By Esther Tung
Subject chosen to draw more attention to the archives as a resource
It seemed unlikely that a deceased English professor’s files would contain the kind of arts and culture records that Paul Hebbard, a staff member at the SFU Archives, was looking for. But when Hebbard delved into Peter Buitenhuis’s collection of documents, he came across letters between Buitenhuis and several renowned authors. In them, he addresses Margaret Atwood by her nickname “Peggy”, and discusses with Tom Wolfe the finer points of dropping acid, no doubt written during the time Wolfe was hashing out The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Personal correspondence is one of the juicier parts of archival material, but because fonds (an archival term, ‘collection’ in French) are catalogued by creator and prominence, rather than subject matter, researchers have to rely on serendipity to discover such material if they are not explicitly looking for it. Part of an archivist’s work is to make the records more accessible, and so guides to special areas of interest are created. “CREATIVE British Columbia” is SFU Archives’ latest effort, released just two weeks ago, and Buitenhuis’s letters are some of the many listed in it.
“The guide is essentially an annotated bibliography of all the relevant records we found,” says Hebbard, who sifted through the archives’ thousands of boxes over the course of a year with the help of volunteer Jennifer Zerkee, a recent UBC archival studies graduate. Some fonds, which can also include video reels, old building plaques, and artwork, immediately came to mind, such as past issues of The Peak, and Press Gang Publications, a feminist paperback printing press. Others were less obvious, like the holdings of Mark Winston, a biology science professor who specializes in apiculture, but his bee-wrangling expertise had landed him behind-the-scenes roles on film sets. “Archival research is a lot of detective work,” says Hebbard.
There are several other compilations of records by topic. Richard Dansey, another staff member at the archives, created a handbook for files relevant to women’s activism at SFU, which range from meeting minutes of the Women’s Centre in the ‘80s to the documents accumulated by SFU’s first female dean, Letty Wilson.
“One of the things we want to do is reach out to students and faculty on campus, and let them know how the archives may be relevant to them. Because archives have a unique way of maintaining material, it’s not always obvious to students that the archives might have something relevant to their research interest,” says Hebbard. Another reason for low awareness of the archives is their location: they are squirreled away at the very bottom of the Maggie Benston Centre, next to Career Services.
Archives are collected from various university departments year-round with new documents coming in every week, and a third of records come from private or individual donors. Because of this constant influx of material to sort through, there are no plans to update existing guides nor to digitize records.