Archives Awareness Week : a week in the life of the archives

One of the most reliable aspects of working in a university archives is that no two days are the same.  Every day one can expect surprises, an unexpected challenge or a serendipitous connection that can send an archivist (or a researcher) down a rabbit hole of discovery.

Page 14 and print from Alice’s adventures in Wonderland / by Lewis Carroll, with illustrations by Salvador Dali. – New York : Maecenas Press, 1969.

Page 14 and print from Alice’s adventures in Wonderland / by Lewis Carroll, with illustrations by Salvador Dali. – New York : Maecenas Press, 1969.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that one of the most popular items in the Special Collections is our edition of Alice in Wonderland! 

To mark Archives Awareness Week, here’s a summary of some of our department’s activities over the course of a work week. Typically, archival institutions like the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections perform several key activities: we acquire and accession donations or transfers of records; we appraise such donations for permanent retention (or facilitate such activities at arms-length); we arrange and describe our holdings; we preserve and ensure the security of our holdings and we facilitate access and use of our holdings through our public reading room, teaching, curriculum integration and promotional activities.

April tends to be a hectic month for us. Although the rest of the campus is winding down with final exams, we are trying to wrap up 2013 donations and complete appraisals of all those donations that are eligible for tax receipts.

We don’t do much teaching in April (the bulk of our instructional sessions happens in the Fall term and before March), but rather prepare for summer classes that have booked (or we anticipate booking) an orientation session in the reading room. We also tend not to accept any new donations or accruals in April simply because we’re so busy wrapping up 2013 donations, we don’t have the space to accommodate another skid of boxes.

So, without further ado, we present:

A Week in the Archives…

…as recalled by Michael Moir, university archivist, Suzanne Dubeau, assistant head archivist, Anna St.Onge, archivist, digital projects and outreach and Julia Holland, archives technician…
 

Monday

Mondays tend to be a bit of a catch-up from the previous Friday, or any additional work completed over the weekend.  This Monday, some of our activities included:

  • We re-shelved archival material that had been pulled and laid out for monetary appraisal by antiquarian book dealers last week. The majority of our archival donations are gifts-in-kind and are eligible for a tax receipt for the equivalent market value of the content.  The university hires antiquarian book dealers to review and establish this value.
  • Cart holding 19 boxes of archival material.

    Some of the materials that our donor Reg is working on this week. 12 April 2014.

    One of our “extra-engaged” donors, Reg, was in on Monday to assist in providing additional insight and ‘value-added’ description for a donation of records from a non-profit organization, for which he was the last executive director. Reg has been coming in on a regular basis to help with this donation, identifying individuals in photographs, and providing insight into the organization’s historical activities.  A quiet and unassuming visitor, Reg’s observations about his activities and our ongoing dialogue has enriched our understanding of the organization’s operations, and Reg has confessed to gaining a greater appreciation for the complexity of our work as archivists. His work with the records has also resulted in a deeper understanding of  the activities of the organization and how such activities become documented through archival preservation.

  • Suzanne, one of our archivists, managed to dedicate some time to reviewing proofs of the forthcoming issue of the archival journal Archivaria, for which she is managing editor. In addition to the seasonal ebb and flow of archival activities, Suzanne also has to juggle the demands of publishing an academic journal on a regular basis.
  • Large grey box with its lid removed showing many tightly packed manilla envelopes stamped in black ink.

    A typical box of photographic prints from the personality files of the Toronto Telegram.

    Toronto Maple Leafs coat Billy Reay leans on edge of rink barrier speaking to Elaine Grant, who rests her elbow on the barrier. Captain George Armstrong in his captain's jersey is standing between them..

    Contents of a typical personality file from the Toronto Telegram. This photo from 17 September 1958 depicts Elaine Grant interviewing Toronto Maple Leafs coach Billy Reay and team captain George Armstrong at a training camp in Peterborough.

    In addition to archivists, our student assistants plugged away at a long-term project that involves indexing and cross-checking a series of photographic prints preserved by The Toronto Telegram.  Already a year in, we’ve processed over 250 boxes of photographic prints, and just starting to hit the letter “G” in this alphabetically sorted collection of photographs of individuals (famous, infamous, local and obscure) who were published in The Toronto Telegram. A typical box can include a hundred or more files related to individuals who had their photograph published in the newspaper.  Often accompanied by news clippings and occasionally correspondence and useful contextual information, these files will be a rich resource for historians, genealogists and social scientists alike. Indexing this series is tedious work that requires an attention to detail and a considerable amount of quality control but once completed, will greatly improve accessibility and searchability of our most-used archival fonds.

Tuesday

Tuesday was a bit of a scramble as there were staff meetings with our library colleagues that involved the department’s archivists.  As well, there were a number of research requests and in-house researchers that required some additional discussion and guidance.

  • One of the department’s soon-to-be donors followed up on earlier discussions about how best to donate his materials. This donor is also planning on giving the archives play-back equipment as part of his donation to facilitate digitization and access. This is a practice that we encourage as equipment can be donated for a tax receipt, and can be vital to supporting the Libraries’ wider digitization and media migration efforts.
  • Anna, one of our archivists, presented a brown bag session to her librarian colleagues about her experience within the archives with small-grant writing to help support digitization/processing projects. Small grants have been essential to building support and leveraging resources and additional funding for archival projects that otherwise would not achieve priority.
  • In the afternoon Michael and Anna attended a staff meeting where they reported on some of the more recent processing projects and public interest in archives recently made available to researchers. They also presented with other committee members on activities related to digital initiatives, such as the Internet Archive.
  • Our part-time contract archivist Jennifer was working on a recent accrual to the Barry Callaghan fonds. Jennifer works exclusively on processing donations and is a tremendous asset as the only dedicated staff member who can chip away at reducing our considerable backlog of donations.

Wednesday

On Wednesday we had a busy day with researchers (both physical and virtual) and research presentations.  Some highlights included:

  • a last-minute researcher looking to consult archival materials that could supplement an online publication about Canadian art history. Thankfully, this researcher emailed the department ahead of time with his request, so we were able to retrieve the material from the vault prior to his arrival.
  • Several long-distance researchers preparing for their trip to the archives this summer.  We tend to get a number of overseas scholars throughout the summer months consulting our holdings and early email correspondence ensures that once they book their flight, they’ll have plenty of relevant and rich content to pour over.
  • Julia, our archives technician, continues to follow up on researcher requests related specifically to permissions to publish digitized content acquired from the archives. For the most part, this related to Toronto Telegram photographs, for which York University holds the copyright.  Art galleries, museums, other newspapers, community bloggers, students, film makers, writers, architects and publishers: everybody wants to republish photographs from the Telegram!
  • Michael and Anna attended a joint panel discussion of librarians and faculty regarding Implementing Open Access. Our colleagues presented on a new pilot project we’re running with a researcher depositing photographs she took during her doctoral research in Myanmar into our digital preservation platform Islandora.
  • Our student assistants assisted Suzanne in quickly processing a transfer of university records that we received from the Research Tower earlier this month. University records tend to get transferred in the late spring and early summer as departments follow through on retention schedule deadlines.
  • A green military uniform is visible, as is a black military beret and a plastic bag full of badges, pins and medals. Also visible is a flannel checkered shirt, a beige heavy fabric vest and a Calgary Flames baseball cap.

    Costumes for Royal Canadian Air Farce characters Col. “Theresa” Stacy and Mike from Canmore. 22 November 2013.

    Suzanne continues to chip away at the records of Abbott Ferguson Productions, creators of the Royal Canadian Air Farce, one of our largest and most complex donations, that she has been processing for several years over numerous accessions. Because the production company was so thorough it its documentation of its own practice, there is a lot to sift through, including operational records, scripts, production files, costumes, voluminous correspondence, research files and many, many, many recordings. Due to the length of the radio and television series (40 years!), Suzanne also has to wrestle with several generations of media formats used in the broadcast communities in radio and television. Thankfully, the content and the variety keeps things interesting.

    Two carts containing many boxes of archival material.

    Just two of the work-in-progress carts for the Royal Canadian Air Farce.

  •  One student assistant (currently an iSchool graduate student) assisted Anna in searching the library catalogue and creating a listing of grey literature related to educational policy in the 1990s.  This material is an accrual to an earlier donation and will be appraised next week. Another student assistant continued to index Toronto Telegram prints and helped fold some promotional newsletters for an event on Thursday.
  • Suzanne assisted a research assistant fact-checking for a former university president working on an upcoming publication. Suzanne also managed some donor relations issues that intersected with requests from external researchers.
  •  In the early evening, Julia and Anna attending a memorial service at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto for a colleague, Don Sklepowich, who recently passed away. He was a remarkable human being and very talented audio technician and natural archivist. You can learn more about his life here and a photo album here.

Thursday

Thursday was rather scattered with archivists off-site at a public event, in meetings regarding fund-raising priorities and dealing with researchers and digitization projects. The day included:

Low angle photograph of laptop, promotional material, on a table at the Archives of Ontario.

Archives Awareness Week event hosted by the Archives of Ontario, 10 April 2014.

  • Anna spent the day at the Archives of Ontario, managing an information booth and participating in an all-day public event celebrating Archives Awareness Week. Events where several archives can participate to take advantage of public interest are good investments of our limited time.  The Clara Thomas Archives was able to highlight its unique character and differentiate itself from the Archives of Ontario (which has been on the university campus for a little over 5 years) and make new connections with family historians and genealogists represented by the Ontario Genealogical Society.
  • The archives had undergraduate students in to complete a final research paper based on the files of a lawyer involved in many twentieth-century civil liberties cases in Canada.
  • Scanned photographic negatives are added to York University Libraries' Islandora installation.

    Scanned photographic negatives are added to York University Libraries’ Islandora installation.

    Julia worked with student assistants working in Bibliographic Services to clarify digitization practices and descriptive metadata standards related to the scanning of Toronto Telegram negatives suffering from vinegar syndrome. Digitized images from this project are uploaded to our Islandora digital repository.

 

  • Anna spent some time in the late afternoon after the day’s events experimenting with Open Refine to clean up metadata in anticipation of a migration project to occur over the summer months.  The department is consolidating its accessioning and descriptive activities (currently managed through legacy Access databases and a custom designed software system) into an AtoM instance.
  • Michael met with several library administrators in his capacity as department head to discuss fund-raising activities related to the archives.
  • Two rolling carts full of books and pamphlets for addition to the Special Collections.

    New additions to Special Collections from Acquisitions. 12 April 2014.

    Julia resumed the challenge of finding shelf space for a cart full of new additions to the university’s special collections. Space is always at a premium at any heritage institution, but with Special Collections our storage facilities are almost completely exhausted.  With the end of the fiscal year purchases by subject librarians, many items flagged for our department (due to the scarcity, fragility, expense or composition of the item), new purchases can prove to be a challenge to shelve and store.

  • Suzanne assisted a university administrator looking for archival photographs for a farewell party for a colleague. She also provided a faculty member, charged with writing a faculty history, with a list of potential archival and historical sources to inform their research.
  • Shelving range containing hundreds of video reels in plastic cases.

    The first four seasons of The Dini Petty Show are held on 2″ broadcast tapes.

    Anna received an email from a biographer hoping to have numerous episodes of The Dini Petty Show digitized for their research.  The broadcast tapes are held on 2″ broadcast video tape.  Thankfully, we have the machine that can play these kinds of formats (thanks to Ms. Petty’s media connections!), although digitizing these tapes will take time and expertise. Looks like we have a new summer project!

  • The department also managed some requests from faculty members trying to coordinate a ‘day in the archives’ for summer courses where classes will visit both the Archives of Ontario and the university archives in one lecture period.

Friday

Fridays in the spring tend to be quiet, with most of the campus community either studying for exams or recovering from the term and preparing for summer classes. Typically, the department spends the day tying up research requests from earlier in the week and clearing our desks of obligations in anticipation for a new week.
This week, our Friday included:

  • Michael attended an MAAC (Major Awards Advisory Committee) meeting as the Libraries’ representative.
  • Typical scene while processing an archival donation.  This is from the Donald S. MacDonald fonds.  11 February 2014.

    Typical scene while processing an archival donation. This is from the Donald S. MacDonald fonds. 11 February 2014.

    Filing, filing, filing. Once we wrap up processing the physical archival material, our own documentation has to be filed. Friday tends to be a filing day: closing 2013 donation files, filing away research requests and correspondence received over the past few weeks, and gathering together documentation to be sent over to York’s financial offices to ensure donors receive their 2013 tax receipts.

  • Anna participated in a teleconference for the OCUL (Ontario College and University Libraries) Digital Curation Community to prioritize events for the 2014-2015 year.  Made up of interested librarians, archivists and IT staff working in Ontario institutes of higher education, this community is focused on improving collaboration, knowledge sharing, and finding consortial solutions to challenges facing institutions engaged in digitization, digital preservation and knowledge dissemination.
  • Suzanne advised a donor on possible homes for a large archive of records generated over 70 years by a non-profit organization.  Although we may not be able to accept a donation of records (be it due to space, mandate or collection strength), we do try to direct potential donors to other archival institutions and universities who may be suitable homes.
  • Michael and Anna prepared several accessions to be evaluated next week by our appraiser.
  • As president of TAAG (Toronto Area Archivists’ Group), Julia set aside some time to finish year-end reporting to our professional association the Archives Association of Ontario (AAO).
  • Anna met with a librarian colleague about a presentation on curriculum integration, digital humanities and university prioritization of experiential learning to be held next week.
  • Photograph of a notebook and pencil on a table surrounded by filing, boxes full of documents and empty file folders.

    The work never ends! Suzanne’s notes for one of the final accruals to the Royal Canadian Air Farce archives.

    Suzanne continued to chip away at RCAF processing, setting aside duplicates and redundant film elements for culling and deaccessioning.

 

 

 

So! That was a quick overview of just some of our activities over the course of Archives Awareness Week.

 

 

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Remembrance Day exhibit

In honour of Remembrance Day, the archives has installed an exhibit of letters written by servicemen and women during the First and Second World Wars.  A complement to the online exhibit Letters Home, patrons can browse the physical exhibit material now on display on the second and third floors of the Scott Library.

Ted Aplin

Portrait of Ted Aplin

Portrait of Ted Aplin

Edwin Miller (Ted) Aplin (1909 -1973) was born in Devon, England. He immigrated to Canada in 1930 where he met his future wife Elinor Grave Leef. They had four children: Nick, Frank, Dave and Jacqueline.

Aplin was active in the years before WWII in the League for Social Reconstruction, the Canadian Civil Liberties Union and the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, and was a member of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was stationed in Toronto, Camp Borden, Trenton and Belleville. In December 1944, he left Canada for England and, after the Nazi surrender, was stationed at Celle, Germany as part of Royal Air Force 84 Group Disarmament HQ Unit.

Being stationed near the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, Aplin became interested in the welfare of the camp victims, many of whom were interned at Bergen-Belsen long after its liberation. To aid the survivors, he organized a system using the Armed Forces Postal System to put internees in contact with their families and friends, and collected goods from Canadian families for distribution at the camp. His work at Bergen-Belsen led many survivors to refer to him as “The Angel of Belsen.”

The archives holds letters written by Ted Aplin to his wife Elinor during WWII. The archives also contains personal documents and material accumulated by Aplin’s sons for a commemoration ceremony celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1995.

Finding aid available here.

Bartlett family

The Bartlett family was based in Plymouth, England.  Thomas Bartlett and his wife Florence Emily Fortune had four sons, Alan, Edward, Richard and Jack.  Thomas died during the flu epidemic in 1920 and his son Alan died of flu in 1926.

Portait of Florence Bartlett in WWI nurses uniform

Portait of Florence Bartlett in WWI nurses uniform

During WWI Florence served as a nurse in Plymouth. The remaining Bartlett sons emigrated to Canada with their mother and settled in Ontario.  All three sons served during WWII.

Ernest Henry Bartlett enrolled in the navy in England in the 1920s but influenza kept him from serving. Once in Canada he found work on a Great Lakes freighter before illness forced him to resign. He eventually found work as a journalist with the Toronto Telegram from 1924 to 1969, where he was the local expert on naval issues.  He became the paper’s travel editor in 1962.

Ernest enlisted as a public relations officer and war correspondent with the Canadian navy in WWII.  He filed news reports on the war effort in the Pacific and Atlantic.

On 14 August 1943, the motor torpedo boat that Bartlett was aboard was shelled in the Straits of Messina between Sicily and Calabria. He and his shipmates were captured and sent to a German POW camp in Marlag und Milag Nord. The camp was liberated 2 May 1946.

Jack Fortune Bartlett was also a war correspondent with the Toronto Telegram and the Galt Reporter in Cambridge, ON. During the war, he served with the Highland Light Infantry and was wounded in Holland. He later wrote a history of the Highland Light Infantry.

Richard Lear Bartlett served overseas in India and Africa as part of the 14th Canadian Army Tank Regiment.

All three Bartlett brothers: from left, Ernest, Jack and Rick.

Portrait of the Bartlett brothers: from left, Ernest, Jack and Rick.

Finding aid available here.

Robert Laxer

Robert M. Laxer (1915-1998) was a psychologist, professor, author, and political activist. Laxer was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1915. He graduated from McGill University with a B.A. in 1936 and an M.A. in 1939. He later received his doctorate in clinical and learning psychology from the University of Toronto in 1962. Between 1938 and 1941, Laxer was a freelance journalist, and later served in the Canadian Army overseas.

The exhibit features a letter written by Laxer to his two-year old son Jimmie (York Professor of Political Science, James Laxer) on his second birthday.

Finding aid available here.

Lennox family

The Lennox family had traditional roots in Simcoe County but Wilfred Lennox and his wife Fannie Watt met and married in Toronto in 1916.  Wilfred, a graduate of the Ontario Agricultural College, worked in the Federal Department of Agriculture in the Plant Products Division. The couple had three children, William (Bill), John and Elizabeth (Bettie). During World War II, Wilfred Lennox was seconded to the Wartime Prices and Trade Board in Ottawa while his sons Bill and John joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.

John Watt Lennox, kneeling on left with fellow RCAF servicemen.

John Watt Lennox, kneeling on left with fellow RCAF servicemen.

John Lennox eventually shipped overseas to Scotland in February of 1942.  In January 1943 he received his letter of commission as pilot officer in England and was assigned to the 405 Pathfinder Squadron, which participated in bombing missions over Germany in May of 1943.

On the night of May 4th or 5th 1943, during his seventh sortie in a Halifax bomber with other allied bombers targeting Dortmund in the Ruhr valley, Lennox and his crew were shot down along the German-Dutch border.  John Lennox and his air gunner, Bernard Moody were killed, but the remaining crew survived.  Lennox was one month short of his twenty-third birthday.

 

The archives holds correspondence between John Watt Lennox, his friend and fellow pilot Richard Palmer, and his parents and his little sister Bettie. Dr. John Lennox, professor of English at York University, along with his aunt Elizabeth Lennox Locke, donated the WWII correspondence of the Lennox family to the archives in 2009.

Finding aid available here.

Margaret Norquay

Margaret Dillon (1920-), writer, teacher, broadcaster and pioneer in distance education, was born in Toronto to a well-educated family of modest means. She attended the University of Toronto where she earned her B.A. and M.A. in sociology.

From 1944 to 1946, Norquay was a welfare officer with the Canadian Women’s Army Corp (CWAC), where she managed social problems amongst members of the armed forces stationed in New Brunswick.

During her time in New Brunswick, Margaret wrote to her father and mother, reflecting on her work in the CWAC and her concerns about post-war employment for both male and female military personnel.  Copies of these letters can be viewed in the exhibit.

Finding aid available here.

Shore Family

Thomas W. and Katherine Shore lived on a farm they owned in Sebringville, Ontario during WWI. They had at least one son, Charles William Shore (b.1899) and one daughter, Jennie.

Misrepresenting his age, Charles enlisted in the military in 1916, and was sent overseas to England where he served as a mess orderly in the early stages of the war.

His family’s efforts to have him discharged on the grounds that he was underage were rebuffed by the war office, although officials promised not to send him to France before he turned 19. He was eventually sent to France about the time the war ended.

Vicki Ryckman found approximately fifty letters belonging to the Shore family in an old barn in Prince Edward County when she was growing up. She donated them to the archives in 2008.

Finding aid available here.

Gordon Stepler

Portrait of Gordon Stepler

Portrait of Gordon Stepler

Gordon Stepler was a student at the University of Toronto when he signed up to fight as a gunner with the 67th Varsity Battery in March 1916.  A native of Strathroy, Ontario, Stepler was shipped out to England for training in June 1916 and arrived in France in February 1917, just in time to participate in the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Stepler, in addition to maintaining a correspondence with his parents and sister Dorothy, kept a series of diaries detailing his activities and experiences in the trenches and on campaign in Belgium and Germany.  He also took photographs of the regiment’s journey out of Cologne, Germany and back through Fumal, Belgium before being returning to Canada in April 1919.

Finding aid available here

 

Link to 2010 Letters Home online exhibit : http://archives.library.yorku.ca/exhibits/show/lettershome

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Archives Closed Today 30 October 2013 for memorial service

Dr. Clara Thomas, longtime friend, supporter and ally of York University Libraries Archives & Special Collections passed away peacefully on 26 September 2013.  A post about her life and legacy can be accessed here, as well as a tribute written by Professor Emeritus of English, John Lennox, can be accessed here.

There will be a service on campus Wednesday 30 October 2013  at 1:30  in the Scott Religious Centre with a reception to follow in the archives.

As a result, the archives will be closed today to the public.

We apologize for the inconvenience.

Image of Clara Thomas with cap and academic robes on standing in front of a Canadian flag, 1986. Clara Thomas fonds, F0432, image no. ASC00510.

 

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Clara Eileen McCandless Thomas (1919-2013)

Ashley Crippen portrait of Clara Thomas with her hand on her chin. Clara Thomas fonds, F0432, image no. ASC00512.

Ashley Crippen portrait of Clara Thomas. Clara Thomas fonds, F0432, image no. ASC00512.

Dr. Clara Thomas, longtime friend, supporter and ally of York University Libraries Archives & Special Collections passed away peacefully on 26 September 2013.

Clara McCandless Thomas, educator and author, was born in Strathroy, Ontario in 1919 to Basil McCandless and Mabel Sullivan McCandless. In an interview with the Toronto Star in 1985, Thomas noted that her mother, a manager of a local dress shop, set an early example of balancing family life and a successful career “She was a feisty woman, and I got my determination from her.”[1]

In order to support herself through her studies at the University of Western Ontario, Thomas worked as a cleaning maid and babysitter.  An ardent feminist, Thomas often highlighted the value of financial independence for women, as the following excerpt from an interview makes clear:

 I think it’s terribly important for women to earn money of their own.  Feminists speak a lot about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Well, her actual slogan was a room of one’s own and 500 guineas a year.  To me, it’s that 500 guineas a year that’s more important than the room.  Because I believe that you can create your psychological space. I learned, early on in my career, to prepare my lectures while scrubbing the floors and minding my two sons.  Women need to have money of their own to feel independent.[2]

At Western, Thomas met Morley Thomas, and the two were married in 1941.  During the Second World War, Thomas taught university-level courses to Canadian servicemen in Dauphin, Manitoba, where Morley was stationed as a meteorologist. After 1945 the couple settled in Toronto where Morley worked for the Headquarters of the Meteorological Service. In 1985 she attributed the success of their marriage to respect for the other’s intellectual space: “We never got in each others’ way.  We each had our own satisfying careers.”[3] From 1943 to 1944 Thomas worked at Western’s main library and pursued a Master’s degree in English. In addition to raising two sons, Stephen Morley and John David, Thomas also taught extension courses to teachers across Ontario on the weekends through Western’s extension network, and summer school courses in London for 15 years, encouraged by Brandon Conron, her academic friend and colleague. [4]  In a citation for an alumni award ceremony in 1995 she remarked:

There’s nothing better to train you as a teacher than training adult teachers. [...] It was a splendid experience. I just loved it.  Western’s extension program was a very big thing in those days.  And I taught everything – English, French, medieval history – all the extension courses they gave in the English Department.[5]

In 1957 Thomas returned to university (this time the University of Toronto) to pursue her PhD in English Literature.  She received her doctorate in 1962 and was hired by the English Department at York University in the fall of 1961 as part of the first faculty of the new university.

Image of York faculty and administrative officers 1961-1962, in front of Glendon Hall. Front row: Douglas Lochhead, Alice Turner, David Fowle, Edith Guild, Murray Ross, Clara Thomas, Geroge Harjan, Edgar McInnis. Second row: John Seeley, George Tatham, Norman Endler, Irvine Pounder, John Armour. Back row: Lloyd Jenkins, Howard Langille, Lester Pronger, Robert Lundell, Arthur Johnson, Douglas Verney, Hugh Maclean, Craufurd Goodwin, Donald Jackson, John McFarland, Denis Smith, Vello Sermat, Donald Rickers, John Bruckmann, Neil Morrison, Lionel Rubinoff. York University photograph collection, F0091, image no. ASC02058.

Clara Thomas in the front row, third from right, posing with York University’s faculty in 1961 at Glendon College. York University photograph collection, F0091, image no. ASC02058.

In an 1985 interview, Thomas reflected back on her first years at York as “a very thrilling time,”noting that “[t]he buildings were just being finished when we moved in.  Everything was happening at once.”[6]  In the same interview she noted some of the systemic barriers facing female academics in Canada. “If there were positions open, they didn’t hire women.”[7] She continued:

I’ve never heard of anyone starting at York with a lower salary than mine.  When I asked why, I was told to expect no more because I was a woman, and besides — there were lots of candidates for the position.  Then my department head showed me a memo written by the first president of York, stating that department heads should beware of hiring women.[8]

At York University, Thomas focused her energies on studying Canadian women writers. She moved to the Keele campus in 1968 and remained there until her retirement in 1984. Through her publishing, teaching and public speaking, she continuously sought to raise the profile of Canadian women writers both within the country and within the international community. She published her doctoral thesis in 1967 as Love and Work Enough: The Life of Anna Jameson.

Thomas built a reputation as a champion of Canadian literature and her research and teaching helped nurture the discipline, as well as budding writers who would later go on to make their mark on the literary scene.

Thomas published several works regarding the work of Margaret Laurence, including the critical introduction Margaret Laurence in 1969 from the New Canadian Library and The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence in 1975. The two kept up a lively correspondence and their friendship led to the acquisition of Laurence’s papers by the university archives in 1981. Below are images of Thomas’s edited draft of the first few pages of Manawaka World as well as a letter from publisher Jack McClelland with feedback and opinions regarding the work and McClelland & Stewart’s Canadian Writers series.

A beloved teacher and mentor, Thomas inspired her students to pursue graduate degrees. Several of her former students went on to teach Canadian literature in universities across the country. One such student, John Lennox, went on to teach in York’s English department for many years and they co-authored a book, William Arthur Deacon: A Literary Life together in 1982.[9] At a tribute in 2005, former student Isabel Bassett reflected on how Thomas’s experience as a feminist academic set an example to young women at the university, noting: “You made it all possible by saying ‘go on, pursue your interests and your career.’”[10]

Thomas had a close relationship with the archives and special collections of York and in 2005 the university acknowledged her considerable contributions by the renaming the archives in her honour.  She retained her office in the archives until 2007 and continued to publish several books after her retirement, including her memoirs Chapters in a Lucky Life in 1999.  She became a Fellow of The Royal Society in 1983 and received honorary degrees from York, Trent and Brock.

York President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden with Morley and Clara Thomas during renaming ceremony, 24 May, 2005.

York President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden with Morley and Clara Thomas during renaming ceremony, 24 May 2005.

In 1985 she noted that her determination to flourish in academia (despite rampant discrimination against women academics during her time and the lack of visibility for Canadian studies during the 1960s) was sustained by her belief that  “we just go on, from barricade to barricade. We don’t ever give up.”[11]

Image of Clara Thomas seated in her office desk, smiling at the camera. Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Clara Thomas fonds, F0432, image no. ASC07980.

Clara Thomas seated in her office. Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Clara Thomas fonds, F0432, image no. ASC07980.

Thomas will be mourned by husband Morley, son Steve, daughter-in-law Mary Attfield, grandson Tyler, and by many friends, colleagues, and former students. She was predeceased by son John in 2007.[12]

A celebration of Clara’s life will be held at York University at a later date.

Ode for Clara Thomas...on her retirement dinner, 31 May 1984 by Margaret Laurence.  Poem reads: Let's singa  brave song of those women of old -- Their strengths were as oak but their hearts were of gold. Each one was a lady who spun a fine tale -- Anna, Susanna, and Catherine Parr Traill.  Anna Jameson's life was no leisurely amble.  In winter she'd study, in summer she'd ramble. S. Moodie, she live in the bush that was rough:  Though her manners were genteel, her spirit was tough.  Catherine Traill was a mover and skaker, no stoic. A true pioneer, she was really heroic. These women, though ladies, could match any male -- Anna, Susanna and Catherine Parr Traill.  To these we must add another name yet --  The novelist Duncan, Sara Jeanett. She wrote of Canadians semi-imperial; Her own life it reads like an old fasioned serial.  Who has taught all these books, and many good others? Who has fought for Canlit of our sisters and brothers? Who has written biographies, articles, reviews? Who has worked to make Canlit a part of our views?  Clara Thomas we celebrate joyously here.  Like those women of old, she's a true pioneer. Her heart is of gold, her strong intellect, oak. She honours our people, Canadian folk.  She's a new pioneer, and they'd understand, Those women who wrote long ago of our land, As we understand and owe her a debt, Writers in our land who are writing yet.  She's a writer, a fighter, a teacher, a friend. Retirement's a start again, never an end. So let's hear it and cheer it, and say a loud "Hail... For Clara and Sara For Anna, Susanna, and Catherine Parr Traill".  -Margaret Laurence. May 31, 1984.

Ode for Clara Thomas…on her retirement dinner, 31 May 1984 by Margaret Laurence.

Ode for Clara Thomas…on her retirement dinner, 31 May 1984

by Margaret Laurence

Let’s sing a  brave song of those women of old –
Their strengths were as oak but their hearts were of gold.
Each one was a lady who spun a fine tale — Anna, Susanna, and Catherine Parr Traill.

Anna Jameson’s life was no leisurely amble.
In winter she’d study, in summer she’d ramble.
S. Moodie, she lived in the bush that was rough:
Though her manners were genteel, her spirit was tough.

Catherine Traill was a mover and shaker, no stoic.
A true pioneer, she was really heroic.
These women, though ladies, could match any male –
Anna, Susanna and Catherine Parr Traill.

To these we must add another name yet —
The novelist Duncan, Sara Jeanette.
She wrote of Canadians semi-imperial;
Her own life it reads like an old fashioned serial.

Who has taught all these books, and many good others?
Who has fought for Canlit of our sisters and brothers?
Who has written biographies, articles, reviews?
Who has worked to make Canlit a part of our views?

Clara Thomas we celebrate joyously here.
Like those women of old, she’s a true pioneer.
Her heart is of gold, her strong intellect, oak.
She honours our people, Canadian folk.

She’s a new pioneer, and they’d understand,
Those women who wrote long ago of our land,
As we understand and owe her a debt,
Writers in our land who are writing yet.

She’s a writer, a fighter, a teacher, a friend.
Retirement’s a start again, never an end.
So let’s hear it and cheer it, and say a loud “Hail…
For Clara and Sara
For Anna, Susanna, and Catherine Parr Traill”.

–Margaret Laurence. May 31, 1984.

Endnotes:

[1] Sherie Posesorski, “Feminist professor, 66, leaped ‘the barricades,’” The Toronto Star, 21 April 1985, D8.

[2] Ibid.

[3]“In Memory of Clara Eileen Thomas 1919 – 2013″: Book of Memories. Denning Brothers Funeral Homes Ltd. Available at:  http://www.denningfuneralhomes.com/book-of-memories/1677515/Thomas-Clara/obituary.php.

[4] Alumni Award of Merit citation. Alumni Awards Dinner, University of Western Ontario. Fall 1995. Copy available in Clara Thomas fonds, F0432, Accession 1996-038 / 003 (021).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Posesorski interview.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] For archival material related to this collaboration, see the Clara Thomas and John Lennox fonds (F0431) at: http://archivesfa.library.yorku.ca/fonds/ON00370-f0000431.htm.

[10] “YFile – Archives Named After York Pioneer of Canlit Studies.” 27 May 2005. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. Available at: http://www.yorku.ca/yfile/archive/index.asp?Article=4582.

[11] Posesorski interview.

[12] Online memorial site available at: http://www.denningfuneralhomes.com/book-of-memories/1677515/Thomas-Clara/obituary.php.

Additional resources:

Clara Thomas fonds (F0432). Finding aid available at: http://archivesfa.library.yorku.ca/fonds/ON00370-f0000432.htm.

Clara Thomas and John Lennox fonds (F0431). Finding aid available at: http://archivesfa.library.yorku.ca/fonds/ON00370-f0000431.htm.

Lennox, John. “Clara McCandless Thomas – The Canadian Encyclopedia.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Web. 28 Sept. 2013. Available at: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/clara-mccandless-thomas.

“YFile – Archives Named After York Pioneer of Canlit Studies.” 27 May 2005. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. Available at: http://www.yorku.ca/yfile/archive/index.asp?Article=4582 .

 

 

 

 

 

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