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Open Questions: Reflections on the University of Toronto Archives' Oral History Collection on Student Activism

15 Sep 2021 10:00 AM | Anonymous member

This past March, the University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services (UTARMS) launched our Oral History Collection on Student Activism. Having worked on the project over the previous 18 months, to tweak the final lines of code and publish it was exciting, a relief, and a chance to reflect on the long series of questions and discoveries that developed throughout. For myself, the process helped to draw out ideas around transparency, responsibility, and context. It was also a reminder of the creative joy of bringing an initial idea to fruition.

The project was conceived as a component of UTARMS’ documentation strategy, in particular to respond to the limited record of student voice within our holdings. This was driven by a recognition, by both archivists and researchers, that the fundamental role the social, administrative, and intellectual life of the institution has been shaped by students. Creating this collection carried multiple goals: to provide distinct entry points and perspectives for researchers, as well as to develop a deeper understanding of the barriers in documenting these critical aspects of the University’s history.

The first step in the project involved the hiring of  a student with a background in oral history to conduct research, interview participants, and help further develop the scope of the project. Through her oral history experience, research interests, and attention to issues on campus and beyond, Ruth Belay brought incredible vision to the project overall. Additional goals then emerged through our discussions together, with current student groups, participants, oral historians and others.

[Screenshot of Interview with Norman Kwan conducted by Ruth Belay and Daniela Ansovini on the website of the University of Toronto Archives Online]

One key question highlighted by student groups centered on how such a collection could serve current students and their organizations, with particular attention to the specifics of knowledge transfer in an environment heavily affected by the turnover of each cohort. As Ruth guided the interviews, different aspects of this surfaced, from intentional succession planning to the nitty gritty of navigating the University’s resources and structures.

Ensuring continued connections to student groups beyond the interviews’ content emphasized the need to consider how we approached these relationships more generally. It became an opportunity to not only uncover concerns, but to build a more critical understanding of both the limitations of and the possibilities created by our position as an institutional repository. One result of this has been to more fully adopt approaches responsive to specific interests, for example, implementing methods to support recordkeeping and preservation of student group records outside of the archive. Another has been to challenge how UTARMS might activate the interviews and engage future students for whom the content might directly address. What connections can be made through the interviews’ content to continuing and relevant conversations through time? How are we gathering feedback and direction from student groups themselves?

Another aspect of the project which grew from a theoretical understanding to practical application surrounded the ethical principles that guide oral history’s attention to transparency. Expectedly, we began with our consent form, ensuring participants were continuously able to direct the interview, dictate access and use, and were well informed of the intent of the project and the eventual context in which the interviews would exist.

However, like all else, this expanded as we dug into the specifics. For example, were there differing understandings of archives by participants that obscured an understanding of how the material might be used? Ruth and I became more conscious of how we described the archival research environment and the extent to which we control how information is used in this way. In holding copyright to the interviews, what might use by the University itself look like, and how could we confirm clear consent regarding this? We added a specific clause to the consent form for participants to opt in to any promotional uses of the content by the University.

Working with participants, each with specific concerns, we adjusted the consent form, adapted aspects of the project and confirmed with interviewees when these represented marked shifts in the process. This process also highlighted the degree to which we wanted to open our method and the context of the project to researchers by outlining our methodology and inviting questions, concerns, and reflections.

The level of consultation and flexibility that the project demanded has encouraged my own willingness to embrace the evolving and individualized nature of archival work overall (in particular, my own focus and work with private donors). Oral history’s prioritization of the narrator and their experiences extends beyond what is recorded to a commitment to protect their continued autonomy through the process itself. Far from throwing standards, policy, or requirements out the window, for me, it has served as a model to ask better and deeper questions. 

I have drawn a lot of satisfaction from the lessons learned through managing this project, sometimes tough or unexpected, but fruitful. That said, what was immediately fulfilling was to hear the richness of the interviews themselves. Our questions centred on activism and participants generously seized on this theme, weaving in the personal, pragmatic, and reflective. Mentorship, the role of educational institutions and the responsibility they hold, as well as the many facets of equity surfaced as underlying ties between the interviews. In both listening to these interviews and connecting with all of those who were a part, it has been a motivating project that highlighted the expansive nature of our relationships and the value of questions asked.

Daniela Ansovini

Daniela Ansovini is an Archivist with the University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services (UTARMS) where she is responsible for the private records of individuals and organizations affiliated with the University of Toronto. An aspect of her current role is dedicated to re-visioning UTARMS' collections strategy for private records.

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