Preserving pieces of the past

Queen’s Archives houses thousands of documents, offering a glimpse of history

University archivist Paul Banfield says a lack of space is the biggest challenge for the Queen’s Archives.
University archivist Paul Banfield says a lack of space is the biggest challenge for the Queen’s Archives.

The ink has faded in some areas, the paper looks a little uneven—especially on the edges—and it comes with the original seal, restored from its shattered state. The document that predates me by more than a century established Queen’s as a college to instruct students in “the various branches of Science Literature” in the Province of Upper Canada.

“Here’s the original charter—but it’s not actually signed by Queen Victoria, contrary to what some people believe.” I’m standing in a third-floor room of the Kathleen Ryan Hall, tucked away in the Old Medical Quadrangle across from the Campus Bookstore, home of the Queen’s Archives since 1982. University Archivist Paul Banfield is giving me a tour of the grounds.

He carefully unravels the original copy of the Queen’s charter—a facsimile resides in the JDUC—from an acid-free, neutral box made to slow down the corroding process of the paper.

During my tour, I also learn that Queen’s history started in a house on Colborne Street with a grand total of 15 students. The house, Banfield told me, is still standing and is now privately owned. Laws from England dictated Queen’s grounds must always be within a mile of St. Andrews United Church on Union Street.

Along with University documents like the charter, Queen’s Archives is also home to City of Kingston records, including city council minutes and bylaws up until the 1980s, early records of Kingston General Hospital, tax assessments, and land registry volumes from Kingston and other towns in the vicinity, such as Belleville.

“We’ve had many people come in wanting to trace their genealogy—land registry is useful,” Banfield said.

Queen’s Archives serves as a repository for the city’s public records—any interested citizen can access the city’s records there. The archives also holds private records including diaries, correspondence, notes and other collections of information by individuals.

Private collections include political papers, local business records­ (Canada Steamship Lines’ and Cooke’s Fine Foods’ history are all there) literary collections and a vast offering of photography and multimedia, such as short feature films and sound clips. Of the private collections, a few local names stand out: it houses the writings of Ryerson press founder Lorne Pierce and local author and poet Helen Humphreys, who gave a lecture at Queen’s last year called, “Writing a Novel from the Archives” on writing historical fiction from archival research; local photographers Lily Inglis and Jack Chiang have their work in the archives as well.

The third floor of the building holds records from student clubs, including the very first issue of the Journal, many years’ worth of the Tricolour Yearbook and student government records.

As the tour continues, Banfield mentions he’s always looking for student clubs to submit more records. People often come in with hopes of finding a snapshot of what the student body was like in the past, but are disappointed to find only few traces of them, he said.

If all the paper documents in the building were laid end-to-end, they would stretch out for 10 kilometres, Banfield said. The Archives also holds about one million prints, negatives and slides, 10,000 architectural drawings and thousands of sound recordings.

“We’ve been called the best medium-sized archive in the country, and justifiably so,” Banfield said.

The University endows the Archives with a $500,000 budget—including salary­—every year from the central budget approved by the Vice-Principal (Academic).

“It’s very generous for a medium-sized archive,” Banfield said. The University of Toronto and McMaster University also have mid-sized archives. The National Archives in Ottawa and the Provincial Archives of Ontario are examples of bigger archives. As the collection continues to grow, however, the archives are facing a space problem.

“That’s our number-one issue right now; there’s no space,” Banfield said. “We haven’t been as proactive in acquiring records as we could be.” Acquiring more space would let the archives grow to the next level and the University’s recent acquisition of the former Federal Prison for Women on Sir John A. Macdonald Boulevard could provide the perfect location.

“At the moment, nothing is set in stone,” Banfield said of the potential move. “But we are, to the best of my knowledge, the primary tenant.” Andrew Simpson, vice principal (operations), couldn’t confirm how the prison space would be used, but he said the archives had been identified as a main candidate to use the buildings.

The new location could make the Archives more accessible to the community beyond Queen’s. “Over 50 per cent [of those who use the archives] are from the general public,” Simpson said.

Late this year or early next year, he said, the University will develop more concrete plans to determine how it will use the recently acquired property.

However, getting around the building codes would be tricky due to the city’s recent declaration of the former prison as heritage property.

“The space can’t be altered, including the cells, locking mechanics—which were devised by an inmate there,” Banfield said. “It’ll be a challenge to refurbish that section.” Despite the challenges, the head archivist is excited by the prospect of expanding.

Through gaining more space, Banfield said the Archives hope to not only expand its collection, but also work with other heritage groups and museums in Kingston to provide a more comprehensive historical outlook.

“It will allow us to become more proactive,” Banfield said. “We can collaborate more fully with the Kingston Historical Society—provide meeting space for them, have an exhibition space, showcase [collections] in collaboration with other groups, such as the Penitentiary Museum.” One of my last stops of the tour is the conservation lab. Margaret Bignell, the conservator at the archives, spends her time repairing, cleaning, flattening and preserving archival materials. There’s a fume hood where mould gets removed, a microscope, countless bottles of chemical and eraser bits to remove any discoloration. There are also freezers downstairs, where film negatives can be kept—especially the ones with vinegar syndrome, where the acetate base of the black and white film degrades and gives off a vinegary odour. It’s critical to keep film with vinegar syndrome isolated from others in the freezer, to prevent it from spreading to other rolls and to slow down the deterioration. “This is a tear repair,” said Public Services Archivist Heather Home, as she shows me a document in the repairing process. Bits of Japanese tissue—made with wheat starch paste—cover the ripped parts; pieces of heavy paper lie on top of the document to flatten it more.

All in all, it’s a delicate process.

“Conserving is more of a hands-on repair, whereas preserving is preventative, to make sure that the way we store things will slow down the deterioration process,” Home said.

Often, alumni will come in and request to have their diplomas cleaned or flattened. Through the conservation outreach program, Bignall can also answer any questions about conserving old documents in the household over the phone.

Aside from conserving the past, archives serve another important purpose of keeping an eye on public institutions.

“Within democracy, it saves the rights of cities to be preserved and maintained,” Home said.

“At its most basic level, archives are a tool for democracy that ensures transparency of government and public institutions, so we can monitor the leaders taking actions and doing them,” she said.

Back in the third-floor vault, I see a photograph of the Arts Class of 1931 on top of the filing cabinet where the Charter is kept. Girls with bobs and frilly dresses stand beside gentlemen looking much older than any 21-year-olds I know, all smiling at the panorama-style camera. Every year, a group of mischievous guys would run from one end to the other as the camera moved from one side to the other when the photo was being taken. “One time, eight guys made from one end to the other … it seems that every class was trying to outdo the other,” Banfield said.

The more I learn about the University trivia in the cool room among shelves and shelves of historical documents—all storage vaults are kept around 18 to 20 degrees Celsius, and at 45 per cent humidity for the sake of preservation—I’m starting to get a more well-rounded picture of my university.

That’s why archives are important to students as well as the residents, Banfield said.

“Archives allow you to document your past—where you’ve been to see where you’re going.”

Public services archivist Heather Home is guest-curating Isabel McLaughlin (1903-2002): Painter, Patron, Philanthropist, an archival show currently at the Agnes Etherington Arts Centre. The show, which includes her manuscript letters, photographs and catalogues, will be at the Etherington until Sept. 30.

To access documents in the archives:

  • Fill out a card with your name, address and contact information, available from Susan Office at the main desk on the second floor of Kathleen Ryan Hall.
  • Talk to an archivist at the reception desk about what kind of information or documents you’re looking for.
  • The archivist will search through the archives and return with the material they find.
  • The documents can only be read in the archives reading room, because of the fragility of much of the material.
  • You can look at the documents at no charge, but will have to pay to make copies. The price depends on the materials you want reproduced.

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