by Kelly Chia, Staff Writer
Whether you’re doing research for a paper or you’re really curious about how people in the Lower Mainland lived years ago, the SFU archives has got you covered. Housed on the bottom floor of the Maggie Benston Centre, the archives have original copies of letters, tapes, reports, films, recordings, and other artefacts donated by the SFU community and the general public.
During my tour of the vault, I spoke with archival technician Matthew Lively, acquisitions and outreach archivist Melanie Hardbattle, and information and privacy archivist Robert McLelland about what students might be able to find.
Exploring the archives
What’s charming about looking through the archives is there isn’t a voice guiding you through these records. This is because they aren’t curated by subject, but by place of origin. The archives also have collections, which they define as materials they’ve assembled on a specific subject. They also keep fonds, which are a different type of collection that preserves the original order from when the donator created them.
Looking through archival fonds means you’ll do more searching to find a specific topic. But, you’re almost certain to uncover things you don’t expect to find. For example, you might learn more about the environment a document was created in. You could also hear tapes about the family life of the person you’re researching. Preserving these artefacts without curating them gives researchers the ability to form their own conclusions and connections about what happened. “Your research is very unique because the records themselves are very unique,” Hardbattle said. “You may find something that somebody else has never looked at or thought of in that particular way.”
While this may seem like a daunting amount of information to sort through, SFU archives offers online finding aids through the SFU AtoM website. Finding aids are basically guides that show which records the archive has available so it’s easier to know what to look for when you enter. For example, when I look up “Peak” to find more information about The Peak, a finding aid describes a brief history of how The Peak was created and shows relevant records sorted by access status. Sometimes a record may be pending review before being uploaded online, but Lively explained if you email the archives requesting access to a few files, they should be ready to access within a week. Still, it’s good practice to give the archives ample time to review multiple files ahead of a deadline.
The archives decide what materials to accept based on their acquisition mandate. These can range from official SFU materials to those from the greater university community, like from the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU). Additionally, the archives collect the personal papers of key faculty, staff, and students.
What to expect
When arriving at the archives, visitors will enter the office and the brightly lit reading room where visitors can go through archival materials. I didn’t expect there to be so many windows in the office but I quickly learned this isn’t where the materials are stored. The archivists showed me the vault storage, which is climate controlled to keep items preserved. One of the projects the archives are working on is digitizing audio files and old VHS tapes. This is important because the files themselves are fragile. McLelland said the archives have many recordings of lectures given at SFU by well-known guests, such as Marshall McLuhan, a famous Canadian communications theorist. I also learned Bill Nye spoke at the SFU convocation in 2015.
“There is a lot of oral histories as well, particularly the early labour movement [ . . . ] and the Indo-Canadian oral history collection,” Hardbattle added.
They also accept private research collections, particularly those that relate to women’s issues. “There’s a whole other group of records that we acquire, and that’s from individuals and organizations that aren’t affiliated [with SFU],” Hardbattle said.
One of the files that Hardbattle showed me was a record associated with the East Enders Society. While not directly connected to SFU, East Enders was a social service group for women living in East Vancouver from 1965 to 1993. The file contains financial records, letters, and newspaper clippings. There were papers celebrating the East Enders’ sixth anniversary and others about rent increases. Looking through these records helped me imagine how East Enders interacted with the Vancouver community.
Some of the files that really fascinated me were old issues of The Peak. We used to publish student handbooks in the 1980s at the beginning of the school year. “Different resources for the campus are printed here, the directory, things like the hours for the gym,” Lively said. There were also course analysis handbooks dating back to 1969, which were compilations of polls sent out to students in classes rating the class and the lecturer based on things like their speaking ability. McLelland said this may even have helped develop SFU’s course evaluation system.
Inside these handbooks were photographs The Peak had published about student activism. One article I read from a 1985 student handbook said, “Educating ourselves shouldn’t be so financially devastating: we have to fight for better student assistance.” The article goes on to talk about cheap student housing, and rejecting consumerism. I laughed wryly when the author wrote that students shouldn’t have to pay more than $200 per month. The writing hit especially close to home because these are all things we still write about today: students still discuss their finances, exchange tips on how to scrape and save, and they still find ways to buck against consumerist culture.
Another fascinating record was about Dallas Walker Smythe, a professor at SFU from 1980 to 1986. “The government was investigating him for un-American activities because he fell on the left side politically,” Hardbattle said. Smythe requested to see his FBI records, and they revealed the FBI had tracked his movements through the US until he left for Regina, Saskatchewan in 1963. Much of the content was censored. Some letters from the director of the FBI at the time, J. Edgar Hoover, read, “The mobile file on [REDACTED] reflects no significant Communist Party associations or activities.” It then goes on to talk about watching Smythe’s lecture to see if he criticizes the Bureau. Like many key people’s records kept in the archives, the files tell an interesting story about his life and about Communist sentiments in the 1960s.
More than just documents
The archives are also working on digitizing their films, and just picked up the very first student film made at SFU. Some particularly interesting films are from Arthur Erickson, the winning architect of a design competition held by Dr. Gordon Shrum in 1963 for SFU’s construction. “They’re beautiful, and it’s really interesting because he talks a lot about how his travels inspired him for the architecture,” Hardbattle said. “Coming into these films, you can actually see part of what he saw.” The archive website on SFU’s architecture explains Erickson was inspired by “the acropolis in Athens and the hill towns of Italy, where the mountain was incorporated into the design itself.” Knowing Erickson’s vision and dedication made me more appreciative of the school building I had previously only thought of as resembling a prison box.
Having these new insights about the school we all go to, I strongly encourage more students to look into visiting the archives. It gives so many clues about student culture, and the way people navigated their lives in Vancouver. Our history reveals how actively students fought, and continue to fight for student rights. It was such a memorable experience to take all of this in.
The SFU archives recently made an Instagram page, and it is filled with nuggets of information from student groups, papers, and poems. You can follow them @sfuarchives.