Fredericton Faculty of Arts

The Value of Archives in the Internet Age A Student Intern s Perspective

Author: Fredericton Arts

Posted on Feb 19, 2016

Category: News

(David Adams Richards, 1984 - UNB's 4th Writer in Residence)

Think about the last few pieces of media you enjoyed – music, films, television, or books – and ask yourself, how many of them were produced in Canada or created by Canadians? At the moment, I’m listening to a Danish post-rock band using German headphones while typing on a Taiwanese laptop. I’m not exactly embracing Canadian made products or culture myself, but through my internship at UNB’s Archives and Special Collections, I have learned that preserving Canadian history and culture is possible even at the undergraduate level.

When I applied to the Arts Internship program, I was most interested in a position that would allow me to develop my writing skills and allow me to learn more about the literary history of Canada. At the time I was enrolled in Triny Finlay’s English seminar on Atlantic Canadian Literature. Reading books such as Alistair Macleod’s The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and David Adams RichardsNights Below Station Street prompted me to seek a more comprehensive knowledge of the region’s literary history. I was assigned to UNB’s archives in the Harriet Irving Library with the prospect of learning more about major figures in Canadian and Maritime literature. Because Tony Tremblay has already recorded biographies of many New Brunswick creative writers in his excellent web resource The New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia, my supervisor, Fran Holyoke, proposed I begin work on a project even more specific to UNB: writing wiki entries for the members of UNB’s longstanding writer-in-residence program.

UNB has the longest running university writer-in-residence program in Canada. Consequently, UNB has had many prominent Canadian writers work on campus. Older examples include Norman Levine, Dorothy Livesay, and, of course, Alden Nowlan, while more contemporary writers who have resided at UNB include Catherine Bush, Douglas Glover, and Jeramy Dodds. The program was established by Desmond Pacey in 1965 with help from the Canada Council and the university, and is notable for being the first of its kind in Canada. The major task of my internship project has been to determine how UNB’s writers-in-residence affected intellectual life in the English department and on campus more generally. As I began writing my research paper for the Fall 2015 term, I realized that my work had important implications for future students and teachers in New Brunswick and Canada. The wiki platform provides a medium that is accessible – anyone can use it. I know very little about web design, but have already managed to build two articles for UNB’s wiki. Because of this, the wiki platform offers students, professors, librarians, and administrators a means to record regional and local histories that might otherwise be neglected or overshadowed by the immensity of American and global culture.

Alden Nowlan 1969Desmond Pacey
(Above: Alden Nowlan - 1969; Bottom: Desmond Pacey - 1953)

In the fall term of my internship, I mostly focused on researching primary and secondary sources. The secondary sources included articles on Nowlan and Livesay, Nancy Earle’s PhD Thesis on the history of the writer-in-residence program in Canadian universities, and Patrick Toner’s biography of Nowlan. However, the really interesting side of archival work came from reading correspondence. Letters provide a very personal portrait of the thoughts of writers and academics. In fact, letters can be so detailed that my entire working wiki entry on Dorothy Livesay is based on correspondence between the poet and Desmond Pacey. This correspondence, however, isn’t always easy to work with – it can be awfully difficult to read Livesay’s handwriting at times, but it gives me practice for a future career in education or pharmacy where reading different types of handwriting is an essential skill. Additionally, the correspondence between Nowlan and Fred Cogswell was an extremely entertaining read that also gave me a clearer picture of Nowlan’s early career. In the context of literary history, I think it’s important to note the relevant parts of these letters. For instance, Livesay had substantial influence in the decision to use McCord Hall as a space for creative writing workshops, a tradition which continues to this day. Another point of interest was Nowlan’s disappointment with not being named UNB’s first writer-in-residence. These extracts prove the value of archival work in the larger context of cultural history – by doing detailed research into archival holdings, a region, school, or municipality can gain a greater understanding of how its writers, musicians, and artists influenced the social fabric of their community.

(Map of the proposed Chignecto Ship Railway)

Overall, working in the archives has exposed me to an interesting combination of history and literature. Oftentimes literature is inseparable from history, and examples of this are some of the seminars I have taken in the past two years at UNB: Edith Snook’s seminar on women’s writing during the Restoration in England and Diana Austin’s World War One British literature seminar. My work at the archives, however, has immersed me in a much more local history, and imparted a sense of how literary figures such as Alden Nowlan influenced arts in the region. The archive’s holdings also include a great deal of material that might be of importance to history majors interested in UNB and New Brunswick’s history. Included here are photographs of UNB’s early basketball and skiing teams, a sketch of the failed Chignecto Ship Railway, and a historic postcard of Trinity Church in Kingston – New Brunswick’s first loyalist, Anglican church. These are just a few examples of intriguing documents held by UNB’s Archives and Special Collections.
womensbball UNB 1903UNB Men's Ski Team
(Above Left: UNB's Women's Basketball Team - 1903; Above Right: UNB Men's Ski Team - 1948)

Written by Noah Page