Finding the University : new research guides for institutional histories

McGill University, Old McGill Yearbook, 1903

Through the archival preservation of his papers, James McGill benefits from the privilege of still having his voice heard more than 200 years after his death. Archival practices such as appraisal (deciding what material to collect and to continue to preserve) and cataloguing (describing and classifying material) have traditionally exerted bias in favour of McGill and others like him, while effectively silencing Sarah, Marie-Louise, Jacques, and Marie-Charles, the four Black people that James McGill is known to have enslaved, as well as Marie and another First Nations child whose name has not survived and who McGill also enslaved.

The foundational principles of archival practise established the archivist as a neutral entity, passively preserving history in a completely unbiased way. The last few decades, however, have seen the archives community engage in a critical interrogation of its traditional claim of neutrality and begin to meaningfully acknowledge the ways in which it has embodied colonial power structures and the harm that this has caused[1]. Eurocentric ideas such as the written record being more reliable than other forms of memory-keeping have created distinct silences within the archive and, by extension, have informed the creation of exclusionary historical narratives. These silences represent a multitude of people and stories remembered outside of the written tradition, and those without the opportunity or ability to accumulate and retain papers and other material possessions throughout their lifetime.

Just as the archive can be harmful, it also holds the potential to be reparative. The archival record has played a crucial role in the struggle to correct human rights violations across the globe. Archives have been central to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, as well as similar commissions in South Africa and Australia. The truth that reconciliation requires is, in many cases, found in an archive.

As archivists, we also take inspiration and learn from the work of scholars in areas including slavery studies and Indigenous history, whose endeavours represent histories that celebrate the true diversity of the human experience and reveal the truth of injustices, both historical and continuing. Contending with a distinct lack of archival material surrounding many of the stories they seek to tell, these scholars have developed ways of amplifying previously diminished voices, drawing them out of the records originally created by those who sought to silence them[2]. In the archives, we are working to find new and better ways of supporting this work and the methodologies that it entails.

To forge new pathways towards more inclusive research, archivists are taking steps to critically engage with the inherent biases and privileges that exist in our work. At McGill, this has translated into actions such as starting to incorporate subject headings from Indigenous knowledge organization systems, including the Brian Deer classification system[3], into the archival collections catalogue. We are also assessing the contextual information we’ve provided in relation to archival collections, with a view towards including more balanced information and eliminating language that universalizes the European, settler experience. To be sure, these are small steps on a very long road, but they are being taken with reconciliation in mind.

A fundamental way in which archivists can support historical research that honours, rather than erases, the existence of marginalized peoples is by making the primary source material consulted by those doing this work more accessible. To support more inclusive histories of McGill University, we have started to develop a series of institutional history research guides aimed at simplifying access to primary source material related to the University’s establishment and its first 100 years. The first of these guides is now online and summarizes archival holdings created by or directly relating to James McGill, including material created by members of his social circle and his business associates. It links to digitized content and provides additional information aimed at helping researchers navigate the material. 

In creating these guides, we have focussed our efforts on providing information that is practical and will enable more direct access to primary source material. Even in this, however, we are aware of our privileged role in acting as a gatekeeper to the collections we preserve and promote. As the University’s third century begins, we will continue to reflect on the impact of our work within the University community and beyond, and look forward to finding new ways of ensuring that this impact is a positive one.


[1] In 2020, for example, the Association of Canadian Archivists released A Reconciliation Framework for Canadian Archives, a draft framework for implementing Call to Action #70, which speaks directly to the archival community. Learn more on the ACA website: https://archivists.ca/Truth-and-Reconciliation

[2] For a discussion of the methodological approaches employed by scholars of slavery studies, see “Subverting Archival Violence”, in There/Then, Here/Now : Black Women’s Hair and Dress in the French Empire, by Joana Joachim (2020): https:// org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/oclc/1229041630

[3] Named for its creator, Brian Deer (1945 – 2019), a Kahnawake Mohawk librarian who studied at McGill University. Learn more about him and his work in A Tribute to Brian Deer, by Jean Weihs, in Technicalities, Vol. 39(3), May/June 2019. See also: the University of British Columbia’s guide to Indigenous Knowledge Organization, accessible at: https://guides.library.ubc.ca/Indiglibrarianship/knowledgeorganizations

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