The Magic of Archives & Special Collections: Where Past and Present Co-Exist

19th century ledger books in front of a 21st century desktop computer
By Sarah Glassford
Posted April 20, 2022

We live in a relentlessly present-focused age, driven by 24-hour news cycles and what’s trending on Twitter. Everything from fashion statements and street slang to the current TikTok challenge come and go in the blink of an eye, while content creators on many platforms compete hourly for clicks, likes, and comments. It’s dynamic and exciting, but it’s also exhausting. Finding any sort of measured perspective on current events can seem an impossible task, which makes it correspondingly harder to know ourselves, either individually or as a society.

Time moves differently in Leddy Library’s Archives & Special Collections (ASC). We have digital materials and will acquire increasing amounts as time goes on, but most of our collections still use older (sometimes obsolete) technologies to convey their content. Even a perfunctory perusal of our vault turns the casual observer into a time traveller. On our bookshelves you’ll find large, heavy, leather-bound books printed with ink on 17th and 18th century mechanical printing presses, tiny hardbound volumes meant to fit into the breast or skirt pocket of a poetry-lover or wandering amateur naturalist, and 19th c. pamphlets mass-produced to inform an increasingly literate populace about everything from political movements to veterinary treatments.

In the boxes on our archival shelves we have original material from the 18th to the 21st c. in all shapes and sizes: moving images recorded on large reels of 35mm film or brick-sized VHS tapes – sound recordings magnetically recorded on plastic-encased cassette tapes or pressed onto vinyl LPs – correspondence written by hand on thick paper and sent to the recipient by post – financial records and land transactions carefully transcribed in cursive writing into heavy, bound ledger books --  legal and administrative records similarly handwritten or typed on a typewriter – family snapshots, studio portraits, and photographic slides.

A cynical reader might ask why we spend the time, energy, and resources to preserve this hodge-podge of antiquated stuff? After all, it represents only a thin slice of the entire body of material produced in the past. The answer is that selectively retaining printed, manuscript, audiovisual, and digital material from the past provides an important window into who we – humans – have been, and how that has shaped who we are today. With the passage of time, things that were unclear as they unfolded begin to reveal their long-term impacts and become less opaque. Forgotten events, people, and ideas resurface, shedding light on paths not taken and revealing superceded ways of being.

Freed from the tyranny of the present and the burden of information abundance, we can sift the surviving evidence, read between the lines and against the grain, consider gaps and silences, and take the time we need to critically examine the creators, content, and context of what remains. Not only can we come away with a fresh appreciation of the past, but we may find we understand our bewildering present better than before.

For many Canadians, the intense public focus in recent years on systemic racism (broadly), and specifically anti-Black racism and the ongoing violence of colonization toward Indigenous peoples may seem sudden and jarring. If viewed solely in the context of media coverage since 2020 of unmarked graves at Canadian residential schools or Black Lives Matter protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, this attention to matters of “race” may indeed seem like a new development. But as both scholars and ordinary people affected by racism and colonization attest, the truth is quite the opposite.

Two archival collections in the ASC remind us that racialized peoples and their allies have a long history of resisting and protesting oppression, and of mobilizing to advance the cause of equality in Canada. The first is F 0088 (Alvira Wigle fonds), which contains the minutes of meetings held by the Windsor Interracial Council, 1948-1951. The group’s membership was diverse, including women and men who represented credit unions, labour unions, teachers’ and librarians’ associations, university men and women, Black churches, Russian and Jewish community groups, the YMCA (which worked closely with immigrants), and others. The group undertook education and advocacy work in support of their core beliefs, which they expressed in language that echoed that of the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, expressive of the ideals and hopes of the Windsor Interracial Council that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Equality of Economic opportunity and of Social Status.”

As a complement to the records of the Interracial Council’s cross-cultural work, we find a specific racialized community’s internal activism reflected in the minutes of the Central Citizens’ Association (CCA) – previously known as the Coloured Citizens’ Association – as found in F 0136 (E. Andrea Moore collection). Between 1929 and 1958, the CCA mobilized members of Windsor’s Black community to protect and improve their interests through social events and speakers, the endorsement of political candidates known to support the Black community, advocating for Black men and women to be hired in various public and private sector positions, lobbying and boycotts in response to local instances of racial discrimination, and welfare work during the Great Depression.

Between them, the few surviving records of the Windsor Interracial Council and the Central Citizens’ Association powerfully remind us that more than half a century before our present struggles to combat racism and oppression, Canadians were thinking and talking about the same issues in the context of their own times. These are struggles not just of the present, but also of the past. Confronting them effectively requires understanding just how longstanding and deep-rooted they are.

Leddy Library’s Archives & Special Collections possesses a certain kind of magic: to stand in the ASC vault is to be surrounded by physical traces of generations before us. To spend time in the ASC Reading Room using our books and archival records is therefore to be simultaneously in and of the 21st century yet interacting with the ideas, experiences, and tangible evidence of decades and centuries past. The past may be a foreign country, as the saying goes, but it welcomes tourists. Come visit us in Archives & Special Collections and spend some time there.

Dr. Sarah Glassford is the Archivist in the Leddy Library Archives & Special Collections unit, and a social historian of 20th c. Canada.

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