I wanted to be a practitioner again,” he explained, as he carefully leafed through an almost 600-year-old Book of Hours in York’s reading room for Archives and Special Collections on the third floor of Scott Library.

His love for the printed word he credits to his father, who was a printer, and he revels in the variety and uniqueness of York’s archives which contain items as disparate as the unpublished papers of Margaret Laurence and a published first-edition copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrated by Salvador Dali. The holdings include important collections from many writers, artists, filmmakers, composers, York faculty and Canadian politicians.

One of the greatest challenges, Moir says, is trying to anticipate how material will be used by researchers in the future. “Sometimes it’s for reasons you could never anticipate,” he says, noting past requests range from people wanting images for limited edition prints to arcane bits of family history. “They latch on to small bits of information which you thought were quite esoteric initially but are very significant from their point of view.” An inquirer once came to him looking to research fare media from the Toronto Island ferry. “It can get quite specialized,” he said.

His love of archives, he recalls, began when he was a graduate research assistant in the University of Guelph library, writing explanatory passages for a collection of letters from a 19th century missionary from Nova Scotia. “The more that I did that kind of work, the more that I realized this is what I was really interested in,” he said. His search for employment in his newly chosen field led him by stages to jobs at Toronto’s St. Christopher House and the Toronto Harbour Commission, where he fell in love with marine history. He is now planning to revisit research into Toronto’s waterfront and ship-building history with Gene Desfor, professor in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, whom he worked with in the late 1980s.

But Moir’s immediate thoughts inevitably take him back to the perennial concern of the archivist: how to preserve information for future researchers.

“People used to keep diaries,” he said, introducing his explanation of archivists’ current preservation dilemma, “and now we have our online scheduling software. People used to write letters, now we write e-mails to people [and] create digital images. We do this in an environment where the technology is constantly changing, both in terms of operating systems and the software used to create the information, and the storage media to house it. There is no consensus on the strategy for how that information is going to be carried over several generations of technological change.”

But Moir is up for that challenge and is excited about coming to York. “It’s a place that obviously is growing and sees a strong future for itself,” he said. “I like the identity that’s being projected – the fact that you look for new ways of doing things, you come to challenges with initiative and imagination. There’s a real focus on students and on learning and, so, I find this a very dynamic environment in which to work that made the transition quite attractive.”

More information on York Library’s archives and special collections is available online.