Community albums: A glimpse into the past 150 years of Nova Scotian communities

By Michelle Boychuk MLIS

Michelle Boychuk is a recent grad of the Master of Information and Library Studies program at Dalhousie University. Originally from Edmonton, she is currently working as Project Coordinator for the Community Albums project in Halifax, NS.

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The Community Albums project and the adventure it promised is what kept me in Halifax after I graduated from the Master of Information and Library Studies at Dalhousie University. Three years ago, I was new to Nova Scotia—I braved the 4 day drive from Edmonton to Halifax to pursue my degree, succeeded, then secured my first job as Project Coordinator for the Council of Nova Scotia Archives project called “Community Albums.”

The project takes advantage of the digital medium to provide anyone with an internet connection a glimpse into a variety of unique communities across Nova Scotia through their archives. Using a virtual exhibit format, somewhat like an online photo album, readers can delve into albums to see images that community archives have curated to tell their stories since 1867. Readers will be able to search for names, places, industries, or anything they can imagine in a specific album, or across all albums at once, revealing connections between seemingly disparate communities.

For someone not from the province, the beginning of this project was a whirlwind lesson on Nova Scotian history as well as geography. I visited over 20 archives across the province that had previously expressed interest in being a part of the project. These trips took me to every edge of Nova Scotia, from Bridgewater to Church Point to Port Greville to Antigonish, and from Antigonish to Lake Ainsley to Isle Madame and back to Halifax. On the surface, each town or city I visited shared similarities, but once I was shown and explored each archives, a world of differences was revealed to me through the strata of their collections and what each archivist chose to show me. Even the build of the archives themselves was unique and constantly surprising. Some were huge with row after row of shelving and multiple rooms for accession or treatment. Some were up claustrophobic flights of stairs, hidden in a small room where the temperature and humidity could be more easily controlled. Some didn’t have their own room at all, instead were protected by the vigilant eye of an archivist-sentry. During my visits I was welcomed, given tours, and told stories about each community while I gave them the tools to share those stories through this project. One of my fondest memories from this part of the project was being invited for tea after consulting with Cathy Maclean for Lake Ainsley Historical Society and being told the latest goings-on of the area.

Although many communities already have their rich histories up for display through their museums, their archives are often left unexplored by those who are not enthusiasts or researchers. Alternatively, some communities aren’t built in a way that leaves artifacts behind to showcase. Giving archives a chance to shine on their own was one of the things that originally drew me to this project. The digital frontier is a perfect space for archives—items can be show in high resolution, giving the reader a sense of form and content without risk to the original item, and they can be looked at for as little or as long is needed to fully comprehend the item. Scans are done in such a way that readers can zoom and pan over the item to get detail they may not be able to see with a physical item. Most importantly, the items are accessible for a wider audience and may reach individuals that could not previously visit archives in person.

Putting the project together has been mostly a combination of data entry, discussion, and scanning. After the initial consult in-archives I left each participant to run wild, choosing only 50-60 items out of their extensive collections that they felt could encapsulate their communities during the last 150 years. To foster a replication of the uniqueness I saw in the communities I visited, I did not place many limits on how the albums were created or what they could include. The only rules where that they provide metadata that included titles, dates, note fields with a description of the item and any history associated with it, and an accession number for reference; that the large majority of the items be archival in nature; and that the items are dated within the last 150 years. These rules provide a conceptual structure that allows the project to have one cohesive purpose, but they are loose enough to allow for the natural variation between communities to be displayed and highlighted. The organizational structure, the choice of years covered, the choices of item types, the topics covered, and the importance given to certain things all come together to create a vast array of combinations which serve to highlight each community, while the similarities discovered between albums will serve to bring them together as part of a provincial whole.

I hope that people take their time looking through the albums, reading the documents provided and meditating on the lives lived through the photographs. I hope that people enjoy the note fields that each archive spent time researching and crafting so that those inside communities can relive communal memories, and those outside can learn alongside them.

Please visit https://novascotia.ca/archives/communityalbums to start exploring the project.