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York University Libraries Archives: Recording and preserving cultural heritage

York University Libraries is well known for its community engaged archives and our community outreach partnerships. The importance of preserving community heritage and providing avenues for the community to tell its story is the cornerstone of our endeavours. Much of this activity is centered upon empowering the community with new skills to build accessible repositories of knowledge with our help.

Our work through the archives at YUL aligns directly with UNSDG Target 11.4 which aims to strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage, and lies at the heart of our community collaborations.

Listed below are highlighted activities from  2019-2023.

Kenneth Shah Fonds

Projected Completed: 2023

Kenneth Shah is a founding member of Caribana and the Caribbean Cultural Committee and was involved for more than thirty years with the festival celebrating Black emancipation from slavery.

Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Shah moved to Canada in 1965 to pursue a career in petroleum engineering. He eventually left this profession to focus on carnival arts, costume design and production, taking a leadership role in programming from the first festival held in 1967 until his death in 2002. Kenneth Shah’s archives were initially deposited with the Harriet Tubman Institute shortly after his death and were transferred to the Libraries in 2019. In 2020, the work to rehouse and describe almost four metres of textual records, 4,000 photographs, 51 sound and moving image recordings began but was paused during the pandemic. This project has now been completed by archivist Emma Thomas.

The finding aid can be found here.

Several of the parade photographs taken between 1969 and 1976 were digitized by the Harriet Tubman Institute as part of an Academic Innovation Fund pilot project. They can be found in the York University Digital Library at here.

Regent Park Film Festival - Home Made Visible Project

Preserves and celebrates the important history and self-representation of BIPOC communities in Canada captured through home movies. 

Participants could digitize up to five media carriers, and in exchange, they were asked to donate a minimum of five minutes of footage. This flexible arrangement suited issues around privacy and protected intimate family moments with participants, such as Trinh Nha Truong who was happy to donate the entirety of her VHS cassette tape because “she wanted to show other Canadians that ‘our people live in Canada too,’" and others who chose to “to contribute a clip that didn’t centre people but a place” to protect the family’s right to privacy. HMV interviewed donors about the clips and collaboratively wrote descriptions which empowered and compounded the emphasis of self-representation in the archives.

CTASC worked with 39 donors from BIPOC families across Canada to acquire 1.11 TB of home movies (341 video clips) and 13 recordings of donor interviews, along with 8 reels of film (Super 8mm), 20 video cassettes (VHS, VHS-C, Video8). Acquisitions were completed in 2019, digital files were added to the York University Digital Library, and work continued through 2020 to create descriptive metadata in collaboration with the donors and to negotiate terms of access and use. 

Archival description available online 

Selected clips available for streaming on the project website 

RPFF originated as a YorkU Bachelor of Ed assignment (yfile) and Artistic Director Ananya Ohri graduated from YorkU with an MA in Cinema and Media Studies 

Funded by the Canada Council for the Arts' New Chapter program ($375,000) 

Logo for Jane Finch Community Research Partnership

Jane Finch Community Research Partnership

The Jane-Finch community has been historically been characterized unfairly by the media and in research outputs as one of the most disadvantaged areas in Toronto. York University Libraries began working collaboratively with community leaders of the Jane-Finch Community in 2019 to assist the community in taking control of the narrative by developing an open access research database which will be community managed to preserve and provide access to research data, scholarship and studies relating to the neighbourhood.  Focused on recruiting, training, and fairly compensating community youth on research protocols, data management and other skills useful for community engaged research, the Libraries are fostering local community expertise to support advocacy and community development.  

More information can be found here: 

The project was awarded a SSHRC Connection Grant in 2019 on “Ethical, Accessible Research Data Management for the Jane Finch Community” with the Libraries as a co-PI. Work began in 2019 to compile research pertaining to the community, and continued over 2020. Copyright clearance work and uploading to the digital collection began in 2021 and is ongoing.

Logo for Ojibwe Cultural Foundation

Ojibwe Cultural Foundation collaborative project

This collaborative research project will result in a preservation repository with flexible online discovery that supports citizen engagement with over 2000 archival audiovisual recordings previously digitized by the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation (OCF) from their archives. Working collaboratively with York University Libraries and the History of Indigenous Peoples (HIP) Network, we will build a preservation repository system that facilitates scholarly and community access while respecting cultural protocols and ensuring the institutional autonomy of the OCF. We will develop modes of access for communities served by the OCF, as well as artists, scholars, and students in a manner that respects Anishinaabe cultural protocols. Building this sustainable digital preservation infrastructure will facilitate community access and aid local arts programming, cultural events, language programs in Anishinaabemowin, and knowledge preservation and stewardship. This work continues through 2022 due to disruption and delays in the project caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic. 

Funded by the Canada Council for the Arts Public Access to the Arts and Citizen Engagement ($250,000) 

Image of man giving a speech in front of a seated audience

City Builders

Project completed: 2020

Building upon our successful partnership with the Portuguese Canadian History Project, the Libraries partnered with Gilberto Fernandes to hire research assistants to help digitize thousands of historical photographs from the Toronto Telegram Newspaper, which seeded the visual content used to develop a documentary series for LiUNA Local 183. City Builders includes original oral history interviews as well as historical film footage and photographic sources to tell the story of the immigrant construction workers who contributed to the development of Postwar Toronto. Dr. Gilberto Fernandes was the lead on this project but with his generosity and the hard work of students we were able to digitize and make available thousands of previously unseen photographic images of Toronto’s labour history. The loading of approximately 3,200 photographs from CTASC’s Toronto Telegram fonds into the York University Digital Library was completed in 2019, and student assistants worked on enhancing the metadata of many of these images in 2020 to make them more discoverable. 

Decorative image of streetscape

Egypt Migrations

This initiative, originally known as The Coptic Canadian History Project (CCHP), is a not-for-profit public history and community outreach organization that intends to bridge the gap between public archives, immigrant communities, and academic scholars. It was started in 2016 by Michael Akladios, a doctoral candidate with York’s History Department. The project aims to identify, archive, digitize, preserve, and democratize access to source materials that reflect the knowledge, collective memory, and experiences of Egypt’s population, immigrants, and their descendants. Acquisitions include donations textual documents, photographs, and printed material to the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections in 2019. 

Picture collage from the Portuguese Canadian History Project

Portuguese Canadian History Project

The Portuguese Canadian History Project is a non-profit community outreach organization that aims to democratize and preserve the collective memory and historical knowledge of Portuguese immigrants and their descendants in Canada. Incorporated in 2008, Dr. Gilberto Fernandez and Dr. Susana Miranda founded the project while graduate students with York’s Department of History who were unable to find documents in public archives that supported their research. They were later joined by Dr. Raphael Costa and Dr. Emanuel da Silva.

Archival donations include the fonds of David Higgs, Domingos Marques, Felipe Gomes, Ilda Januário, Portuguese Canadian Democratic Association, Portuguese Interagency Network, Wenona Giles, and more.

Recent community outreach partnerships with our PCHP coordinators include:

Presenting at community conferences and street festivals (we recently presented on the tenth anniversary of the project at Expressions of Lusofonia | Expressões da Lusofonia in 2018), walking tours of Kensington Market and Little Portugal, travelling exhibits that were brought to local museums in Strathroy, Ontario, as well as local high schools where Portuguese language classes are held.

Logo for Greek Canadian History Project

Greek Canadian History Project

The GCHP was inspired by the experience of the Portuguese Canadian History Project. It is an initiative committed to identifying, acquiring, digitizing, preserving, and providing access to primary source materials that reflect the experiences of Canada’s Greek immigrants and their descendants. The Project’s stewards are Dr. Athanasios (Sakis) Gekas, HHF Chair in Modern Greek History at York University, and Dr. Christopher Grafos, a graduate of York’s Department of History. The Project was renamed The Hellenic Heritage Foundation Greek Canadian Archives in 2021 to acknowledge the generous support of the HHF and the Greek-Canadian community in funding this important work. 

Archival donations include George Papadatos and more.

Past project community events that we have contributed to include: screening a film of the last concert held at the Trojan Horse Cafe in 1974 for the community on the Danforth, public exhibits at Toronto city hall and at community events, and walking tours of Danforth Avenue. 

Italian Canadian Archives Project 

Although not based at York, YUL has partnered with this project by accepting several donations brought to our attention by members of its board including the late Professor Gabriele Scardellato, who held the Mariano A. Elia Chair in Italian-Canadian Studies at York. Examples of these donations include the Luigi Nasato fonds (the papers of an Italian-born mosaic artist) and the Angelo Principe collection (Italian-Canadian newspapers). Selections from the Principe collection were digitized in 2020 through a project curated by Dr. Matteo Brera that was a collaboration involving the Libraries, the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, and OurDigitalWorld with the generous support of The Zorzi Family Italian Canadian Archival Fund (

Wikimedia Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Surfacing Knowledge, Building Relationships: Indigenous Communities, ARL and Canadian Libraries 

The purpose of the project was to advance a framework of deliverables by using a case study approach to model community collaboration in the creation of structured data (linked open data or LOD) for archival and special collection materials related to Indigenous (First Nations, Inuit, Métis) communities in North America. 

This led to a pilot project launched in 2018 which focused on generating Wikidata on Indigenous artists and performers who participated at the Mariposa Folk Festival during the 1970s; local and international presentations by Allison-Cassin on project, wikidata and linked data; hiring of a research assistant. 

This project culminated in a two day gathering organized and hosted jointly by York University Libraries and Ryerson University Libraries in June 2018 “In Our Own Words: Decolonising Description in the Library and Archival Community.”