archive closeup

The summer months are a wonderful time for us Canadians to finally escape our dreary protective rectangles, get outdoors, and appreciate the beauty of nature. For a decent chunk of this past summer I was able to at least sort of do the last thing in that list from a small window. No, I wasn’t daydreaming during lectures. I was assisting with the creation of the Arthur Virtual Archive.

What is this archive, you ask? According to its creator and Steward of Sadleir House, Dwayne Collins, it “is a digitized collection of issues of the Arthur. It is designed as a tool to allow users to browse through the paper’s history and to aid in archival research by limiting the need to access physical copies of the paper.”

Collins started the archive in 2009 as a practicum placement while undertaking his Master’s degree in Information Studies at the University of Toronto. “I worked for about a year on the project as part of my coursework, and then volunteered my time over the following year to continue working on it.”

I came to this project when trying to decide how to get my final credit of my undergraduate degree. While combing through the less than impressive list of summer courses, I happened upon the Trent Centre for Community-Based Education (TCCBE), an organization that allows students to take a step outside of traditional academia.

The TCCBE assists in matching upper-year students in good academic standing with local organizations that are looking to complete some kind of community-focused task. If both parties feel the other is the right fit, the student then finds a professor who will oversee the academic portion of the project.

It may be a good idea to ask for more information about the listed projects. The general sounding “Analyzing Trends in Media” turned out to be the archive project, recommended to me in part due to my past involvement with the Arthur.

Meetings involving all stakeholders typically yield the specific parameters of a project, which eventually evolve into a syllabus. For example, Collins assessed my archival work, essays inspired by it were handled by professor Liam Mitchell, and the paper’s editors Pat Reddick and Sara Ostrowska suggested newspaper pieces (including this one!).

I wondered curiously about what kind of high-tech equipment I’d be using to create a newspaper archive. A giant scanner, perhaps? Wrong. There would be no scanner for me at all, and the tech level would be anything but high. I was really jumping into the project just as it had been left.

“When the project first started,” says Collins, “there wasn’t the access at the University to scanning hardware that we have available now. There also wasn’t any money for this project. For the first twenty-five volumes that were digitized, an old photo duplicator stand was found and used alongside a digital camera.

“Essentially, every page of every issue was digitally photographed.”

As earlier alluded to, there does exist a physical Arthur archive at Bata Library, as part of the university archive. However, there are a few volumes from that set which could not be easily digitised using the university’s equipment, and that set of papers was the gap in the Digital Archive that I had to fill.

These conditions led me to conduct my work at Sadleir House, the current home of Arthur. There is a less meticulously maintained collection of past papers in the mythical Business Manager’s office, which served as my principal workstation.

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My job was taking each paper, placing it under the lights and camera, and sequentially capturing each page, while carefully turning the timeworn pages (and minding my arms).

The next step was to make the necessary changes to the files so that they could be put online.

If my knowledge base covered site design, I may have also been involved in the actual updating of the archive site, but for now the files I worked to create will lie in wait for my successor. The work I did will transform into a student job this academic year thanks to a donation from a Founding Editor of Arthur, Stephen Stohn.

Collins is optimistic about Stohn’s contribution, stating that “his donation is fantastic in that it allows the project to rely on more than just volunteer labour. If all goes well, in addition to digitizing the remaining issues, we’ll also update the look and functionality of the website, and index the paper. With better scanners now at the project’s disposal the process should go a lot faster and be far less labour intensive. By the 50th Anniversary of the University, we’ll have a complete digital version of Arthur available.”

Despite the fairly rigorous work the project entailed (mostly owing to the antiquated equipment that will no longer be used), I feel as though I have a deeper connection to Trent after having this experience. Even a small university like this one can often be hard to connect with, given that it is, after all, a corporate institution. Looking at thousands of past events from decades gone by as recorded by students gave me a unique perspective of Trent’s history.

Collins has a similar hope for the archive, once it has been completed: “I specifically wanted to digitize Arthur because I felt as though Trent had a habit of forgetting or mythologizing its history – I wanted there to be a way to access the university’s history beyond having to physically go through reams of print materials. Having Arthur digitally available was a way to make at least one version of that history more broadly available. I’d love to see more aspects and versions of that history become available in the future, beyond just the version presented in Arthur.”