by Mary Ann Vanden ELzen
Could things get any weirder?
Who would ever have imagined that members of a nature club, so keen to be outdoors, would willingly show up for an indoor outing? Not just indoors, though. Down to the basement, deep inside the belly of an archival vault. A place intentionally designed to keep the outdoors out. Yet, surprisingly, two dozen people did indeed show up.
The idea for a tour of the Region of Waterloo Archives originated with archivist Charlotte Woodley. These records, including our own Waterloo Region Nature collection, were moved in 2015 to the historic Old County Courthouse building at 20 Weber St. E. in Kitchener. Charlotte, along with archivists Lesley Webb and Matt Roth, aimed to set out exhibits and conduct tours in such a way that “people could see themselves” or easily be able to relate to the materials. In this, they certainly succeeded.
Betty Cooper was “startled” to see a 1960s photo of herself – binoculars strung around her neck – all set to go birdwatching with husband, Fred. When the gigantic original 1861 Tremaine map of Waterloo County was unrolled, Carol Gregory shrieked with delight and excitedly pointed out the section of land her Mennonite ancestors settled when they first arrived from Pennsylvania. Harold Russell smiled with pleasure to see the two boxes of the Dorothy Russell collection, which he himself had donated, placed just opposite the WRN boxes.
Of more general appeal to club members were the Craig Campbell collection; a thesis volume written by club founder, Fred Montgomery; and photographs, notes and bird check lists from long time member, Dorothy Russell.
After perusing the main floor exhibits, listening to Charlotte’s presentation, and then the lively follow-up Q & A, we divided into three separate groups, packed into the elevator and hit “B” for basement. Down to the vaults we descended. Normally, only staff has access to these rooms.
First was the Triage Vault. Shelves upon shelves are filled with ordinary lidded cardboard boxes. The records inside are temporarily stored here waiting to be sorted and processed. Only 5% make the cut. Time here also serves to isolate any bugs or mould from old donated records.
Next was the Map Vault. It consists of rows of broad, deep, metal shelving holding large maps, posters and architectural designs and drawings including that of the historic West Montrose covered bridge.
The main Archival Vault was the third room we visited. With space at a premium, documents are stored on retractable shelving. All it takes is a turn of a crank to move even the most heavily loaded shelf.
It’s ironic for nature loving outdoor enthusiasts that the entire goal of an archivist is to keep the outdoors out! That’s what’s required to protect the records. Documents are stored in file folders inside acid free boxes. The fire suppression system sucks oxygen out of the room. No sprinkler system here! An alarm and flashing strobe light allows only 30 seconds for anyone inside the vault at the time to get out. There’s also a water alarm in case of a flood situation. Underneath every overhead pipe is a drip tray. No wind reaches these climate-controlled vaults. No natural light, either.
There were many questions along the way, all expertly answered by the enthusiastic ROWA staff; they were happy to explain their work and share the archives with us. They emphasized that these records are public and completely accessible. People are encouraged to utilize them. “These are treasures,” declared Charlotte. Research can be done either on-line or by visiting the archives in person. The staff is always pleased to be of assistance.
As one person afterwards remarked, “…so glad WRN put their archives under the Region’s care.” I’m sure many on the tour today would have echoed that sentiment.
Thanks to archivists Charlotte Woodley, Lesley Webb and Matt Roth for organizing an outstanding outing. Thanks, as well, to Graham Macdonald for his photos.