By Freyja Catton
From February to April of this year, I was one of two interns sponsored by TD Bank at the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives (NGC). This was my dream job, as I have a background in Studio Art (BFA, University of Lethbridge, 2012) and am a graduate student of Library and Information Studies (MLIS, University of Alberta, 2021). In February, I took a three-month leave from my day job in Edmonton, Alberta, and flew out to Ottawa, Ontario. February 3 was my first day at the NGC. It was bright, sunny, and chilly outside. I walked over the hill and was greeted by Maman, the giant imposing spider sculpture outside the front entrance of the NGC. I couldn’t wait for this to feel normal- and to see Maman every day!
My supervisor showed me my desk and where to go for work breaks (I could “just go in the Gallery” if I wanted!). My project the first week was to refer to a spreadsheet with exhibition catalog numbers and label all the exhibition records from 2005-2020. This was good preparation for our main project which would start the following week. It sounds mundane, but I had a blast getting to peek at all the ephemera and recognizing names I knew from school or from my connections in the Alberta art community!
The other intern arrived on Monday and we were introduced to our main project: creating records for exhibitions from 2005-2020 in the NGC Library Catalogue. The NGC Archives separates their records into types: exhibition records, artist records, posters, ephemera, photos, and correspondence. Our task was to update the catalogue with 15 years’ worth of art exhibitions, so that researchers could look in the library catalogue and see past exhibitions of the NGC, as well as what documentation existed for each exhibition.
Neither the other intern nor I had worked with cataloguing before, though the concepts were familiar. The cataloguer showed us how to create records according to the NGC Library standards. We learned the basics of the integrated library system Millennium, MARC21 coding, and how to find subject headings and name authorities in English and in French. The exhibition numbers came from the spreadsheet I used my first week, and we found information about the exhibitions from the NGC website and from the exhibition records. We split the work by odd and even numbered exhibitions, and worked at a steady pace to get a skeleton entry into the catalogue for each exhibition with whatever information we could find. Once we had a record for each exhibition, we added descriptions of materials to the record, which are stored separately by medium. The specific tasks included: going through unprocessed exhibition clippings, invitations, posters, and digital photos, labelling and organizing these, and adding descriptions to the record. We also updated the call numbers for archival exhibition catalogues.
As we worked on the project, other projects broke up the monotony: checking the Alex Colville drawing fonds to ensure all items were in order and accounted for, going through copies of paper finding aids from other institutions (circa 1980s-1990s), and checking online to see if those aids had been digitized onto the institution’s website. I had two archival description projects at item level. The first description project was describing items in the Art Metropole mail art collection. For the second project, I described artist ephemera from an art historian donor for appraisal. Due to the difficulty of generalizing that collection, I went through the ephemera and described them at the item level and put them into folders for storage. Once they were described in original order, I reorganized the folders alphabetically by artist and created a new file list to reflect the alphabetical order.
The library assistant showed us how to make housing for items in the library and how to display books with book pillows and mounts. I assisted staff with other housekeeping tasks when they needed a hand, such as moving rare books to create room for new ones, moving files for processing, rehousing slides, checking photograph fonds, clearing paper jams in the photocopier, and adding to clipping folders.
I was able to ask lots of questions and to observe archive tours in the space and volunteer work. As the work went on, I found I was developing a specialty within a specialty: my experience as a practicing artist meant I was good at contemporary art documentation. I knew how things were made which made it easier to describe them, and I knew who a lot of the practicing artists were (I kept stopping to show off and say “I’ve met them! I’ve seen this show!”). Considering that most of the staff came from the art history field, I felt I was able to fill in a knowledge gap that otherwise existed in the NGC’s Library and Archives.
We also had the opportunity to visit other sites, which at the time was very hectic but in hindsight I am very grateful for. On February 26, we went on a tour at the Library and Archives of Canada Preservation Centre in Gatineau. We learned about their approach to risk management, building/facility design, and storage. I had taken both records management and archives management courses, and it was SO cool to see my readings in practice and observe what the ideal preservation centre looked like and how it was run.
On February 28, we went to Montréal for the day. We wandered around the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) before our scheduled tours, and then I had a private tour in English to learn about contemporary art documentation at Artexte! Artexte is a documentation centre/archives for contemporary Canadian art. Artexte has open stacks and devised their own classification system. It was fascinating comparing their system to the organization system of the NGC’s Library and Archives. It was a whirlwind trip and it took me a few days to wind down after that!
COVID-19 hit at the halfway point of the internship. On March 16, the Gallery shut down and asked everyone to work remotely from home. We were unable to describe physical items, but we were able to focus on digital holdings and records. We finished updating exhibition records by adding descriptions of digital photos, and we updated the call numbers of archival copies of exhibition catalogues in the library catalogue. We edited and created Wikipedia articles for the Gallery, assisted in and partook in four Edit-A-Thons (the first one was in person in February, the rest remote). Outside of the internship I was taking a graduate course on Archive Administration, and for my final paper I wrote about my internship and volunteer experiences to recommend possible best practices for preserving art exhibition documentation in artist run centres.
After a couple weeks of working in isolation, the other intern and I got spooked by the impending travel bans. We talked with our supervisor and arranged to leave Ottawa early. Everyone seemed on edge and my flights got rescheduled three times. I arrived home in Edmonton on April 8, two weeks before the end of my internship, with enough time to self-isolate before my leave of absence was up.
After relocating, we continued to work remotely. We worked to update artist information for the Artists in Canada database, partook in the remaining Edit-A-Thons, and we worked on a new big project: researching digital repositories, methods of storage, and digital repositories for a future digital archive for the NGC Library and Archives. We emailed each other back and forth notes and questions about the software, and then sent summaries and pros/cons of each product to our supervisor. On April 24, my internship concluded. I sent out an email on my second-to last day to thank everyone for giving me such an amazing opportunity to work with people I had so much in common with.
And that was it! I went in wondering what the heck I was doing, and I came out wondering what the heck happened. Despite the emotional whiplash of dream jobs and pandemics, I masked up and went back to work at my regular job the following Monday.
While it was unfortunate that our internship was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, I am very grateful for my time spent at the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives. I loved my work and felt so supported! It was an amazing opportunity for me to network and get to know other professionals in the field who love their job, and to have a formal hands-on experience of how archives and art libraries work. I’m so grateful for the chance to develop my expertise in art archives and contemporary art documentation. I hope I will be able to do similar work someday in the future.
Though, I hope next time we won’t be disrupted by another pandemic!
Freyja Catton is a visual artist, author, emerging art information professional, and MLIS graduate student at the University of Alberta. They live in Treaty 7 territory in Canada with their long-term partner and two cats. More of their work can be found on their website at www.thewordeater.com.
Note: Experiences, thoughts, and feelings shared on the ArLiSNAP blog are solely those of the featured author(s) and interviewees and do not represent the views of any employer.