By Heather Wilson
Since the Fall I have been working on a very special project, one that has me reflecting on the many hats of an archivist, and our role as stewards of living history. Some days you can find me where you might expect, hidden in the vault amongst shelves full of massive bound volumes, and boxes upon boxes of photographs, maps, letters, diaries and a myriad of other documents. This project has me stepping out from behind the stacks into a very different role, and has given me the opportunity to meet a number of wonderful people from our community. We feel very fortunate that they have chosen to trust us with their stories, and we can’t wait to share them with you!
A little bit of backstory. As we looked forward to the arrival of Refuge Canada which tells the larger story of Canada’s role in immigration around the world, we wanted to find a way to share the stories of recent newcomers to our own community. Knowing these stories were missing from our current collections, we reached out to our community seeking individuals who would be willing to share their own immigration stories, or that of their parents or grandparents. Our intention was to highlight and celebrate our local diversity. But we didn’t want to create something temporary, we wanted these stories to preserved as part of our community’s history. We are aware of the gaps in our collections, and we are seeking change, working to ensure that our holdings truly represent our communities as a whole.
And so the door was opened for me to take the lead on launching our oral history program. While this is not my first foray into oral history, it has truly been an eye opening experience. The stories I’ve had the pleasure of recording are touching, at times heartbreaking, full of wisdom, and always thought provoking. Everyone has a different perspective to offer, and they have truly changed my own. There is something so special and powerful about hearing these stories told by those who lived them. The tone of their voice, the pauses… these reveal so much that would otherwise be lost.
Recording these stories has not come without challenges. Finding a quiet, private place to carry out these interviews where our participants can feel comfortable and safe. Dealing with technical glitches on the fly. Coordinating schedules and cancellations through wintery weather. And while not all have come to us as refugees, these interviews have nonetheless brought up some very sensitive topics, and navigating these has been both personally challenging and rewarding. My goal has been to create a safe space for individuals to share their stories, and I have found it very important to take the time to build a relationship and lay the foundations of trust with all of our participants before diving in. While we have been working on a short timeline to get our first stories in so we can share them in our exhibit this spring, my personal mantra has been “don’t rush this. It will all come together.” And I couldn’t be more thrilled with what we have been able to achieve in such a short time. We’ve cast our net wide to our neighboring communities of Kingston and Belleville to get the ball rolling, but I feel confident the relationships we have built over the past few months will help this project take on a life of its own in the months to come. I can’t wait to see where we go.
This new oral history project has given us the opportunity to expand our collections through new relationships we are building in our community. We are delighted with the response we have had so far. It is our living history project; there is no end date in sight. Instead we have set goals for ourselves to expand further this year, and have high hopes that it will continue to change and grow with us for years to come. The first stories that have come to us are highlighted in our new exhibit, Welcome Home: Conversations With our New Neighbours, which is launching this week. You can get a sneak peak of that here, and we hope you will come join us in person to hear these stories. This is only the start. If you have your own immigration story to share, or you know someone else in our community who does, we would love to hear from you anytime!