June 22nd, 2018

Eye on the Esplanade: Venture through the Esplanade’s Archives Reading Room door

By Medicine Hat News on October 6, 2017.

Often wide-eyed and very careful to not make a sound, a person will shyly wander in and make their way across the Archives Reading Room floor to my desk. “I’ve never been in here before. I’m not really sure how to go about this” are words I hear whispered to me on almost a weekly basis. In any other context it might seem like a nefarious interaction is about to go down. Not so, however. Asking for help at the reference desk in the Archives Reading Room can be daunting if you’ve never done archival research before. Rest assured, I’ve seen it all.

Along with in-person inquiries, I’ve assisted with research and answered questions for people over the phone, through email, and more and more commonly, through social media. Sometimes people will make appointments months in advance to simply look at one document, while others will breeze through the door and ask for 12 boxes of material to browse through. I’ve met people from all across our fine continent, and many from around the world. In fact, there’s a good chance I’ll snag a cameo in a Dutch novel about a man’s quest to uncover his own genealogy, coming out sometime next year. Look for it, if you’re into Dutch literature.

Reactions are usually as varied as the people who walk through the door. I’ve helped people to discover the identities of long lost siblings without so much as a lip quiver on their part; other times I’ve been met with tears and group-hug requests after finding the address of a great-uncle’s house in the 1960s. Different strokes for different folks, I think, is how the saying goes.

These days, the world is literally at our fingertips. The romantic notion of sitting in a dark dusty room for days at a time, unrolling scrolls and sitting amidst stacks of giant ledgers is not a method we’d force upon an everyday researcher. Sometimes people make appointments expecting to set up shop in the Reading Room all day (complete with their backpacks, charging cords, brown-bag lunch and all) only to leave 10 minutes later after we’ve searched our extensive database and found the exact document they’re looking for; more often than not it’s already a PDF document that I can send to them in an email.

The Archives Reading Room isn’t a scary place, so come in and ask questions with confidence; I may be able to help you find exactly what you’re looking for. And you don’t even have to whisper.

Kim Unrau is assistant archivist at the Esplanade.

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