A Mountain Research Interlude

My name is Lauren and I am addicted to the pursuit and dissemination of information. To be more specific, historical information. This is definitely one of the healthier addictions available, but like all addictions it is expensive – especially as a graduate student. Even in times of economic plenty there is not enough funding to go around and graduate students are often forced to supplement their incomes through finding other work. Sure there are scholarships and bursaries and departmental teaching/research assistantships, but there are never enough to go around forcing students to look outside academia to make some extra cash. This work can be just about anything from serving to working in call centres to selling organs on the black market. (Joking about that last one). But sometimes a student gets lucky and lands a short-term contract research position in an area and archive they know. These are golden and don’t come along all that often.
A couple of weeks ago I was offered a little contract research work by a professor in the Sprott Business School who I worked for during my public history internship. What made the offer too good to refuse was the topic and the archive – John Murray Gibbon and the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies Archive. For the non-history buffs out there, Gibbon was the general publicity agent for the Canadian Pacific Railway in the interwar period. He is well known for the folk music festivals he organized across the country but an often overlooked part of his work centred on the Rockies. His life in Canada was based out of Montreal, yet he asked to be buried in Banff – the Rockies are a pretty fine place to spend eternity.

Of course I jumped at the job offer. It gave me a really, really, good reason to spend a week away from Edmonton and in the mountains – a mountain kid can never get enough time in the mountains. Plus, the Whyte Museum Archive is my favourite archive to work in – and not just because I worked at the museum as an interpretative guide for three summers and used the archive in my masters work. The archive is small but rich. The staff is friendly, helpful, knowledgable and always seem interested in the forgotten gems researchers find. It is also an archive I know very, very well. Going back is always a treat. When it is on someone else’s behalf the stress that comes with personal research is gone which is a nice change.
The task for this week is to comb though the haystacks of the Whyte Archives, collect all the Gibbon shaped needles, and pass them along to someone else. Three days in and I’m having a blast! It is a pretty quiet time at the museum so all week it has just been me and Chic Scott – a local ski name and historian. Since he is working with a collection I’ve spent far too many hours with it has been interesting hearing his take on things and even better to know someone is using that Whyte Family Tree I mangled together back in 2005!
When it comes to Gibbon, it doesn’t take much time searching to know exactly where to find his footprints. These generally come in three forms. So the days are spent flipping through correspondence looking for paper with a slight blueish ting, the simple letterhead of the CPR publicity department, and the compact, efficient signature of JM Gibbon; or the thick paper and colourful letterhead of Trail Riders or Skyline Hikers; or occasional the trademark Canadian Pacific telegraph in blue ink on yellowish, slightly smaller paper.
There is something relaxing about this kind of contract research. It is a topic of interest but not my own so the personal involvement is gone. Knowing the archive means an added efficiency to the searching. It is also easier to avoid the distractions of unrelated documents because there is a time limit. Well there was the “Summons to Defence” from 1912 and the letter of resignation as Justice of the Peace from the 1940s in the Phil Moore papers that was too much to overlook – apparently you could be charged with poaching and still get to be a JP back in the day! But I digress, again.
Researching is one of the most rewarding aspects of academic work. You go into an archive or library and get to dig around, following trails to see where they might lead. It is easy to get caught up in and sometimes hard to know when to stop. You can research forever and still not have found all the interesting remnants of the past stashed away. Research is what drives everything else historians do. Without research there are not articles or books or lectures. Each person who looks at a document looks at it with different eyes, creating a different interpretation and fostering discussion. Once all the needles are extracted from the haystacks, they becomes a giant puzzle with so many possible outcomes it boggles the mind. When the puzzle is solves and the results written you get to go back to the start and do it all over again because there are always more stories to tell. The primary task of the historian is to tell stories in all the mediums available to us and the archive – in all its variations – is where those stories wait to be told.
All this time spent with Gibbon and the Trail Riders and Skyline Trail Hikers of the Canadian Rockies has me thinking about the next tale of the mountain past I want to tell. This particular story is about the role of locals and local connections in CPR publicity campaigns. It is one that builds nicely off the first chapter of my masters work actually. However, it is a story that has to wait – comps and a dissertation about universities and environmentalism come first! But, it is nice to know that when I’m ready to tell another mountain story I know where to find the information I need and most of the research will already be done. When the time comes, I will probably still find a reason to go back to the Whyte Archives because after a good day of researching nothing beats sitting on a patio that looks onto the Three Sisters, enjoying nachos and drinks with other mountain kids and laughing as the dropping temperature that comes with a setting sun chases others indoors – here snow does not mean the patio is closed.
Happy researching!


About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
This entry was posted in Opinion, Research and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Mountain Research Interlude

  1. Alan MacEachern says:

    Dear Lauren:
    Loved your “A Mountain Research Interlude” post – reminded me of how much I like the Whyte (& research, full stop). Thanks for sharing it with NiCHErs.
    Take care,

  2. Nice essay on the joys of archival research! Keep up the good blogging!

  3. Thanks for the comments! There will be something new up soon about “Place and Placelessness” the unworkshop the NiCHE New Scholars organized. So far we’ve crossed multiple oceans without leaving home/office!

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