At Toronto city archives, a digitized database makes history accessible.
A framed, black-and-white drawing of a TTC streetcar turning south onto Broadview Avenue from Gerrard Street hangs behind the desk of new city archivist Carol Radford-Grant.
“I used to go by that corner on the streetcar to get to work,” she says, explaining why she selected it from the city’s vast art collection.
A more iconic choice could have been made — a still from the Great Fire of 1904 or the construction of the CN Tower — but this document of daily urban life accentuates Radford-Grant’s dedication to capturing the minutiae of an ever-evolving city.
Radford-Grant, who took on her role at the City of Toronto Archives in May, is passionate about progress and accessibility. The archive’s 2011 report refers to the role social media, websites such as BlogTO and Torontoist and mobile apps such as ZeitagTO have played in sharing Toronto’s history.
“It’s an interesting time in our city’s history and the web allows people to look back. It creates a richer archives experience,” she says.
That progress can be seen in the Spadina Road building, which opened in 1992, housing the Metropolitan Toronto Archives until amalgamation in 1998. On a clear sunny day, the research hall on the second floor beams with sunlight, showcasing the recently completed renovations.
The hall’s new document scanning stations, which allow researchers to save files directly to USB, have been helpful to BlogTO editor Derek Flack. Two years ago, he assembled an assortment of photos showcasing Toronto in the 1950s. “It was a wildly popular post and created a lot of discussion,” he says, “but sourcing images from the web was problematic.”
Wanting to feature other decades, he learned of the archive’s digitized database. “We had no knowledge it existed; they really weren’t going out of their way to publicize the collection,” he adds.
The interest has inspired the archives to broaden its social media reach, adds Radford-Grant. Over the years, Flack and his team have assembled numerous themed photo posts, from movie theatres to people swimming — the latter a personal favourite of Radford-Grant. “I think what they’re doing is great and I encourage those who are interested in the images to come visit us to get a deeper understanding of their context.”
But not everything has been digitized: of the 1.3 million images held in the stacks of the warehouse, which can be seen from the observation decks of the first and second floors, only 60,000 have been scanned. “I don’t think it’s feasible to digitize everything,” says Radford-Grant.
Seeking specific images, Flack recently visited the archives “the old-fashioned way” and used the scanning stations to digitize images of TTC etiquette signs. “Ordering prints would have been cost-prohibitive,” notes Flack on the $25 charge for a single print. “Scanning them was the only way we could have done that post. It’s a real positive step.”
The research hall is buzzing with energy. An archivist assists a researcher looking for records of the house she grew up in; on two separate tables, students wearing white gloves pull materials from numbered white boxes. Their contents are far from dusty, and the musty smell often associated with archives, museums and libraries is nowhere to be found.
Some of the research materials might involve the goings-on of Toronto citizens long since dead, demolished buildings or street names that no longer exist, but this room is very much alive.
Radford-Grant says it is important to remember that archives are more than just repositories of old photographs and the papers of the Queen City Yacht Club: new statistics and records, such as recent land-transfer documents and council minutes from the transit debate held earlier this year, will someday inform Toronto society about the second decade of the new millennium.
A Toronto resident since 1999, it is clear Radford-Grant loves the city’s past — her favourite photos on display on the main floor are the panoramic photos of Toronto’s skyline from the 1850s. But she is also concerned about preserving future records in our evolving technological environment.
“There are now electronic records that are not printed in hard copy. Part of our strategic planning is working with other departments to identify materials born digital and to ensure they are safely retained.”
The digital records are a challenge, she says, but also present the archives with an opportunity to play a role in how the records are created.
Radford-Grant is excited about her new role, and hopes to bring a personal touch to how the archive services are accessed. “I really love this city and I really believe we make a difference to its citizens.”