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People of Queen's: Preserving the history of Queen’s

[Jeremy Heil]
In his role as Queen’s Digital and Private Records Archivist, Jeremy Heil is tasked with “preserving the authentic record of individuals, corporations and the university.” (University Communications)

In an office filled with stacks of old documents, hard drives and floppy disks, Jeremy Heil preserves history.

As Queen’s Digital and Private Records Archivist, he’s tasked with “preserving the authentic record of individuals, corporations and the university,” a task he does with other members of Queen’s Archives in Kathleen Ryan Hall. Itself more than 100 years old, the building is home to not just the histories of Queen’s, but also Kingston, its surrounding area, and a number of authors and Canadian cultural icons. 

Mr. Heil came to Queen’s in 2001 after working at the province of Alberta’s provincial archives. There he built on work he did in his Master’s of Archival Studies at the University of British Columbia to bring order to nearly 2,000 boxes of artifacts and documents donated by Canadian National Rail West.

After arriving in Kingston, Mr. Heil began in the Archives as technical services archivist, a job that meant supporting any archival items that had a machine component. This included audio, video and anything related to the Archives’ website, but the job came with some unexpected tech responsibilities as well.

“If someone in Archives had a printer problem, it was my problem,” he laughs.

Over time, as his role developed, the job title was adjusted to better reflect Mr. Heil’s work. He still handles much of the Archives’ technological work and his main focus now is digital preservation. As a growing number of donations provide digital rather than paper copies of documents, Mr. Heil has to integrate them with the Archives’ inventory. 

“We used to go to a site, pop open a filing cabinet and take out reams of documents, but now, we get a lot more CDs, or this,” he says, showing off a recently-donated USB drive. “You’d think that would make it easier — you copy and paste some files — but it’s not so simple.”

Mr. Heil now has to contend with the wide variety of file formats, operating systems and hardware that people use to track their documents. Bringing together floppy disks, 8-tracks, vinyls, and a whole host of computer file types requires mastery of all kinds of obsolete technology.

“Every day, I have to evaluate old formats that can no longer be read,” he says. “I have to ask what can we do with this, what’s the best way to get information out of it and how do we hold onto it?”

When he isn’t grappling with new and old technology, Mr. Heil is dealing with donations from private individuals. When poet Al Purdy’s manuscripts and rough drafts were being donated to the Queen’s Archives, it was Mr. Heil who drove out to the famous A-frame cottage to collect the documents.

“Nothing else seems to be as interesting as what I do here. I’ve seen other positions at provincial archives, but I don’t think any suit me quite like Queen’s does,” he says. “There are always new challenges, they’re always ongoing, and I always want to see them through to the end.”