A Canadian Student’s Co-op Experience

My name is Anne and I am a Master’s student at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information (or iSchool), completing my degree in Archives and Records Management. Like many archivists, my educational background is firmly rooted in history and literature; I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Celtic Studies from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, and then moved on to do my Master’s in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic Studies at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. It was in the Manuscript Room of the Cambridge University Library where my interest in archiving blossomed, and quickly grew into a passion that lead me back to school again for archival studies.

At desk

Processing (cataloguing) government records in the designated processing area of the Archives of Ontario.

The first year of school was largely spent diving into archival and recordkeeping theory through taking courses such as Archives Concepts and Issues, Managing Organizational Records, Archival Arrangement and Description, etc. My second year of the program, however, has turned out quite differently; last September, I gained entry into the new co-op program that requires information students to gain 8 months of full-time working experience in the professional setting appropriate to their studies. During this time, students are still expected to complete projects related to their work, such as the Learning Agenda. Each student is expected to draw up an Agenda that outlines not only their personal and professional learning goals for the co-op experience, but also how they plan to meet these goals and the evidence they will provide of completing each goal after the co-op is complete. Progress reports are also handed in every few weeks in the form of a blog post where students can share their experiences and communicate with each other about the challenges and victories of their work directly.

AO logo

For my placement, I was fortunate enough to earn a position as Assistant Archivist at the provincial Archives of Ontario (AO). My placement began in May of this year, and is set to finish in just over a month’s time in December. The experience of putting all the archival theory I learned in first-year into practice has been incredibly educational, humbling, and rewarding. My projects at the AO have in the past and currently include:

  • leading the acquisition of private accruals to our holdings;
  • leading the acquisition, description, and arrangement of a government accrual to our holdings;
  • working as a reference archivist in the publicly accessible Reading Room, aiding clients in their search for records; and
  • aiding the AO in their response to the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)’s Call to Action number 77 by searching through records and cataloguing references to the residential schools that educated many Indigenous students for decades, with tragic consequences.

For some context, the Government of Canada, in collaboration with various Christian churches, forced Indigenous children to attend residential schools in an effort to westernize and separate Indigenous children from their cultures to “kill the Indian in the child”¹ in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As part of the national plan to work with Indigenous peoples to facilitate healing, the TRC has called on archives nationwide to go through their records and capture metadata on records with any references to residential schools (for more information, you can visit the TRC’s website here).

This project has proven to be a challenge for me as a new archivist and has raised some hard questions. For example, what is the best archival practice when it comes to records with racist language in the titles? Do we censor the language or leave it as a record of past prejudice? And as a non-Indigenous Canadian, how do I respectfully describe materials that have important ceremonial content of which I may be ignorant? These are some of the difficult questions that I have faced during the course of this project, and I have been fortunate enough to be guided by my mentor in these issues.

Anne at scanner_smallers

Digitizing residential school records for the Truth and Reconciliation Project (TRC)

Apart from my more traditional archival work, I have also been gaining experience in providing reference services and recordkeeping services at the AO. Last week, I accompanied a records manager from our Recordkeeping Support Unit to a meeting with a provincial board to create a dialogue between their designated records manager and the AO to ensure their concerns are met in the future. I have also been working as a reference archivist three times a week to aid researchers in their hunt for (mostly) genealogical records, and have been developing an intimate knowledge of our holdings and how to best access them as a result.

The solid theoretical base that I developed in my first year at the iSchool helped inform many of my projects at the AO. However, by the same token, my time at the AO has helped inform many of the topics discussed at the iSchool, but which can only really be learned when turned into workplace practice. My co-op experience at the AO has given me a good scope of the inner workings of modern archives, enhanced much of what I learned in the classroom in first year, and confirmed that I have chosen the right career path. The co-op experience has translated archival theory into practice in a meaningful and practical way that will guide my career as an Archivist for many years to come.

Anne Williams, Assistant Archivist, Archives of Ontario


¹ Project of Heart. Illuminating the Hidden History of Indian Residential Schools in BC, p.5, BC Teachers’ Federation, Vancouver, Canada: http://www.bctf.ca/HiddenHistory/eBook.pdf

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