The memory-keepers of Ryerson

All photos by Neha Chollangi.

It all began with the disappearance of film photography.

In 2005, major camera factories in Toronto were shutting down because photographic film was on the edge of oblivion. The digital revolution caused a dramatic drop in traditional film paper and camera sales, pushing companies like Kodak and Polaroid off the grid.

When the massive Kodak factory in Toronto was closing that year, a Ryerson image arts professor, Robert Burley, decided to do a photo essay on the emptying buildings which employed thousands at its height.

On his visit, he learned that Kodak had recently started a museum in the factory just a few year prior. It held old archives, cameras and lab books, all of which were going to be thrown away because they had nowhere to go.

Struck by the collection and unable to see it thrown away, Burley arranged for all of the museum’s artifacts to come to Ryerson University.

That was the birth of the Special Collections at Ryerson’s archives.

The fourth floor of Ryerson’s library carries the weight of centuries. The Ryerson archives and special collections is the storage room for memories — it houses historical items from rare books to Leninist propaganda. Relics of a different time sit on clean shelves, in a room that carries the scent of old books.

As for the people who run the archive itself, they are a group of eccentric and humble characters, tied together by their passion for the history of the things that they care for.   

“I guess archivists are kind of like hoarders. Except they’re a little better than hoarders because we actually want to share all of the things we collect,” said Curtis Sassur, Ryerson’s archivist.

Curtis Sassur, Ryerson’s archivist, watering his plants in his office.

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It is a chilly morning when Sassur shuffles into his office, his curly salt and pepper hair still messy from his bike ride — the 15 minutes he pedals every day from his home to work all year long, rain or shine. He changes from his brown boots into a pair of sneakers taken from the shoe rack in his office made out of an old bookshelf.

Sassur did not plan on becoming Ryerson’s first archivist. Nor did he realize working in a library would be anything but silent independent work. “You inevitably become the opposite of what you set out to do,” Sassur said. “I basically became overqualified in sitting and working quietly.”

I guess archivists are kind of like hoarders.

As the archivist, Sassur manages the archival side of the facility, which holds the unpublished records that document the running of the university, and also manages department’s staff.

But his office seemed to say his days are sparked with a lot more.

Sitting by his desk, Sassur twirls a guitar pick between his fingers. The pick reads “Punk is not dead. It’s archived!” It’s a souvenir from a recent conference that he went to at the University of California about the intersection between archival science and punk music.

Sassur describes it as a “unicorn conference” because of the oddity in bringing together the loud energy of punk music and the quiet imagery of archiving. It’s quite the matrimony.

In the same fashion, the archives and special collections department itself is odd yet somehow harmonious with the mish-mash of interesting objects and interesting people.

On the other side of Sassur’s office wall sits Alison Skyrme’s office. It’s a narrow space with a minimalistic style. She sits at her circle table, sapphire eyes glistening in the sunlight coming through her big window overlooking Gould Street.

Skyrme is the special collections librarian. While the archives are for university documents, the special collections have objects like vintage cameras and rare children’s books. Among Skyrme’s daily duties such as overseeing donations and cataloging, and she also promotes the collection through teaching classes — her favourite part of the job.

Alison Skyrme holding up a Leninist propaganda poster from the collection of Russian propaganda, which the archives acquired following the fall of the Iron Curtain.

“I think it can really solidify learning when students get to see an actual object because they’re experiencing something first hand and having a tactile experience,” said Skyrme. “It can really add a new dimension to learning.”

Skyrme sometimes likes to bring in some of Marie Curie’s things from the special collection, which includes some of her notebooks that are still radioactive.

Donations for the special collections come in on a weekly basis. Choosing what to keep is one big decision itself, but cataloging all that stays is an even bigger process.

When Olivia Wong, Ryerson’s audio-visual assistant, was an intern at the New York Public Library, her supervisor gave her a simple piece of advice: to archive something, you want to know exactly what you have, where it is and what condition it is in.

Wong’s first project when she started working at Ryerson last summer was the video collection of Joseph MacInnis, a deep sea diver. MacInnis went on deep sea explorations all around the world and documented just about everything on video. Wong was the first person with an in-depth audio-visual background to go through all 800 tapes.

“There was a lot of shark footage,” said Wong. “And old Russian nuclear submarine accidents too. MacInnis was quite the environmental advocate and a fascinating character himself.”

Wong fell in love with analog film at an early age making student films with 16mm cameras at Concordia. She loved the physical product and the look of it on screen. And she also loved sitting in the small viewing room watching MacInnis’ footage for over two months — something she didn’t even know Ryerson had.

Most people at Ryerson have no idea that there even is an archive and special collections. The calm internal bubble within the chaos of the campus is rarely popped into out of curiosity.

Alison Skyrme walks between the storage shelves of the Ryerson Archives and Special Collections. The lights are usually on just for visitors; items are mostly kept in the dark for preservation.

“I wish there were more people that took advantage of it,” said Sassur. “But for some reason it seems to require a level of bravery to push through those doors.”

“We don’t just want to have piles of things in storage that nobody ever sees. Watching people interact with these objects is what really makes us happy,” said Skyrme.

And so they continue to collect archives. Showing up day after day, shifting through boxes, blowing off dust and immortalizing old treasures. All done for one simple reason: to preserve the memories which would otherwise, inevitably, disappear like smoke.