A Tour of the Archives of Ontario

(Riddhi Jani)

You may have wondered what that big glass building next to York Lanes sporting a sign that reads “Kaneff Tower” is all about. While we can’t speak to the secret inner workings of the upper floors, we can confirm that the first three are home to the Archives of Ontario.

Back in October, Excalibur was invited for a tour of the Archives where we interviewed Sean Smith, Senior Manager of Strategic Stakeholder Development, and got to see the inner workings of the largest provincial archives. 

Established in 1903, the Archives are responsible for overseeing the preservation of historical documents relevant to the land we now call Ontario. The Archives are comprised of records pertaining to the Government of Ontario, as well as any private records of provincial significance. While these records can appear in many formats — including print and digital — it’s important to note that the main objective of the Archives is to obtain and preserve information. 

“Who we are now is not exactly who we’ve been for the bulk of our history,” says Smith as he shows us around the first-floor exhibit on animals. “A big part of what we are shifting towards is access. We’ve always been about preserving, but I think, increasingly, we are more concerned with sharing material more widely and in more unique ways.”

The Archives have strived to create a community space by collaborating with educators, inviting students to partake in exhibits which, according to Smith, are “designed to be visual, educational, and interactive.” 

Smith emphasizes the importance of outreach in order to ensure diversity: “We want to figure out ways in which we can support memory work happening in many communities — how we can bring the many diverse communities into the building and help figure out how we can work together to tell stories.”

The second floor is where much of the conservation and preservation takes place. The climate-controlled preservation lab, where conservators work to maintain the integrity of older, damaged documents, is home to some fascinating equipment like fume hoods and presses. Strange devices — called “elephant trunks” — hang from the ceiling to ensure fresh air flow to those working on items that might have mold or other hazardous materials.

Six vaults also reside on the second floor, maintained by environmental monitoring that ensures the safety of the documents and artifacts inside. These vaults contain scores of records, and one such vault is home to the coveted David Thompson map, which covers northwestern North America in great detail.

Alongside documents, the Archives is concerned with digitizing older recording mediums — like cassettes and microfilm — to ensure that videotaped and audiotaped documentation is not lost. 

After our tour, Smith brought us down to the reading room to show us one of the many gems housed in the Archives: The Letters of abolitionist, lawyer, and teacher, Mary Ann Shadd Cary. Some of these letters are physical evidence of correspondence between Cary and William Still pertaining to the Underground Railroad. These letters give a sense of tangibility to history and, as Smith puts it, “provide nuance to the concept of Canada as a safe haven for freedom seekers.”

Letters of Mary Ann Shadd Cary (Riddhi Jani)

The Archives of Ontario provide an invaluable service to the people of Ontario, working to preserve our cultural memory while simultaneously inviting us to consider our identity, both as Ontarians and Canadians. If you’re interested in learning more about archiving, Smith suggests volunteering at local archives where you can learn about the archival process and your local community. In terms of education, look for programs about conservation, archival studies, information studies, and history. 

For more information about The Archives of Ontario, check out their website, and make sure to stop by their GLAM Wiki for links to digital materials from the Archives’ collections.

About the Author

By JJ Mokrzewski

Managing Editor


JJ Mokrzewski is currently a fourth year BFA student majoring in Screenwriting at York University. She loves all things Gothic, and when she's not working on screenplays she enjoys writing fantasy and horror stories. She also moonlights as the keyboardist of the Toronto shoe gaze band, Whisper Gang. Most of her free time is divided equally between investigating new books/films/series and rewatching episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She is passionate about sustainability, mental health, abolishing the stigma around genre fiction, championing the Oxford comma, and pet videos. She strongly believes Ulysses is a brilliant book, and one day hopes to figure out why.


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