Internship Spotlight: Jesse Smith - The Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives

As a Joint Honours student entering the final year of my undergraduate degree, I sought to make the most of my time over the summer by taking on a position through McGill’s Arts Internship Office (AIO). Being interested in archival work as a result of my Honours History courses, I jumped at the opportunity to intern with the Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives here in Montreal. The position, which was offered in partnership with McGill’s Quebec Studies programme, offered me a chance at hands-on work within an archival setting, giving me a glimpse into what my career might look like in future. In particular, I gained a far greater appreciation of the variety of work that an archive requires, from manual labour (such as assembling and moving boxes) to genealogical research and cataloguing!

My host organisation, the Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives, began its work as a branch of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC). In 2011, the CJC was dissolved, and the Archives entered a new phase of its existence as an independent, community-funded archive of Canadian Jewish History. The Archives also moved to a new location in 2018 to accommodate its ever-growing collection. They provide an invaluable resource for both academics and the general community, as the Archives record not only the CJC’s history, but that of Canadian Jewry as a whole. Of particular importance is the JIAS collection, which contains immigration records, social case files, and associated records from the Jewish Immigrant Aid Service. The Archives regularly receive requests from both academics and private individuals to conduct genealogical research, something which would not be possible without the JIAS collection.

While I did conduct some genealogical research, the majority of my time working at the Archives was spent processing documents from the CJC collection in order to reduce the catalogue’s backlog. The records I dealt with spanned mainly from the 1970s to the 1990s, being in large part from the CJC’s Communications Department. My task was primarily to identify duplicates within the archival collection, after which I could discard any superfluous files. Of the 30+ boxes I was slated to examine, seven were discarded or merged into pre-existing boxes. This type of synthesis, indexing, and processing is necessary on a practical level, as it streamlines the collection and opens up space for new donations; however, it is also essential for the Archives to function efficiently. The boxes I worked with had remained untouched for decades, and did not exist within the archival database, meaning that researchers were unable to locate and access them.

While working through the unprocessed CJC collection, I discovered over 400 previously unknown photos from various missions, conferences, and community events. Over half of these photos were from the first ever National Executive Conference in Israel, which took place over the 1990-1991 winter months. Working with these photos was incredibly rewarding, as they helped place the physical records into historical perspective. The photos, which were almost all taken by CJC officers and staff, also humanised the history by placing faces to the names and highlighting the more candid aspects of the organisation’s work (see the attached photos for a few of my favourites!).

Finally, I was able to assist in the delivery of two workshops given during my time at the Archives. The first was for a group of students studying the Jewish history of Montreal. My work for this project included the assembly of relevant materials and the marking of any particularly notable or interesting records. It was while preparing for this workshop that I discovered the NACHES Notes, a newsletter distributed by Montreal’s Gay Jewish Group (which appears to have been run primarily by students at McGill and Concordia and will definitely the subject of further personal research). The second workshop was on the creation and movement of archives, and was very illuminating vis-à-vis the particulars of running a community-driven archival space. It also emphasised the importance of building strong relationships between archives and the public, as the archive should serve as a repository of community history and memory.

Overall, my two months at the Archives taught me innumerable skills and fostered a greater appreciation for archival work. Through my work, I’ve learned much more about archival methodology, digitisation, and the centrality of the archives to both academic spheres and the general public. With the encouragement of my supervisors at the Archives, I’ve begun looking into Masters programmes in Library and Information Studies with a particular focus on archival work and digitisation. I also wish to thank the generosity of Andrew Buntain in providing the funding that allowed me to focus my full time and energy on getting the most out of my internship.

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