InsightOut: Archiving St. Mike’s in Quarantine

InsightOut: Archiving St. Mike’s in Quarantine


Jessica Barr is the University Archivist and Records Manager for the University of St. Michael’s College. She is a graduate of the University of Toronto (New College 0T9, Faculty of Information 1T1), and spent much of her time as a student studying in the John M. Kelly College Library. Not much has changed, except her desk’s location in the library.


Image depicts a walkway between rows of stacks in the John M. Kelly Library.Archiving St. Mike’s in Quarantine

The University of St. Michael’s College Archives is tucked in a corner of the third floor of the John M. Kelly Library. The Archives preserves the official records of the University, including records from the offices of the President, Principal, Faculty of Theology, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, and Continuing Education program. We also have papers from faculty, records about some alumni, student publications, and an extensive collection of photographs. More recently, I’ve written a survey to capture the experiences of our community during the COVID-19 pandemic (but more on that later).

Much of my time includes hands-on work with the paper records that contain the history of St. Michael’s College: I arrange transfers of records from donors, I make sure the archival materials are properly housed so they can withstand many of the tests of time (including damage from light, pests, or mould), and I create digital inventories with written descriptions of the materials so they can be accessed by researchers. I also respond to reference requests from researchers near and far—some are looking for information on alumni who attended St. Michael’s, some are conducting academic research using papers written by faculty, and some are simply interested in our history as an academic institution.

Since mid-March, however, I have been working remotely, like many of my St. Michael’s colleagues. So how do I archive materials without physical access to the archives? With the help of the IT departments at St. Mike’s and the University of Toronto, I have been able to maintain access to my network drives and my digital records. These records include my digital inventories of the collections held in the archives and more than 1500 digitized photographs. This means I can continue to respond to many reference questions, including a recent query about the date the clock was added to the Elmsley Hall tower. (It was 2005, in case you are wondering.) I can also update inventories and spreadsheets to make them more accessible for future users, or upload them to the website; update policies and procedures; coordinate with colleagues on questions related to records management; finally clean up my hard drive; and convert already digitized materials to more usable file formats.

During this time of quarantine and pandemic, I have been wondering how the archives can preserve this point in history. I find myself asking: What do I wish we knew about the 1918 pandemic at St. Michael’s? What was that period like for our students, staff, faculty, and alumni? We are able to gather some information from administrative records and yearbooks, but we don’t have very many first-hand accounts. In response, I have been actively archiving the digital records created by the administration over the past three months, including public emails and the St. Michael’s website. In an attempt to gather eyewitness accounts of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have also written a survey to send to our community, with the goal of capturing information about our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. In the future, researchers will be able to access these answers to learn what life was like for us during this particular moment.

We invite you to submit your own answers to the survey, and any photographs that capture this moment: https://stmikes.utoronto.ca/usmc-archives-and-covid-19/

I’ve copied examples of my own answers below:

Name: Jessica

What is your current location: My kitchen table, Pickering, Ontario

How are you connected to St. Michael’s College? Staff

How have you, your family, and community been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? I have been working remotely since March 12th. A few immediate family members were temporarily laid off from work, but the rest have been working remotely. We have all, thankfully, remained healthy. Many of my neighbours have been home, so we see a lot more people on walks now.

Share your experience with teaching, learning, or working remotely: I was able to begin working remotely very early on, thanks to previously-set-up off-site network access, and troubleshooting with our IT teams. Transitioning to Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings was a bit of a challenge, since not all colleagues immediately had access to a camera or microphone. After a couple of weeks, though, we all got into a “normal” swing of things. I have really enjoyed meeting the pets and children of colleagues via web meetings.

What about your routine has changed? My gym is closed, but is offering Zoom classes to keep active. I just noticed that my bus line to get to the GO station has been shut down due to lack of ridership, so that will be a challenge when we’re cleared to physically go back into work. Beyond that, I’ve been reading a lot of cookbooks and testing out a lot of new recipes. Luckily, I have family nearby, so I can deliver some treats to nearby porches. I would normally have a day each month to visit with my father (who lives about six hours away), but we haven’t been able to travel since February.

For more information about the University of St. Michael’s College Archives, please check out this link: https://discoverarchives.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/university-of-st-michaels-college-archives

Please email me you have any questions for the archivist: usmc.archives@utoronto.ca

And, if you’re interested in seeing digitized copies of historical St. Michael’s yearbooks, you’ll find some here: https://archive.org/details/usmichaelscollege