Kathleen Ryan Hall: ‘the paths of which we have come’

People, relationships, empathy—the Archives preserve what’s at Queen’s core

The cassette tape which holds the audio of the 1982 opening ceremony of Kathleen Ryan Hall.
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It was the opening ceremony of Kathleen Ryan Hall on May 14, 1982. Principal Ronald Watts stood onstage in the old Medical Quadrangle behind Summerhill while a string quartet performed. The speeches, music, and light wind of that afternoon are captured on one cassette tape, kept carefully in the building its audio commemorates.

“Madame Chancellor, Mrs. Ryan, Madame Archivist, ladies and gentlemen, we are performing here today in this delightful, not to mention harmonious setting, a significant act of renewal […] so that generations of future scholars may explore the paths of which we have come,” said Watts, who led Queen’s from 1974 to 1984.

For decades, Queen’s Archives has preserved public and private moments like these, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in pockets of history. Unlike most search results in an online database, archival artifacts offer people’s most personal moments—and they have never been more accessible.

Kathleen Ryan, formerly Whitton, graduated from Queen’s in 1926 after completing her honours degree in economics in three years. She met her husband Frank Ryan at Queen’s, and they both shared a passion for radio and print media. (Ryan’s husband was The Journal’s news editor in 1928, while she contributed as an illustrator).

In 1976, after the 50th anniversary of her graduation from Queen’s, she established the Ryan Foundation to contribute to Queen’s Archives, libraries, and radio.

Her donations moved the Queen’s Archives from their original location in Douglas Library to what was then called the “New Medical Building,” and is now her namesake. The building was completed in 1907 and used for lab space by the Department of Medicine until it was reopened in 1982 as the new location of the archives.

“This medical building and I entered this life in the same decade and now we’ve come to a full cycle of usefulness and I haven’t 22 miles of new, strong shelving, but I have five foot five, 165 cm of humble gratitude for being able to play a part, a sort of re-founding role in the development of the archives,” Ryan can be heard saying on the cassette.

She said she was proud Kathleen Ryan Hall would be the fourth “lady building,” referencing the number of campus buildings named after women. She was especially proud that it was the first Queen’s building with an Irish name.

“Kathleen Ryan is a superbly Irish name—I hope, a few days before the spring solstice, that the archivists will let me put a pot of shamrock in there.”

Kathleen Ryan's illustration in The Journal, perhaps referring to the Dominion Archives in Ottawa. Credit: The Journal.

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Ryan’s contributions allowed the Archives to expand from a single archivist to the team it is today—made up of archivists working with the University’s records and private records, digital archivists, and an on-campus conservator.

The building also underwent significant renovations to convert the lab space to reading rooms and to improve its safety for archival storage. Water pipes run down the centre of the building, and none run above any of the vaults or the reading rooms. In the basement, records are stored in climate-controlled vaults, and up in the reading room, the windowpanes are specialized to block UV light.

The Archives follow strict procedure, while controlling the temperature and light, to maintain the artifacts. No food or drink is allowed in the reading room, and backpacks are stored in lockers at the entrance. Visitors must sign in before examining any archival property and can only use a pencil or their laptop.

“Those conditions are part of us being in it for the long game,” Heather Home, a private records archivist at Queen’s, told The Journal in an interview. “We’ve committed to keep it forever.”

Historically, archives were selective in their visitors. Home explained that some archives would judge whether a research topic was worthy enough to allow access material, and some still may close off collections to anyone but those doing “official research.” Queen’s Archives, she said, has always been open to everyone.

While the Archives want to protect the records, Home doesn’t want students to think of it as an exclusive resource—she encourages students to visit.

“The goal of the archives is to make research available [for] people to come in and ask their own questions,” she said. “You can come and ask a question [that’s] never been asked before and learn something that no one's known before, because nobody came and asked that question.”

According to Home, although many primary sources are being digitized, they are often catalogued based on theme or research topic. But, when records are isolated and then sorted into themed collection, that digitized material is technically “curated.”

Home sees this “curated” digitized material as almost a secondary source. She said it’s like looking at somebody else’s research. “You’ll be less directed by the record and directed by the way it’s categorized—which might be different than coming in and looking at someone’s [physical] papers.”

Archives are organized using respect des fonds, meaning that archivists always keep the records of a person together. Home said this offers contextualization and that, because of the interrelatedness of a person’s records, to separate them does a disservice to the record and the researcher.

Stored in the Archives are some of people’s most vulnerable moments and networks of personal relationships. Home said she feels a familiarity with many people’s lives who she’s worked with over her nineteen years as an archivist.

Isabel McLaughlin’s records are some of her favourites, and one of the first fonds Home worked with. McLaughlin was an artist, a philanthropist, and a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters. She also served as its first female president. Her father R.S. McLaughlin is the namesake of McLaughlin Hall.

Home said she feels like she got to know Isabel McLaughlin through her correspondence. To Home, correspondence offers the most “inside look” into people’s lives because it’s where they lay out their own issues or respond to other people’s issues. Their empathy is on display.

“You get to know them through other people’s eyes,” Home said.

Correspondence also forces a researcher to uncover a network of relationships. Letters written by one person aren’t stored under their name, but with the person they were sent to. A received letter is information researchers can confirm the recipient knew, which is part of contextually piecing their life together.

Despite the privilege of seeing into people’s most private moments, Home said that insight is always tempered by the question, “How much can we know?”

Records in the Archives are the documentary evidence of people’s lives, meaning the creator may have put it aside purposefully. Many records don’t remain; people get rid of things, not bothering to keep them, or they intentionally destroy them.

When Queen’s Archives went to collect McLaughlin’s records from her house, there was a bin of papers the housekeeper had been instructed to rip up.

Home said she sees this as “self-curation,” shaping the personal evidence left behind. How they want to be seen can be just as revealing. She speculates that the ripped-up papers were evidence of McLaughlin’s romantic life because there is otherwise no record of it. In a few places, she said, names will be mentioned that never reappear.

“There are gaps and silences in records. You can read those gaps.” 

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When Kathleen Ryan Hall opened, the Medical Quadrangle was the heart of campus, amongst the oldest buildings. Now, with so much new development, it’s a quieter area, but the Archives are still just as integral to both Queen’s and Kingston.

Home told The Journal that classes from a variety of departments tour the Archives every week, introducing students to the resource. Community members also have access because Queen’s Archives holds the records of the City of Kingston.

Kathleen Ryan and her husband’s student cards are still in the archives. They show which classes they took together, and the history course which might have taken them to the Dominion Archives in Ottawa as honour students.

The Archives trace Ryan’s network of relationships with people and organizations across campus—how her life interconnects with The Journal, CFRC, and the legacy of the University. Records can take you back to a specific hour decades ago. They can show you intimacies of a person’s life to the point of familiarity—like with McLaughlin—but they also preserve how lives intertwine.

For years to come, the Archives will continue to maintain the networks of people’s lives: their relationships and involvement, everything the Queen’s community values.

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