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Hands-on history: interns delve into Queen's University Archives

Hands-on history: interns delve into Queen's University Archives

[photo of archival documents]
Photo by Andrea Gunn.

As part of an internship program, Queen's history students delve into the holdings of the Queen's University Archives -- from photos and letters to police reports and audio tapes.

For Jasmine Charette (Artsci’15), the new Historical Internship Program presented an exciting chance to research a subject that intrigued her: Kingston’s 300th anniversary, celebrated in 1973.

“I spent hours with the City of Kingston Tercentenary Collection,” says Charette, one of the first interns in the program, launched by the Department of History and the Queen’s University Archives last year. “For my project, I read committee reports and other documents, and learned how well the city instilled and solidified a strong sense of community identity during its year-long celebrations.” Queen’s, she adds, houses the city’s archives.

One mystery that puzzled her was the location of the Tercentenary Time Capsule. “Documents said it was going to be put in Confederation Park, City Park, maybe Victoria Park, but I never established where it was,” Charette says. “Then one day I was walking home from the archives, and by chance, I found the plaque that marks it in Churchill Park. It was cool to see that physical commemorations from 1973 still exist in the city.”

Inspired by her experiences, Charette has continued on with studies in archival work and history: she’s currently completing a master's degree in library and information studies at McGill University in Montreal. “Being an intern in the archives made me realize this is what I’d like to do for the rest of my life,” she says emphatically.

Dr. James Carson, chair of the Department of History, says the program aims to give students an applied history education. “The skills they acquire—collaborative work, deep research, synthesis of information, and the creation of new knowledge—are skills that anyone, not just students of history, will need to succeed in the knowledge economy."

The idea came up, he says, during a conversation with Heather Home, public services/private records archivist, about the possibility of student internships for pass/fail academic credit. Says Home: “Students interested in library or museum studies have always volunteered here. Now, we’ve formalized this relationship, giving students more structure and credit on their transcripts.”

Home works closely with interns. “I like to see their excitement at their discoveries,” she says. “It’s not just the information, but often the media they’re looking at that amazes them. Nicole D’Angelo [Artsci’16] is working with the CFRC Radio fonds, for example, and she’s fascinated by things like reel-to-reel tapes, and cassettes.”

It’s not just the information, but often the media they’re looking at that amazes them. 

[photo of CFRC programmers in 1997]
CFRC radio programmers in 1997. Photo: Queen's University Archives (V28-O-CFRC-14)

The new internships build on fruitful past projects between history and the archives, Home adds. In 2011, for example, three second-year history students made headlines with their research on police records from the late 1880s and early 1900s. After digging through weathered documents in a box in the university’s archives, including handwritten police reports and century-old newspaper articles, the students told what life was like on streets in Kingston for the city’s early police constables, who contended with drunkenness, street brawls, vagrants and brothels.

From four internships last year, the program has grown to offer six in fall/winter 2015, with more expected for winter/spring 2016. Sean Adessky (Artsci’17), for one, has been delving into the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy since September, studying the fonds of Richard Bernabei, a Queen’s classics professor who died in 1979.

“He was really interested in JFK’s assassination, and conspiracy theories,” says Adessky, who is going through seven boxes full of correspondence, magazine articles, pamphlets, slides, tape recordings, motion picture films and photographs. “It’s a great chance for me to not only learn about a fascinating historical event, but to learn more about archival work in general.”

His first task is to see what’s in the boxes, to organize the materials, and to make a collection listing so others can use them. “It’s amazing how different it is to learn something from reading a book compared with going through photos, articles and other materials.  As well, I can see how archival work is another path I could take with my interest in history.”

This year, the program has also expanded beyond campus. “I've created internship opportunities though partnerships with the City of Kingston, local museums, and the Royal Military College museum,” Carson says.

He hopes this will lay a foundation so the department can connect students to the community to exchange knowledge and skills in future. Currently, Carson is trying to match undergrads with organizations in need of help with research, grant-writing, and public presentations—which is why his early focus has been on museums and the cultural offices of the city.

“My next step will be to pursue partnerships with federal and provincial offices that could use such help, and to also forge links with community groups that are not affiliated with the municipal government,” says Carson. “The goal is to facilitate opportunities for our great students to apply the practical side of their historical training, and to ensure that the community benefits.”



[Queen's Alumni Review 2015 Issue 4 cover]