I am a first-year student, aiming for a Joint-Honours degree in History and Classics. One of my main academic interests (for now at least) is the history of Quebec. For this reason, I was hoping to familiarize myself with tools of research in this field and if possible, to contribute to actual research. During my internship, this is precisely what I was able to do: by learning hands-on how different archives or databases work, and also by finding iconographic documents that will actually be used in a book soon-to-be published.
My host organization was the Mémoires des Montréalais institute (MEM), a new name for the old Centre d’histoire de Montréal. The MEM is a public institute charged with organizing public exhibitions about Montreal’s history, by focusing on the subjective experiences of the plurality of identities that form its population - past and present. This approach contrasts, for example, with purely social, political or environmental histories of Montreal - that is, histories that would concentrate on important political events, quantifiable economic phenomena or environmental changes. As part of its next exhibition, the MEM will publish a book that will frame a complete history of Montreal conceived in such a way: as a place shared by different communities and experienced differently by each of them.
My main responsibility was to find beautiful, meaningful and, if possible, unknown iconographic documents (pictures, drawings, engravings) to illustrate this book. The possibilities were almost endless: Mohawk navigators from Kahnawake carrying tourists through the Rapides Lachine in 1890, workers digging the first subway stations in 1962, Italian immigrants hunting in the Parc Jarry, when the north of Montreal was still a forest. Knowing where and how to look for pictures was a serious challenge, and so finding a hidden gem was an absolutely thrilling experience.
Following cues from my supervisors, I was free to look into any accessible archives and databases. Being efficient involved reading in depth about some parts of the history of Montreal, contacting archivists responsible or relevant collections (including archivists from McGill University) and sometimes deciphering hand drawn scripts from the Seventeenth Century. As anyone who has ever used archives will confirm, jumping into a complex research tool for the first time is challenging, and I felt completely at lost for the full first week. Marie-Anne Gagnon and Tyler Woods from the MEM were very helpful in guiding me through the technical vocabulary and the tools-of-the-trade of archive hunting, and I am indebted to them for learning so much. In the long run, the skills I have learned are essential to any aspiring historian, but I think I will profit from my experience as soon as this fall semester, when I will have to work on my term papers.
The whole research team of the MEM adapted very well to remote working. We had weekly meetings online, where everyone would update others on the progress of its work, and where supervisors would distribute tasks. We also shared a Slack and that really helped to ease the communication. That being said, working remotely had two serious drawbacks. The first one is obviously that some documents were impossible to get to, because they had not been digitalized. Normally, we could have visited the physical archives, but that was not possible. The second drawback is psychological: it is a lot harder to find motivation for work when you do it at the exact same place where you cook, you eat, and you sleep.
On the technical side, I have not received credit for the internship. I was awarded a Faculty of Arts Undergraduate Research Award, and I sincerely thank the Quebec Studies Department, and especially Mr Stephan Gervais, for giving me the opportunity to take my first steps as a historian and to discover the hidden side of my own Montreal.