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Guardians of our history

How Records Management and Archives has helped Concordia remember its past — and preserve a better future — for five decades
April 17, 2024
By Samantha Rideout, GrDip 10

A white-gloved hand holds a black-and-white photo over a scanner. An archivist holds a photo of the Department of Chemistry’s Mössbauer Spectrometer.

As Concordia’s 50th anniversary draws near, archivist Eric Côté thinks that more people should know about the department that serves as official custodian of heritage.

“One of our roles is to promote the university’s history,” says Côté of Records Management and Archives (RMA). “It includes many achievements, and also mistakes that we need to remember so that we don’t make them again.”

The small but dedicated RMA, which itself turned 50 in 2023, encompasses two groups of employees: a records-management team that helps faculty and staff to organize their documents in compliance with laws and university regulations, and an archives team that stores and catalogues materials for current and future generations to consult.

Not only do the archivists continually collect documents through institutional channels such as academic units, they also accept private donations from faculty, staff and alumni. As a result, their extensive holdings — which predate the merger of Sir George Williams University and Loyola College in 1974, and include photos, event posters, lecture notes, press releases, yearbooks, sports jerseys, trophies, videos and more — cover wide swaths of university life.

“Not counting digital documents, we have around 6,200 boxes of papers in our vault,” says Julie Daoust, Concordia’s RMA lead.

All that material has survived until today despite the fact that much of it was soaked by firefighters’ hoses when a blaze broke out in one of Concordia’s annexes in the winter of 1982.

The archivist at the time, Nancy Marrelli, BA 84, contributed greatly to saving the collection. Her written account tells how papers that had become solid blocks of ice were stored in freezer trucks until the university could arrange to freeze-dry them at a food-processing plant.

A woman stands in an archive room filled with labeled boxes, conveying a sense of organization and preservation. “Our mandate is to help people,” says Julie Daoust, Records Management and Archives lead.

The current archivists don’t have challenges of that magnitude to face, but 2024 is a busy year for them because of requests from groups that are planning to celebrate Concordia’s 50th.

To mark the occasion, RMA is also collaborating with the Concordia Library in the creation of a virtual timeline of notable events in the university’s history.

It’s been tough to whittle down the interesting stories to a digestible number.

“When we started, we had 700 entries for the timeline,” laughs Côté. “We’ve reduced that to around 300.”

These events include the cancellation of classes at Loyola in 1918 because of the flu pandemic, the first issue of Concordia University Magazine in 1977 featuring literary giant Mordecai Richler’s humorous account of his time at Sir George Williams, the implementation of Concordia’s HIV/AIDS policy in 1988 (making it one of the first Canadian universities to issue formal guidelines about AIDS education and health services) and the founding of the People’s Potato to fight student hunger in 1999.

A cornerstone of preservation

As the anniversary commemorations approach, the significance of these events and milestones — and how they strengthened Concordia — has become more and more apparent.

So, too, has RMA’s role as a preserver and promoter of this rich history.

One of the most notable events on the virtual timeline, for example, had its genesis in the spring of 1968, when six Black students at Sir George Williams accused a professor of racial discrimination.

No resolution had been reached by the following winter, when around 200 students occupied a computer centre and faculty lounge in the Henry F. Hall Building. Their aim was to show their dissatisfaction with how the administration was handling the allegations as well as racism on campus more generally.

Twelve days later, after negotiations between the students and the administration failed, the university called in the police. In the ensuing chaos, officers arrested 97 people.

For some students, the fallout included job loss, unfinished studies, jail sentences and even deportation.

Although those involved would never forget the incident, it might have been largely forgotten by the broader community had records not been archived, then revisited and highlighted over the years.

For instance, in 2015 the National Film Board was able to make a documentary on the subject using well-preserved archival footage that was originally captured on reel-to-reel videotape.

Concordia has since issued a formal apology for its handling of the racism complaints, for the harms caused to protestors and for its silence surrounding these matters during the decades that followed.

Côté considers this outcome to be an example of why cataloguing the past matters, and why it is fortunate that Concordia has been doing so for the past five decades. 

A hand holds a classic varsity jacket with "LOYOLA" text, symbolizing the legacy and sports history of Loyola Colllege. Short-sleeved jacket from Loyola College
A close-up of a vintage blazer pocket featuring an embroidered patch of the Garnet Key Society from Sir George Williams University. Pocket crest of a Sir George Williams University Garnet Key Society jacket

From analog to digital

Thanks to the vision and leadership of Marie-Pierre Aubé, RMA’s director and Concordia’s university archivist since 2010, the digital age has brought improvements to the department. For starters, scanning analog materials makes them easier to search and retrieve.

“What used to take days to find can now take minutes,” says Eric Côté.

Digitization also helps with preservation, since the people who want to see brittle old files now won’t need to handle them.

Meanwhile, to protect digital data itself, the archivists store select content in a specialized digital-preservation environment. It’s also backed up on servers at multiple geographical locations to reduce the risk that a single disaster could take out all the copies. Finally, they perform regular bit-level checks to ensure file integrity and trustworthy data over time.

One of the team’s greatest digital-transformation challenges is deciding what to put online. Materials with high historical value get priority, although the archivists need to watch out for materials that might be under copyright protection.

They’ve also come across documents that deserve a content warning when they go on the web. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, a lot of racist and sexist ideas plague publications from decades past. And every so often, something just “goes over the edge” of today’s content norms, as Côté puts it.

“As an example, Loyola College was fairly conservative, but things sort of exploded there at the end of the 1960s,” he says. “In an issue of Gamut, a student-run magazine, we found a whole series of nude photos. I mean, they’re artistic, but we still have to make sure people know it’s in there before they click.”

A collection of six assorted badges with different logos and text representing various university events and milestones. Records Management and Archives’ extensive holdings include photos, event posters, lecture notes, press releases, yearbooks, sports jerseys, trophies, pins, videos and more.

Getting ‘creative to find solutions’

Many new records are “born digital,” meaning that when hard copies exist at all, they’re just printouts of the original digital format.

Some of this content makes its way into RMA’s web collections with the help of Olivier Bisaillon-Lemay, an archives reference technician whose responsibilities include sending web crawlers to capture relevant pages and posts. Archived web content will remain available even after the original host takes it down.

Some of Concordia’s web collections try to gather everything coming from a particular source, such as the news section of Concordia’s website. Others are centred on topics that may be of special interest to future researchers, such as COVID-19 or Concordia’s Indigenous community.

Then there are the born-digital files that don’t live online but rather on storage devices such as discs and drives. Some of these media can be troublesome, according to Julie Daoust.

“Especially CDs and DVDs: Archivists don’t like them!” she says. “People used to use them a lot, but they’re not the most stable format. Even though they’re not terribly old, we’re not always able to extract the information, which is kind of heartbreaking.”

So far, few university archives have tackled the issues posed by the degradation of digital media.

“That forces us to be creative and find solutions,” says John Richan, Concordia’s digital archivist.

In a trailblazing move, Richan and his colleagues opened a digital preservation lab in 2020. It’s a space dedicated to migrating vulnerable data into formats that meet the best practices of today.

The lab’s legacy hardware and specialized equipment mean it can take on large and challenging projects.

“For example, we discovered that putting CDs into a drive one at a time and copying and pasting the data is not very efficient for the volume of discs we receive,” says Richan.

“So, we have a machine that can stack up to 100 CDs at once and pull the data. It’s been a lifesaver.”

Students from Concordia and other Montreal universities visit the lab to gain experience with digital archiving.

“As much as the lab is a space for us to work, we’ve always envisioned it as a research and teaching opportunity, too,” he says.

A rich resource for the community

Last year, Bisaillon-Lemay fielded nearly 150 requests from people who wanted to consult Concordia’s archives.

“That part of my job is getting easier as time goes on,” he says, explaining that researchers can now often find what they need without him thanks to RMA’s online research tools.

Still, he emphasizes that he’s available to assist anyone who finds the tools tricky to use or who’s interested in digging into records that haven’t been digitized.

In addition to the obvious — documenting Concordia’s history as an institution — the archives are also useful for people who are researching the lives or ideas of notable faculty or alumni.

For instance, RMA recently received more than 50 boxes of donated material from Pnina Gagnon, a prolific contemporary artist and the widow of the art historian François-Marc Gagnon, an affiliate professor at Concordia and the founding director of its Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art.

“He’s a big part of Quebec’s cultural landscape,” says Eric Côté with enthusiasm. “He published so many books and gave presentations around the world, and he was on TV for most of the ’90s. I remember watching him as a teenager! It’s humbling when you arrive in front of a body of work like this.”

In addition to professional academics and journalists, RMA’s team also assists students, employees and alumni, including those who are doing research for personal reasons.

“A few years back, there was a person who had an illness that made her forget a lot of things about her life,” says Daoust. “So, she asked us questions and we were able to help her recall her time at Concordia.”

“Our mandate is to help people,” Daoust continues. “We know it can be difficult to work with archives when you aren’t used to it. But 95 per cent of the time, we can find what you’re looking for, or at least something relevant. We’re here for you.” 

To donate materials to the archives, visit

For support in using Concordia’s archives for professional or personal research, write to

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