Ryan Taylor An archivist's advice: Don't work in isolation


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By Ryan Taylor

How many people get up in the morning and look forward to going to work? We spend so much time complaining, and looking forward to the weekend, that you might think no one actually enjoys their job.

James Gorton is the exception. An archivist at the Archives of Ontario, he says, "I look forward to coming to work." His enthusiasm must lift the spirits of researchers he meets.

Gorton came to AO in 2001 and worked on education records for a time before moving to the reference desk after the retirement of the much-loved Sandra Guillaume. "I learned so much from her," says Gorton, echoing many genealogists who came to AO over the years.

Gorton was new to genealogy, so he spent the first month looking at records for himself and tried doing a case study.

How is it working with the researchers at AO? "There are lots of newbies and lots of experienced researchers. The experienced ones need less help, but everyone asks for help in interpreting documents. That's what we can do for them."

There are certain questions that come up regularly, and the reference background of the archivists helps them deal with those. For example, an unusual birthplace Gorton has seen is 'Scotland, N.B.'. Is this a town in New Brunswick? Actually, it can mean the country-Scotland, Northern Britain.

New genealogists are often nervous approaching the reference archivists for the first time, but Gorton tries to encourage them. "The more information they bring us, the better. Also, we want them to ask questions so their research experience will be more productive."

What about explaining the complex process of finding Ontario vital records? "It seems difficult the first few times," Gorton laughs, "But it does get easier." The explanatory leaflets put out by AO and available on their website, help to learn the multistep technique.

It is gratifying to talk to someone who looks at genealogy as a relevant, worthwhile activity. "We have a committed reference staff," Gorton observes, "They all love their jobs." The atmosphere in the AO reading room reflects this.

Gorton is glad to see that more genealogists are going outside the core groups of records to find supplementary information about their relations. "It helps put things in context," he says, "They can find out why their ancestors moved from York to Simcoe in 1870. It adds flesh to the family history, and they can even find out the how as well as the why."

He enjoys opening the doors to new resources, even for veteran researchers, not only pointing out the documents but showing how to use them. His background with the education portfolio left him with knowledge of sources about teachers which many people might not know.

"Schools and Teachers of Ontario, 1911-1963 gives the school, qualifications and address of all teachers. Anyone who had a teacher in the family would find this useful," he says. There are also superannuation (pension) records; the applications for pensions give the work history of the teacher involved. Board of Examiners records are available 1870-1940, and a finding aid is in progress, which will help fill in the background of more Ontario teachers. They tell the candidate's age, where they wrote their qualifying exams and their marks.

"As with most portfolios," Gorton muses, "You just have to look at what records are there and how they'd be useful. You can't tell until you explore them."

Does he have any advice for archival researchers? "There's a danger in reading too much into a document. Ask the archivist, 'What's your take on this?' Genealogists work in isolation, not like academics who can discuss things with their colleagues."

Next time you visit AO, say hello to James Gorton. He's interested in helping you.

Posted November 4, 2003
Column copyright © 2003 Ryan Taylor

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