“They also serve:” Honouring Alexis Alvey

Posted on November 1, 2022 @9:38 am by cshriver

Many thanks to guest blogger James Goldie for contributing the below post! James was formerly a student archivist with Rare Books and Special Collections and is now Records and Privacy Analyst with Douglas College. This encore blog post was first published in 2019.

“They also serve:” A. Alexis Alvey and the navy’s first female service members

Unit Officer A. Alexis Alvey of the W.R.C.N.S.

Her mother calls her “the Canadian lieutenant” and the girls in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service call her “Chiefie”…

So begins a 1943 Royal Canadian Navy press release announcing the promotion of Lieutenant Amelia Alexis Alvey to Unit Officer at H.M.C.S. Stadacona, a rank equivalent to that of an army captain. This new position – granted just a year after she first enlisted – meant Alvey was in charge of more than 1,100 Halifax-based service members from the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), known as Wrens. More than a third of all Wrens were stationed at H.M.C.S. Stadacona in Halifax.

Alvey (who went by A. Alexis Alvey) was born November 22, 1903 in Seattle, Washington. After completing her undergraduate studies in New York, Alvey studied science at McMaster University (1932-1933) and went on to work as chief photographic technician at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine. It was during this period she gained Canadian citizenship. After the outbreak of World War II, Alvey helped organize the businesswomen’s company of the Toronto Red Cross Transport Corps and commanded it for two years. She had also served as lecturer to the entire Transport Corps for Military Law, Map Reading, and Military and Naval Insignia.

Recruitment advertisements ran in magazines throughout Canada from 1942-1944, reminding readers that women could now serve in the navy as part of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service.

Men Can’t Do It Alone

In 1942, top brass in the Canadian navy realized they could not solely rely on men in their fight against Hitler’s forces. They contacted the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in London requesting assistance in the formation of a Canadian counterpart. “Please send us a Mother Wren,” they said, according to Alvey. Those “mother wrens” were Joan Carpenter and Dorothy Isherwood, who came to Canada and established the WRCNS later that year. Alvey was among the first to enlist.

Until then, the Canadian navy had been an all-male service. As one member wrote in 1943: until the establishment of the WRCNS, “ships and shore establishments alike were manned by men, and knitting seamen’s stockings, or collecting magazines, games and special parcels for ships’ crews at sea was about the limit of any contribution made by women.”

Women were not permitted to serve in combat roles, however, they took over the navy’s on-land operations, which freed up male service members to join battles at sea. The Wrens worked as signallers, wireless-telegraphers, writers, information and intelligence workers, postal clerks, research assistants, cooks, stewards, wardroom attendants, laundry assistants, and more.

Rising Through The Ranks

A. Alexis Alvey (far right) with fellow “Wrens” at the W.R.C.N.S. training centre in Galt, Ontario.

In her first year with the WRCNS Alvey was appointed acting Chief Petty Officer Master-at-Arms. Her other assignments included duty as Deputy Unit Officer H.M.C.S. Bytown (Ottawa), duty with the Commanding Officer Pacific Coast H.M.C.S. Burrard (Vancouver), assignment as Unit Officer, Lieutenant H.M.C.S. Bytown, and finally Unit Officer to H.M.C.S. Stadacona (Halifax). She was responsible for training and running practice drills, developing policies, and meeting with officers from ships that arrived in Halifax.

She served with the WRCNS from August 1942 to January 1945.

The A. Alexis Alvey Fonds

After the war, Alvey returned to her home city of Seattle where she worked as a librarian at the University of Washington. However, she never forgot her time with the WRCNS. For the rest of her life, Alvey organized and attended Wrens reunions, she wrote articles and histories about the service, and collected all manner of documents, memorabilia, and ephemera related to the “The Women’s Navy” as it was sometimes called.

The Royal Canadian Navy’s certificates of service were designed with only male service members in mind.

These records along with Alvey’s personal papers and an extensive collection of photographs are housed at UBC’s Rare Books and Special Collections and are available for research.

The materials that make up the A. Alexis Alvey fonds express the profound sense of pride shared by Alvey and her fellow Wrens with respect to their years of military service. An essay commemorating the WRCNS silver anniversary by Isabelle NcNair (née Archer) captures this pride. In it, a grandmother tells her granddaughter the story of the Wrens. “But Grannie, I thought Grandad won the war,” asks the child.  “No dear,” responds her elder, “I did.”

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Wish You Were Here?

Posted on August 17, 2022 @4:05 pm by cshriver

Many thanks to guest blogger Gabriella Cigarroa for contributing the below post! Gabriella is a graduate student at the UBC School of Information and completed a professional experience with RBSC this summer.

From the Langmann Collection: Early 20th-Century Postcards Depicting Disasters and Accidents

This summer, I completed a Professional Experience at RBSC to assist with cataloguing unprocessed materials. I wanted to work with RBSC to learn more about how special collections document the community they serve. At first, I catalogued posters, broadsides, prints, and other kinds of items that documented B.C. history. A few weeks in, I was offered another project: writing about the Uno Langmann Family Collection of B.C. Photographs. I worked specifically with the digital collection, a subset of the larger collection of more than 18,000 photographs that documents B.C. from the 1850s to 1970s.

In the Langmann collection, I encountered many postcards whose picture sides captured disasters and accidents. Postcards today generally feature scenes more appealing to tourists, often picturesque landscapes or buildings. While postcards of this type are present in the Langmann collection, there are also plenty with more unexpected subjects—including that of disasters and accidents. Why was this subject matter chosen as a relatively common subject of photography for postcards, to be sent as correspondence? And what about the format of a postcard is different today from a hundred years ago such that these postcards’ imagery surprised me?

Two postcards first caught my eye, illustrating the contrast between friendly personal correspondence and an image of a disaster or accident. The first, titled A bad smash between a drug store window and a st. car, Vancouver, B.C., features a photograph of a streetcar crash’s aftermath. The photographer is positioned inside the wrecked building, framing the streetcar with the storefront’s windows. Inside the building, debris is piled haphazardly on the windowsill. A group of children smiles, looking in the window of the presumed storefront, maybe even noticing the photographer inside. On the postcard’s back, the sender, Horace, writes to his mother: “This happened at 2.30 one morning, seven people were in it but no one got hurt. Best love to all.” I questioned, why did Horace send this photo and information to his mother?


The other postcard presents a picture taken after a fire in Fernie, B.C.  In the photographed landscape, few buildings remain intact. Some smokestacks rise from the rubble, while burnt-out husks of trees stretch into the distance. I was struck by the casual language on the postcard’s back, as a man named Walter writes to someone in England: “Just a card from the fire zone + hope you are keeping well.”


I took a step back to consider the context of these postcards’ creation. As briefly discussed earlier, the purpose of a postcard today is different from that of the other materials I catalogued this summer. The materials outside of the Langmann collection—posters, prints, broadsides, and so forth—were generally created with a broad audience in mind. Postcards, however, are often for personal correspondence. Today, this difference in audience would typically mean a major difference in subject matter. Usually, a person today would want to show a loved one picturesque landscapes, not tragic news relevant primarily to their neighbouring residents. Was this different a hundred years ago?


The postcards I selected are roughly from between 1905-1915. It turns out that this period was in the midst of a postcard craze, in which an estimated one billion postcards were created each year in North America (Photo Postcards, n.d.). About ten percent of these postcards were real-photo postcards—silver-gelatin photographs made either as one-offs or in small numbers. In 1903, Kodak had created the A3 camera and an accompanying photograph development kit that allowed anyone to produce a silver-gelatin photograph on postcard paper (Photo Postcards, n.d.). This technological development that allowed increasingly portable and cheap photography, alongside an inexpensive postal system, encouraged layperson photographers to ply their trade. This real-photo postcard craze lasted from 1905 to 1930, although the process was still used into the 1950s (Photo Postcards, n.d.), permitting anyone with such a camera to make a postcard.

Most photo postcards in the Langmann collection are taken by photographic printing companies or unknown photographers. However, the photo postcards I found depicting disasters and accidents were mostly created by individual photographers or unknown individuals. Since anyone with a postcard camera could take postcard photos, the postcards without credit on them could be by anyone, including their senders. Alongside individuals taking their own photos, the postcard camera allowed for a rise in amateur photographers and photography studios.

The photo postcards in the Langmann collection featuring disasters and accidents seem to be created by a few identifiable photographers: Joseph Frederick Spalding, Rosetti Studios, and George Alfred Barrowclough. All three photographed more than the disasters and accidents I initially encountered. Joseph F. Spalding is known for documenting the history of Fernie, B.C., especially the reconstruction after the fire in 1908 (Joseph Frederick Spalding, 2006). Rosetti Studios was run by Lionel Haweis, who is best known for his series of photographs recording the development of Stanley Park (Rosetti Studios – Stanley Park Collection, n.d.). Lastly, Barrowclough is now seen as more of a photojournalist (for a more in-depth discussion of Barrowclough’s work, see my colleague Brandon Leung’s blog post). These photographers chose what they thought should be documented history, and even reproduced as postcards. Whether amateur photographers, commercial studios, or people who happened to own a postcard camera, they all captured what they likely considered significant contemporary events.

With some postcards, the disasters and accidents were likely considered one type of an event to record, and even to share with loved ones as news. For example, the postcard of the Fernie fire zone discussed earlier is one in a series documenting the town’s recovery and reconstruction (Joseph Frederick Spalding, 2006). Someone sending such postcards as correspondence could discuss the progress of Fernie’s recovery. In the case of other postcards, context concerning the senders’ intentions can be derived from reading the postcards’ letter component. We can look at [View of the Pacific Great Eastern railway accident, Vancouver, B.C.]. In the photograph, a train car lies on its side next to train tracks. A couple of people view the train car while others walk by. The back reads: “This is a photo of the first accident on the ‘Pacific Great Eastern’ which runs from North Vancouver and Horseshoe Bay.” The sender provides the context of the Pacific Great Eastern and describes its historical import as the railway’s first accident, marking it as a notable event.


However, this kind of proto-, personal photojournalism is not the only reason for sending these types of postcards. Some postcards seem to be parts of bigger conversations held outside of a single letter. The postcard featuring the fire zone at Fernie is one example, as the recipient would be able to identify the unnamed “fire zone” mentioned in the letter without context from outside the single postcard. Another is the Result of the Heavy rainfall on Broadway, Vancouver, Nov. 28, ’09. The photograph displays a street in the aftermath of the rainfall, with a large pit and metal structures where the street should be. A set of tracks still runs over the pit. A few people on the side of the pit opposite the photographer look on. On the back of the postcard, a man named Horace writes, “This is next to where I’m working.” He describes not only the event of the crash, but how it interacts with other aspects of the city like the “awful wet weather,” as well as how the event affected his commute such that “[a]t the time it happened [he] had to change cars each side of it.” Horace incorporates these photos that record the city’s historic events into letters that detail his own personal life. Using these photo postcards, senders recorded and shared important events relevant to and connected with their own lives.


So, does this answer why disasters and accidents were a relatively common depiction in photo postcards? Yes—photo postcards were a key type of personal correspondence. They were used not only to display pictures appealing to tourists and potential settlers, but to communicate about major events relevant to their senders’ lives. Created at the height of the early 20th-century photo postcard craze, they were likely part of ongoing conversations between parties. A single postcard may be a supplement to letters, other postcards, or even phone calls. This means that a postcard of a burnt-down Fernie, B.C. wouldn’t be out of the blue, but instead elaborating on previous conversations. These postcards were one aspect of a larger correspondence that encompassed different aspects of the senders’ lives. Senders could use these postcards to document landmark events in places close to them, as with the [View of Pacific Great Eastern railway accident, Vancouver, B.C.]; as well as to weave historical events into records of their own lives, whether those events were some scheduled celebration, or an unexpected accident or disaster.


Armitage, S. J. (1908). Fernie, B.C., After the Fire of Aug. 1st. 1908 (UL_1639_0003) [Gelatin silver print]. Uno Langmann Family Collection of B.C. Photographs. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0371490

Barrowclough, G. A. (1910). A bad smash between a drug store window and a st. Car, Vancouver, B.C. (UL_1624_03_0040) [Gelatin silver print]. Uno Langmann Family Collection of B.C. Photographs. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0361427

Joseph Frederick Spalding—Photographer – Tourist – Visionary : Summary. (2006). University of Victoria Cultural Property Community Research Collaborative. https://maltwood.uvic.ca/cura/projects/joseph_spalding/home.html

Leung, B. (2020, December 18). Exploring Barrowclough’s Postcards. University of British Columbia Library Rare Books and Special Collections. https://rbsc.library.ubc.ca/2020/12/18/the-postcards-of-george-alfred-barrowclough/

Photo Postcards. (n.d.). University of Calgary Archives and Special Collections. https://asc.ucalgary.ca/photohistory/photo-postcards/

Rosetti Studios. (1909). Result of heavy rainfall on Broadway, Vancouver, Nov. 28, ’09 (UL_1624_03_0335) [Gelatin silver print]. Uno Langmann Family Collection of B.C. Photographs. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0361442

Rosetti Studios—Stanley Park Collection. (n.d.). University of British Columbia Library Open Collections. https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/rosetti

Spalding, J. F. (1908). Ruins of the Elm Lb Cos Mills, after the great fire, Fernie, B.C. (UL_1639_0039) [Gelatin silver print]. Uno Langmann Family Collection of B.C. Photographs. http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0371568

[unknown]. (1908). Fernie after the fire (UL_1638_0051) [Gelatin silver print]. Uno Langmann Family Collection of B.C. Photographs. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0361853

[unknown]. (1914). [View of Pacific Great Eastern railway accident, Vancouver, B.C.] (UL_1624_02_0086) [Gelatin silver print]. Uno Langmann Family Collection of B.C. Photographs. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0360930

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I Know We’ll Meet Again

Posted on June 20, 2022 @1:33 pm by cshriver

As we acknowledge the 80th anniversary of the forced dispersal, internment, and dispossession of Japanese Canadians from the coastal regions of British Columbia, we’re pleased to be able to share an online exhibition curated by Mya Ballin and Sasha Gaylie, both graduate students at UBC’s School of Information.

Many thanks to Mya for sharing her thoughts about the process of curating the exhibition. Mya and Sasha’s work on I Know We’ll Meet Again: Correspondence and the forced dispersal of Japanese Canadians was done as part of a summer 2021 professional experience project with RBSC and the Asian Library at UBC.

University of British Columbia Library. Rare Books and Special Collections. Joan Gillis fonds. RBSC-ARC-1786-PH-02. Teruko Mototsune, Kanako Mototsune, Haruye Mototsune, and Sumi Mototsune. Raymond, Alberta – February 8th, 1943.

This project was a labour of much care over a very brief period of time. Completed in two months, my project partner, Sasha, and I found ourselves very quickly immersed in the written selves that are contained within the letters in the Joan Gillis fonds, deeply emotionally drawn to the details that the writers felt were safe to share with Joan. When reading the letters, it’s hard not to feel like these are your old school friends, too.

We wanted to create an exhibit that not only helped to contextualize the letters and the period in which they were being written, but also to allow the letter writers’ voices to stand on their own so that folks visiting the exhibit might have a similarly emotional encounter with these young individuals through their words alone.

To this end, the exhibit has two parts:

The first part of the exhibit is a more traditional curation of the letters. We offer you the opportunity to view the collection through our eyes, providing interpretation and information that focuses on some of the key themes that emerged from our reading and experience of the letters.

The second part of the exhibit is an opportunity to explore the transcripts of some of the letters. While we have offered the ability for a guided tour through them using a subject visualization tool, it is also possible to view each transcript one by one without our analysis appearing on the screen.

We hope that presenting the materials in this manner offers different ways of engaging with the material and different opportunities to ‘meet’ its authors.

About the exhibition

I Know We’ll Meet Again: Correspondence and the forced dispersal of Japanese Canadians, focuses on a selection of letters from the Joan Gillis fonds written by young Japanese Canadians who were among the approximately 22,000 Japanese Canadians from British Columbia who were forcibly dispersed from their homes as a result of the Canadian Federal Government’s Orders in Council. The exhibition details their deep homesickness and sense of isolation from their friends and communities, the new living and labour conditions they had to endure, their continued sense of Canadian identity even as the government labeled them “alien,” the bright spots they were able to find in their present conditions, and their imaginations for the future.

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A new way to picture Canada

Posted on March 9, 2022 @3:09 pm by cshriver

Rare Books and Special Collections at UBC Library is delighted to announce a new exhibition: Picturing Canada: The History of Canadian Illustrated Books for Children.

Many thanks to guest bloggers Jade Baptista, Vanessa Bedford Gill, Sue Choy, Angie Goertz, Leïla Matt-Kacai, Kira Razzo, and Sarah Van Mook for contributing the below post! This intrepid team of graduate students at the UBC School of Information or in the Master of Arts in Children’s Literature Program curated this picturesque new exhibition under the supervision of Dr. Kathryn Shoemaker, Adjunct Professor with the UBC School of Information.

Picturing Canada is an exhibition that will take visitors on a journey from the earliest published Canadian illustrated children’s books to current ones. Commencing with Northern Regions, published in 1825 to On the Trapline, a 2021 award winning picturebook, nearly 200 years of children’s books in Canada are covered. This exhibition explores the changing historical and cultural aspects of Canadian identity through the lens of children’s illustrated books. This exhibition is a testament to the artists, authors, publishers and ultimately readers, who shaped and continue to shape, children’s literary culture in Canada. The Picturing Canada exhibition can be thought of as a tapestry of over 120 Canadian children’s books, with each thread made up of our curated individual book selections. We could not hope to include every book and many threads were left out of the display, mostly due to space constraints. However, we encourage the visitor to celebrate the books we have chosen and ponder how they might picture Canada at different points in history.

Picturing Canada: The History of Canadian Illustrated Books for Children is on display on level 1 (RBSC reading room) and level 2 (main foyer) of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre from March 8 through May 31, 2022. The exhibition is free and open to the public, and people of all ages are encouraged to attend. A complete catalogue of the exhibition can be downloaded here. For more information, please contact Rare Books and Special Collections at (604) 822-2521 or rare.books@ubc.ca. You can also visit an exhibition site created by the curators.

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“For All Time” satellite display

Posted on January 12, 2022 @10:35 am by cshriver

UBC and Rare Books and Special Collections at UBC Library is thrilled to announce the acquisition of a complete first edition of William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, the First Folio includes 36 of Shakespeare’s 38 known plays. The texts, edited by Shakespeare’s close friends, fellow writers and actors, are considered the most authoritative of all early printings.

In partnership with the Vancouver Art Gallery, the newly acquired First Folio will be exhibited to the public from January 12 to March 22 along with three subsequent seventeenth-century Folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays. The exhibition, For All Time – The Shakespeare FIRST FOLIO marks the first time that all four Folios have been presented in Vancouver. The exhibition will be accompanied by an audio mobile guide featuring the voice of Christopher Gaze, Founding Artistic Director, Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, in addition to a series of public programs, including talks, performances and more. For further information, please visit vanartgallery.bc.ca.

To compliment the exhibition at the VAG, a display of books from RBSC’s collection that support early modern and Shakespeare studies will be up through the end of February 2022 in the Rare Books and Special collections reading room. The display includes works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, such as Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, and John Fletcher, materials that help contextualize Shakespeare’s world, and materials that demonstrate Vancouver and British Columbia’s on-going fascination with the Bard.

The display, which is free and open to the public, is available to visit in the RBSC reading room, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, please contact Rare Books and Special Collections at (604) 822-2521 or rare.books@ubc.ca

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Chung Collection exhibition closure

Posted on October 8, 2021 @11:27 am by cshriver

The Chung Collection exhibition room will be temporarily closed for two weeks from Monday, October 18 through Friday, October 29 for conservation work. Our apologies for the inconvenience. The Chung Collection exhibition room will be open as usual on Monday, November 1. Thank you for your patience!

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Science Literacy Week 2021

Posted on September 17, 2021 @4:27 pm by cshriver

In honour of Science Literacy Week 2021’s theme of climate, our wonderful Forestry and Natural Resources Archivist, Claire Williams, has highlighted some of Rare Books and Special Collections’ many fonds related to British Columbia’s environment in the UBC Library Guide to Science Literacy Week.

These fonds include records documenting historical climate data, struggles for climate action, and the development of creative works to educate others on the importance of climate issues. You can read a general description of the fonds below, or can click through to the full inventories for more details.

Angus Elias fonds

E. A. Royce fonds

Greenpeace International, Stitching Greenpeace Council fonds

Jim Hann documentary video collection

Joan Sawicki fonds


If you would like to consult any of these materials in person, you can visit Rare Books and Special Collections. To learn about other archival holdings related to natural resource extraction and the climate, check out RBSC’s Forest History and Archives Research Guide.

Science Literary Week runs from September 20 to 26, 2021. For more details about Science Literacy Week activities at the Library, including other resources and several events you can attend, explore the UBC Library Guide to Science Literacy Week.

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International Kelmscott Press Day

Posted on June 25, 2021 @2:51 pm by cshriver

As we celebrate International Kelmscott Press Day, we hope you enjoy this special lecture by Dr. Gregory Mackie, Associate Professor in the Department of English, and UBC Library’s Norman Colbeck Curator, titled “A Nameless City in a Distant Sea”: William Morris, Arts and Crafts, and the Kelmscott Chaucer in British Columbia.  





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Celebrating UBC’s Kelmscott Chaucer on International Kelmscott Press Day

Posted on June 25, 2021 @1:24 pm by cshriver

In honour of International Kelmscott Press Day on June 26, 2021, we’re celebrating and reflecting on the acquisition of the UBC Library’s own Kelmscott Chaucer.

The poet William Butler Yeats described it as the “most beautiful of all printed books.” Artist and illustrator Edward Burne-Jones likened it to a “pocket cathedral.” At UBC Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections, we know it as the single most requested book in our collection.

William Morris’s printed masterpiece, the complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer published by Morris’s Kelmscott Press, known as the Kelmscott Chaucer, is a book of renown on par with the likes of Shakespeare’s folios. It is part of the “triple crown” of fine press printing referred to by book historians and collectors, made up of three remarkable works held to represent the pinnacle of the book arts of the modern fine press movement. Issued in a limited edition of only 438 copies in 1896, the Kelmscott Chaucer is tracked and studied to such a degree that there is a scholarly census of each copy’s history and current custodian, which is kept up-to-date on the author’s website.

A joint acquisition by UBC Library and the faculty of arts, the Kelmscott Chaucer was purchased in the summer of 2016 after two years of fundraising efforts, which included a substantial donation from the B.H. Breslauer Foundation of New York. UBC faculty, community members and UBC’s Centennial Initiatives Fund also contributed. The drive to acquire the book was based not only on its significance to book history and fine press printing generally, but to honour and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the donation to UBC Library of the world-renowned Colbeck Collection of 19th-century literature, which includes several extremely rare Kelmscott Press books. RBSC’s copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer, known as the “Slater-Gribbel-Schimmel” copy, boasts not only the Morris-designed white pigskin binding, executed by the Doves Bindery (one of only 48 copies in the world with this particular binding), but also a rare printer’s proof with variant typesetting for the opening page.

While we at RBSC were beyond thrilled with the acquisition after many years of effort, we had no idea that the public response to the Kelmscott Chaucer would be so enthusiastic! We were amazed that the Vancouver Sun chose to feature the acquisition on the front page, and promptly ran across campus trying to buy commemorative copies of the paper in our excitement. And as soon as the word got out, visitors started arriving to experience the book in person. People from all over British Columbia and beyond made the trek out to UBC’s somewhat isolated campus, individually and occasionally in groups organized especially for the occasion, to feel the Batchelor handmade paper, hear the satisfying “swish” of the pages as they turn, to marvel at the intricacy and detail of Burne-Jones’s illustrations and Morris’s decorations, to admire the stunning binding, and to enjoy the feeling of connection to history. In the first three years after our Kelmscott Chaucer came to RBSC, it was circulated to visitors in our reading room and classes an average of twice a week and outstripped our Second Folio of Shakespeare and our 15th century book of hours in popularity.

But since one can’t expect every fan of William Morris or arts and crafts printing to make the trip to UBC, our colleagues at UBC’s Digitization Centre scanned the entire work in 2018, making it freely and publically accessible through the Library’s Open Collections, where it has been viewed nearly 3000 times. The Library Communications team was even inspired to create a downloadable colouring book featuring pages from the Kelmscott Chaucer, helping to share the beauty of the book more widely.


We feel so lucky to be able to not only act as stewards and custodians for this exemplar of book design and printing history, but to ensure that it is accessible to the UBC community, the people of British Columbia, and lovers of beauty the world over, to be experienced, celebrated, and enjoyed. Happy International Kelmscott Press Day!

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Archival work in a global pandemic

Posted on May 31, 2021 @1:29 pm by cshriver

Many thanks to guest blogger Sadaf Ahmadbeigi for contributing the below post! Sadaf has just completed course work as a graduate student at UBC’s School of Information and has been working as an intern with Rare Books and Special Collections.

Managing Archival Projects During a Global Pandemic

A conversation with Krisztina Laszlo

As I am writing this blog it has been more than a year since the Rare Books and Special Collection’s reading room has been closed to visitors and most of the staff due to Covid-19 pandemic. For this blog I reached out to Krisztina Laszlo, senior archivist at RBSC, to see how this year and a half has affected the way she’s been carrying out her work. Below are highlights of the conversation we had over Zoom.

Sadaf Ahmadbeigi: How did your job change after you were told that all work has to be moved into remote work?

Krisztina Laszlo: When we moved into remote work last March, we had three students and two interns, including you. So, one of the key priorities at that time was finding meaningful work for our students and student interns. We had to figure out what projects they could do from a remote environment because students in house mainly do arrangement and description work, and working on reference questions, neither of which was possible at that time due to COVID.

SA: How long did it take for you to plan the new projects for the students?

KL: Not very long. We first had to deal with our immediate students. There were some projects that I’ve always wanted to have done but there’s always so much pressure to get arrangement and description done that it seemed like we never had time for them. These were tasks like converting our old PDF finding aids into AtoM, writing blog posts as a way to create content and working on LibGuides. We were looking for the types of meaningful work for students that would meet the needs of the institution and help create better experiences for patrons. For example, creating outreach components in the form of blog posts would allow meaningful experience for students and is also useful for the researcher and patron side of things. So, we asked the students and interns to switch to doing these tasks.

The other thing that changed as the result of COVID was the nature of our work with donors. There was a lot of donor interaction in terms of what had already been donated because we had to delay getting their tax receipts.  I needed to communicate the process of issuing tax receipts to the doners so they could understand the reason for this delay. Before issuing tax receipts, we need to process the material, which is usually done by students who no longer had access to them. Then we have to get a monetary appraisal done which requires bringing the person into the facility to do the appraisal. And then we can issue the tax receipt. And now due to COVID, we had to stop that whole process. So, it was very important to communicate all this with the doners.

SA: Other than the tax receipts, the rest of your work with the doners has stayed the same as before, right?

KL: Yes. [For new donations], under normal circumstances, I would go to a donor’s house to do a site visit if they were in the city. And sometimes I travel, if we think the records are going to be valuable. I have traveled around BC to look at records before. Sometimes I’ll advise on site whether we can accept the material, or a part of it or none of it at all. When it comes to UBC whoever’s doing the processing will go through it more carefully. Now that it’s no longer possible to do a site visit, there is a lot of communication over email, phone or zoom to determine what we can accept. With COVID we can only be on site at UBC for limited hours. This means that the transfer of the materials to RBSC has become exponentially more difficult to coordinate. Couriers who are usually in charge of dropping off the materials are notoriously hard to coordinate with. They often give you a window, between 7am and 8pm, and we can’t schedule an exact time with them. There are other logistical issues as well. So, there’s all sorts of things that were really easy to do under normal circumstances but are now challenging.

I also found that with COVID more people are spending time at home, so they have time to go through their own personal archives. So, there’s a huge flood of doners that have been contacting us saying that they’ve had time to go through their stuff and ask if we are interested in what they have. I’ve got a huge file, about six inches thick, of just my paper notes of potential donation. This is not even counting all of the emails we received from donors. Now that it’s been over a year since the pandemic, managing all of the communication with doners about the materials that we want to take in is challenging.  I keep getting emails from people asking if we are open and if they can bring in their stuff. And I have to say, no, no, not yet. So, the first year to a year and a half once we’re back to normal, it’s just going to be dealing with this backlog, just the backlog that accumulated in the last year and a half, not even touching the backlog that already existed before the pandemic.

SA: Oh wow! What are some new possible records that we might get after the restrictions?

KL: One of the interesting contacts I’ve made during this time is with a retired woman who wrote a book about the history of women at the Vancouver Police Department. I contacted her and we had a great conversation around her process of writing that book and doing research. And I asked her if she has contacts for other women. This is interesting and relevant to RBSC because one of my focuses here is to bring in more records about women’s experiences, and how women have expanded into non-traditional roles is one of the areas of our focus here. Because there wasn’t a lot of careers open to women back then. So, for women to start being police officers in the 60s and 70s points to a really interesting period of feminist history in BC as women started to branch out into this area of work that has been traditionally only for men. I am really excited about these potential records and she’s got connections to other women who might have more archival material.

It’s always important to have enough knowledge about potential donations so that the doners won’t feel like they have to teach us about the importance of what they have. So, for these possible records too I made sure that I have done my research before contacting her. I got a copy of the book and started reading through that to make sure I know enough background so that she can feel comfortable talking about her research process with me. It’s important for doners to be reassured that we have enough knowledge about their records as part of trust building with the donor. A lot of these steps are now done virtually by having phone conversations or in some cases, zoom calls, and lots of email exchanges. Another example of a doner that I work with virtually is an artist who’s really worried about her legacy, and rightly so. She’s been part of an art movement, in the 70s, in which the focus has been predominantly on men. And she was a really integral figure. She has a lot of concerns about when we can take her materials and unfortunately, we can’t take them anytime soon. So, I’ve had a lot of conversations and exchanges with her reassuring her that we do want the records and have sent her a letter of agreement and interest.

These are the interactions and communications that takes up a lot of my time. I’ve also been focusing on grant writing and I seem to have meetings after meetings after meetings. It’s hard to say when my workday starts and when it ends which brings me to the third major challenge that I’ve been facing during the pandemic. With transitioning to working at home I have no balance between work and life. There is a lot of intellectual work involved in what I do and before, I was able to leave work at the end of the day and be done with that. That’s not possible anymore because work is now my kitchen table and I never leave work. The technological challenges of getting my workspace set up also added to it. I mean, these sound like small things but there was a lot of psychological anxiety regarding getting my remote desktop to work properly and having to update our internet and that sort of thing.

SA: It’s so important to talk about this. We usually talk about how the students are dealing with this pandemic, and how hard it is for us. But we don’t really talk about the management and people who are really trying to make our lives easier, and also get the usual work going as if nothing has happened.

KL: It’s funny, there’s been a lot of conversations at the university around productivity, and the belief that people aren’t working as effectively as before. I’ve heard some saying people are only working maybe 60% of their workdays, and they’re just slacking off the rest of the time. And that has absolutely not been my experience, I think I’m producing and working more. And my hours certainly haven’t shifted, if anything they’ve increased because there’s so many projects. One silver lining of this situation is that we’ve really been able to do a lot of work on cleaning up our metadata. One of our staff has been working on an incredible project by adding subject access points to our records on ATOM. We’re doing everything that we needed to do for ages but couldn’t because the pace of life when we’re on site is so hectic that we never have time to actually do these really important projects. Another project that’s amazing and we wouldn’t really have been able to prioritize it before is one that one of our staff who is a native Mandarin speaker is working on. She is adding Chinese language descriptions and name authorities starting with The Chung Collection and eventually moving to our other fonds about Chinese creators. This is so important because then people that don’t have good English skills will be able to search the collections and find material. And again, you’d think that such an important project should have been done before. Why haven’t we done that already? Because we didn’t have time!

SA: No, I hear you. I also know that you’ve done some arrangement and description yourself, right?

KL: Yeah, so that was back when I was going in RBSC, starting in January. I started going in to RBSC to do arrangement and description, one or two days a week and I did that for a couple of months. It was great because I don’t often get to do arrangement and description, that’s always delegated to students or RBSC’s processing archivist. I’m more like the person that spins the plates and does all the juggling. So that was really great to get back to my roots to do arrangement and description. And it was fun also because I think it helped me be a better teacher. I feel like I can help students learn how to do it better by actually going back and doing it myself again. It was a good kind of refresher in my brain. But then again with the increased restrictions I stopped going in about a month ago.

SA: Yeah. And I know sometimes as archivists we worked with difficult record, and then adding to that this pandemic might cause more, I don’t know, compassion fatigue. Do you feel like that happened to you?

KL: If anything, there is more frustration and exhaustion around the constant anxiety and the worry about the state of the world. Anxiety fatigue and constantly having to worry about the state of my health, worrying about the health of my co-workers and my students, which I care about a great deal not just how you guys are doing in terms of the work you do for us, but how the students and my other amazing colleagues at RBSC are doing with coping with all of this. And then there’s making sure that everybody has projects to work on, not just the students, but that the support staff have meaningful work to do and there is of course my own projects. So yeah, there’s that fatigue for sure. We’re really fortunate though, in the sense at RBSC, they’re like my extended family. And we all are very careful about making sure we’re all okay and are checking in with each other. So that has, I think, alleviated a lot of those emotional labor and fatigue challenges, because we’re not fighting against each other to get things done. We’re all in it together. And I acknowledge that, probably, this is not everyone’s experience. But that has really helped with keeping us going.

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