Road to Congress: raising the profile of York’s archive treasures

York’s Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections will be putting on a show for Congress visitors later this month in an effort to highlight the depth and range of material it contains for humanities and social science researchers. Through showcase displays that will change daily throughout the eight-day event, University Archivist Michael Moir hopes to spark interest in the collections, which are particularly strong in areas such as Canadian literature, women’s studies and the history of social reform in Canada.

“It’s a constant priority to raise the profile of the Archives & Special Collections,” Moir said. “This is why we appreciate the invitation from Prof. John Lennox, Congress Chair and academic convener, to profile some of our material and to try and draw more attention to it.”

Right: From left, Canadian authors Adele Wiseman, Judith Cowan, Susan Swan and Norman Levine

Moir and his colleagues will use six display cases on the second floor atrium of Scott Library to showcase various holdings, each linked to a particular academic association’s arrival at Congress. For example, on the day members of the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature & Language Studies arrive, visitors to the library will learn that the archives contain the papers of author and two-time Giller Prize winner M.G. Vassanji. Similarly, members of the Canadian Association of Chairs of English can view material about home-grown authors Adele Wiseman, Judith Cowan, Norman Levine and York’s own Susan Swan, professor in the Department of English.

M.G. VassanjiLeft: Author M.G. Vassanji, whose papers are held at the Archives

“We tried to establish links between the interests of the various associations and the visiting scholars, and some of the private papers and rare published material that we have in Archives & Special Collections,” said Moir. “We wanted to really drive home the strength of the research collections at a time when the University is strengthening its resources as a research university and attempting to encourage the further development of its graduate programs.”

Right: Rohinton Mistry (left) and Don Coles

When members of the Canadian Association for Translation Studies arrive on May 27, one of the display cases will be devoted to books in several languages, including novels by York honorary degree recipient Rohinton Mistry (DLitt ’03); works of translation by Cowan, who was awarded a Governor-General’s Award in 2004 for Mirabel, her translation of Pierre Nepveu’s Lignes aériennes; and the translation work of writer/poet Don Coles, York professor emeritus.

While York’s Archives & Special Collections is well known as home to the letters of Margaret Laurence, Moir said other aspects of the collection may come as a surprise to visitors and some members of the York community who haven’t visited the archives lately.

Left: Former Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono in Toronto, 1969 (York University, Clara Thomas Archives, ASC Image 504)

One of the biggest collections in the archives is the Toronto Telegram fonds, which contain approximately 1.25 million photographs from the 1950s to the 1970s, and some material from the 1940s. Although the collection has been at York since 1974, surprises continue to be uncovered due to the breadth and scope of its subject matter. One example was a picture of former Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, at the home of Toronto rocker Ronnie Hawkins in 1969.

Another huge addition to the archives – and one that still awaits processing – is the papers of Sudbury’s Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, Local 598/CAW, which arrived on St. Patrick’s Day this year. “In a normal year, we get about 100 linear metres of material,” said Moir. “This one acquisition itself was 100 metres. It took away any thoughts of having a party that day. It was a very sobering experience,” he added, without a hint of blarney.

Other highlights of the collection that may surprise include the papers of actor Robert Christie, famous for his one-man show as Sir John A. Macdonald, and playwrights Henry Voaden and Jason Sherman. A recent acquisition is the papers of Sheldon and Judy Godfrey, whose collection of material on Jewish families in late 18th- and 19th-century Canada is important for Jewish studies. The collection, which arrived last year, includes 11 letters from Sir John A. Macdonald to George Benjamin, founder of the Belleville Intelligencer newspaper and the first Jewish member of parliament. The letters played a significant role in the Godfreys’ research for their biography of Benjamin, Burn This Gossip.

Ferland OuelletteMany of the collections of former faculty members, especially historians, are starting to draw researchers’ attention, said Moir. The exhibits will highlight the papers of three noted Canadian historians who taught at York: Fernand Ouellet (left), a leading expert on 18th- and 19th-century Quebec; Ramsay Cook, general editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, among his many other accomplishments; and Jack Granatstein, known for his work on Canada and its military. Ouellet’s papers are of special interest, not only for his contributions to Canadian historiography but also for its series of papers of a 19th-century Quebec merchant, primary documents that will attract future historians of the period. Another collection of interest is the papers of the Robert Owen Foundation, promoters of the co-op movement in Canada.

Right: John Lennox with Clara Thomas in 1982 (York University, Clara Thomas Archives, ASC Image 503)

Some other names of interest whose papers are held at the archives include York Professor Emerita Clara Thomas, the Archives’ namesake, who was a pioneer in Canlit studies; Harry Arthurs, president emeritus of York and an expert in labour law; composer Louis Applebaum; conductor Victor Feldbrill; and Walter Pitman, Applebaum’s and Feldbrill’s biographer. In a remarkable example of how papers come to be donated to an archive, Moir explained how Pitman donated his own papers to the Archives after consulting them to write his biography of Applebaum and had a hand in encouraging his next subject, Feldbrill, to donate his papers.

For more information on the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, visit the archives online or drop into Scott Library’s Atrium from May 26 to June 3 to see the Congress displays.