Volume 23 Number 3


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Apollonia Steele

Jean Tener once described herself as my "oldest" friend and I had to disagree with her. It was a bit like our in joke discussion about reproduction furniture. While she is not my oldest friend chronologically speaking, she is indeed my longest standing friend in Alberta. And everything good and important that I learned about archives and archivists I learned from Jean: work together for the greater good, share - ideas, practices, accomplishments-, wash your hands and don't lean on the archival documents while you are trying to demonstrate conservation methods. So it was a real pleasure to strike up an e-mail conversation even though we live in close proximity.

Carmen Carroll, John Bovey and Jean Tener at the International Congress of Archives in Paris, 1988
Carmen Carroll, John Bovey and Jean Tener at the
International Congress of Archives in Paris, 1988

AS: What led you to becoming an archivist?

JT: Actually I fell into archives backwards. In 1974 I was hired in a clerk-typist position in Special Collections at the University of Calgary Library probably because of whom I knew! I knew you, of course, through the English Department where both our husbands worked, and I knew Ernie Ingles, who was Head of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections (now he's Associate Vice President, Learning Services at the University of Alberta), as a fellow graduate student in the History Department where we were both doing MA's.

I almost wasn't hired on the grounds that I was over-qualified, but I was able to convince them that I had been trained as an executive secretary in the U.K. and had earned my living as such for nearly ten years, and nothing in an office would surprise me. I also wasn't going to be off as soon as some higher calling opportunity hove into view. But it quickly became apparent that willing hands were needed on the growing manuscript collection.

I was turned loose on the Anglican Archives, a strange situation for an irreligious agnostic to find herself in. But God'll get ya. In December I developed a serious allergic reaction which was finally traced to metal fragments becoming airborne from rusted paper clips as I removed them from the documents. The remedy was a medication not to be taken with alcohol. So I put off taking it till after Christmas, which may not be a religious celebration with me, but is a celebration, nonetheless.

The stories emerging from old letters of life in Alberta for rural clergy soon got me hooked. And there began a long journey into archival theory and practice pulling myself up by my bootstraps, as Jenkinson and Schellenberg became my light reading.

AS: What were the opportunities for training in the archival profession at that time?

JT: This was before university graduate programmes in Canada. Apart from private reading, and the always available mentorship of more experienced colleagues, there were other educational opportunities, however. The University of Calgary was very supportive, and I went off to Ottawa for two three-week sessions held at the then Public Archives of Canada, and the University of Ottawa. It was an eye-opener in more ways than one.

I had never been away from the family for so long, and it was interesting to hear their comments: "How does the washing machine work, Mom?"; "Doesn't dinner just appear?"; "When are you coming home?"

In Ottawa I opted for a small hotel rather than the Y, a sensible choice I discovered. Things looked up when two B. C. archivists and I went looking for and found a beer outlet. Unfortunately, B. C. was parsimonious towards its staff, and we/they decided we could walk back to the hotel rather than taking a taxi. I unfortunately had chosen a 24-pack. I could have lightened the load, but didn't think I could make much of an impression. By the time I arrived at the hotel, I was almost ready to sign the pledge. My arms ached for half the remaining course time.

I was overwhelmed by the Records Management Department of the federal government which was far removed from any volume I was familiar with. Other interesting sessions included a well-established archivist lecturing us on conservation while leaning on the documents on the desk before him, and advising us on acquisition which seemed derived from practices of 18th century pirates.

A memorable presentation was enhanced by a not sufficiently sotto voce comment by the lecturer that we must be the dullest class ever. But perhaps the most memorable was the U of Ottawa prof who announced that as archivists we must not be seduced by mere fashion in acquisition, but lead the world by acquiring what was truly valuable. Since his discipline (and mine) - history - had not notably escaped this particular trap, I couldn't help wondering how my translation from historian to archivist was supposed to enable me to do this. His solution, as I recall, appeared to be -- keep everything!

Other training available was a week long course in description at the University of Washington conducted by Richard Berner, and, of course, there were local and national workshops on various aspects of archival practice.

AS: At the 1991 ASA annual conference you were made an honorary member of the Society for the offices you held nationally and provincially, for the pivotal roles you played in a number of major ASA initiatives such as lottery funding applications and the institution of an Outreach Archivist position. How do you see some of your contributions to the Alberta and the Canadian archival community?

JT: The honorary membership was a tremendous honour, and a tremendous surprise. As those of the Alberta community who were there will remember I was so stunned I was at a loss for words. Bryan Corbett will gladly confirm that this was a unique occurrence. In our long association, I don't think that he ever found me speechless, but no doubt thought it was condition devoutly to be wished for on more than one occasion.

And yoicks! I don't remember making contributions. I'm a good follower, but not much of a leader. When I look over association and council positions I held here in Alberta and nationally, I'm astonished, and can only think recruits must have been thin on the ground.

I wasn't very good at positions of responsibility either. At one AGM I blithely announced a motion passed. Terry Eastwood came up afterwards and told me I had not actually put the question! Fortunately no one complained. Likewise, as Treasurer of ACA I spent hours, days, double checking the numbers and went to the auditor puffed up with pride that they balanced. He gave me a quick grin, and said, "Any crook can make the books balance."

I attended a conference in Edmonton in 1975 which I believe was the first meeting of the Association of Canadian Archivists after it had split off from the Canadian Historical Association under the impetus of experienced archivists with real leadership, too numerous to mention, many of whom became colleagues and good friends. But the conference was not a very auspicious beginning for me in the profession. It was pointed out to me in the ladies washroom at this meeting that I could not be a "real" archivist because I worked in a library. Of course, I wasn't a "real" librarian either. I suffered for years under the impression that I might be a phantom since I wasn't a "real" Canadian either, merely having consciously chosen the country as my own, rather than arriving as an accident of birth, and by this time I had long since ceased to be a "real" Brit.

AS: We have shared some excellent adventures going to conferences such as the International Congress of Archives in Paris and the Society of American Archivists in Austin, and I know you had a great adventure in Detroit. Would you share some of those stories?

JT: It was a real pleasure to attend provincial, national and international conferences. You'll recall that we arrived in Paris a day early for the ICA meeting, and, me in new shoes, spent it walking the Left and Right Bank of the Seine for six hours. When we regained consciousness, I spent most of the conference wearing funny little net foot coverings which were the only things I could get on my bloodied and blistered feet. Mercifully we were in the conference hotel so I didn't have to go outside, and since it was August and hot, no one seemed to notice my weird shoes. Fortunately, by the time we went to the grand banquet at Versailles I was able to struggle into more elegant footwear.

I seem jinxed by shoes. At an ACA very formal reception in Halifax where we were introduced individually to the guest of honour by a very pukka aide de camp, I looked down to discover I was wearing odd shoes: one black, one blue. As we left the reception, a wit remarked that I had another pair just the same at the hotel.

Do you remember how we arrived at the SAA conference in Austin? We both had similar bright blue coats on. Jean Dryden thought we looked like members of the Victorian Order of Nurses. That didn't stop us from watching with fascination the Halloween parade in downtown Austin were the state troopers were removing guns and ammunition from participants!

In Detroit I learned that your sins will find you out. The conference, of course, was in Windsor and I had promised my nervous husband that I would not visit Detroit. Nonetheless I went with a colleague, Brian Owens, by taxi to see a famous art gallery. At the U.S. border, where in the taxi I was nose high to a gun the official was wearing, I presented my driving licence. Unfortunately, I also pulled out a xerox of my Canadian passport (the original was in Edmonton for a visa to the ICA meeting). The next thing we heard was "It's a federal offence to present a xerox." My explanations fell on deaf ears. I was only travelling with it because I wanted to be sure that with my Brit accent I could re-enter Canada as a citizen. It was a federal offence. Could I have it back? No, it was a federal .... I was finally allowed to copy the ID number while the official held it in a tight grasp. We did get to the art gallery, through blocks and block of ruined Detroit. Brian feared that he was going to have to call my husband to explain that I was in a Detroit jail on federal charges. "You couldn't even commit a state offence, Jean. It had to be federal!"

AS: What were some of the highlights from your time at the University of Calgary?

JT: Working on the literary archives was an amazing experience which included meeting Canadian authors one worshipped from afar and never expected to meet. It also had its hazards.

I went down to the Palliser Hotel to pick up one visiting author, was directed to a room number, and when I went to the floor indicated I couldn't find it. I began to feel that I was in a movie I'd seen years before set at the time of the big Paris exhibition when a visitor with a highly infectious disease was sequestered in a hotel room by the staff plastering over the door. I went around the floor a couple of times before I solved the problem. I was not in a movie, the room did exist, just not where I expected it to be.

Researchers were a challenge. I managed to describe an established scholar, within her hearing, as a student. Like Queen Victoria, she was not amused while I tried to burble my way out of the situation. I also accused a noted novelist of being a literary romantic. He felt strongly he was a realist. Ah, that I had more often been left without words!

Administrators also presented challenges. Late one afternoon a visitor from the British Council was brought to Special Collections for a tour. He announced that the secret to Alice Munro's stories was to be found in the penultimate paragraph and I was asked to produce an example stat. Not only did words disappear, any knowledge I had of the Munro papers vanished in a flash.

AS: Yes, Virginia, to paraphrase a famous saying, there is life after ARCHIVES! Jean, you have been retired for 12 years now. What is life after retirement?

JT: Oh, there's certainly life after retirement, and though I shouldn't confess it, it can be more enticing than archives. We've done an enormous amount of travelling, in Canada and abroad. Courtesy of son Colin we have visited Barbados, Paris and Venice. We did our first cruise - the Western Mediterranean visiting Pisa, Genoa, Villefranche, Barcelona and other places, capped by a week in Florence and Rome. We have paid numerous visits to the U.K. including a six month stay during which we went to 28 theatrical productions. And you were kind enough to accompany us in 2002 when we toured London, Canterbury, Oxford, Lincoln, Stratford, Warwick Castle, Coventry, and Salisbury, where we had a fabulous drive to Stonehenge and Avebury. We also try to make annual visits to Stratford, Ontario. In 2003 we saw 6 plays in 4 days, then went on to Stratford, U.K., where we saw 2 more.

We've seen lots of family and our attraction in Calgary, courtesy of daughter Janice and her husband James, is granddaughter Taylor. We are quite besotted grandparents, and ain't it fun? She's a delight and very helpful with hi tech. When she was 2, I told her that I couldn't switch on the computer for her (a ruse, since I didn't want her wiping out Daddy's files). She responded with a tone of exasperation, "You just click, grandma. You click twice!" She's now in Grade 1 French immersion and regularly corrects our deplorable accents.

At home we attend three theatre companies, the opera, the symphony and lectures at the Emeritus Association on campus, and also spend far too much time reading ... in my case, all the mysteries I can get my hands on. In Robert's, far more weighty tomes ... but then he has no excuse. He was a prof. To counteract the inactivity I've started yoga.

Does retirement sound tempting? Do I hear the stampede of archival feet heading for the door?

AS: Well, while my feet may not be stampeding for the door, I am so pleased that you and Robert are planning another Venice adventure in 2004 which will include me. Thanks so much, Jean, you have brought back some wonderful memories.

Apollonia Steele and Jean Tener
Apollonia Steele and Jean Tener