Researching Our Collections

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

In 2002, a donation arrived in the archives related to a gentleman by the name of Jack Humphreys.  At the time, what drew me to the collection were the images of Camp Samac, the Boy Scout camp located in north Oshawa. The images showed the camp during the 1940s from the perspective of the campers and was a gap in the collection.  The collection was also interesting in that Mr. Humphreys was feted in Oshawa for several years for being the oldest citizen in the City.

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In November 2019, I came across a caption in the Toronto Star noting that Mr. Humphreys was a veteran of two wars: the Boer War and World War I. Immediately after reading this, I went back to the collection to see what more I could learn about this aspect of Mr.  Humphreys. What I found was a fascinating life, a story about bravery, potentially tall tales and a long life lived to its fullest.

Learning more about the life and adventures of Mr. Humphreys was amazing and highlighted the unending opportunities for research offered by archival and curatorial collections. In an ideal world, when the collection arrived at the archives in 2002, it would have been researched during or shortly after the processing of the collection, and a finding aid developed. However, given the size of staff in our archives and curatorial departments, one in each, the vast majority of collection research occurs in relation to research requests or exhibit development.

In this case, further research into the collection was due to a happy accident when I bumped into the caption. This research was then used to write a short article looking into the extraordinary life of Mr. Humphreys. Collection research also forms the basis of finding aids and resources to make searching the archival collection easier for researchers.

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Even collections that have been fairly well researched offer opportunities to learn more and to add further context. For example, the correspondence of Pvt. Garrow has been well researched.  The World War I correspondence collection has been transcribed, a finding aid created for it and an online exhibit sharing the collection is available through the Museum’s website.  This research actually connected with research I was doing into early Black history in Oshawa.  It turns out that both Garrow and Albert Pankhurst were at the Battle of Mount Sorrel. This connection has added further context to Garrow’s letters and helped to better understand the enormity of the battle.

Collection research is a vital part of life in an archives or museum. It provides context and provenance.  Research shows connections between collections and artefacts. It can make a collection of photographs showing life at Camp Samac fit into the story of the Boer War and World War I.