Archives of Our Lives
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Archives of Our Lives

A Rambler dealership at the corner of Islington Avenue and Bloor Street West, August 1961. In 1965, the dealership was demolished to make way for Islington subway station. Etobicoke: Modern Suburb, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1464, File 22, Item 7.

With hundreds of thousands of historic documents and more than 1.2 million photos dating from 1856, the Toronto Archives are a great way to connect with Toronto’s past. But for those of us who don’t want to make the trek to Dupont station, let alone leave our seats, the Archives’ online resources and virtual exhibits offer the next best thing. “People think of archives and libraries as inaccessible ivory towers,” explained Archives Supervisor Charmaine Lindsay. “So, making the city’s history more personal is an important goal of this. Not everyone can come into the Archives; online exhibits tend to be less academic than paper ones, and they’re more accessible.”

City Hall under construction, July 22, 1963. A Step Forward in Time: Toronto’s New City Hall, City of Toronto Archives, SC 268, Item 380.

The Archives started making web exhibits sometime between 1995 and 1997 (the staff at the Archives aren’t sure). The first exhibit, “Pipe Dreams”, a history of Toronto’s water and sewage infrastructure, was created by the old Metro Archives. At the time, the City didn’t have a website, so the exhibit was initially hosted on an independent site. Since then, the staff at the Archives has tried to develop at least one major exhibit a year. But success has often depended on their budget, workload, and the availability of technical skills. Like the newest online exhibit on suburban Etobicoke, most of the Archives’ virtual exhibits are based on physical exhibits, but some, like the exhibit commemorating City Hall’s fortieth anniversary, are also designed to publicize events or mark special occasions.

Paper scraps from V-E Day celebrations, May 7, 1945. V-E Day and V-J Day: The End of World War II in Toronto, 1945, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 96215.

The historic images used in the exhibits come from a variety of sources, including government records, the records of the Official City Photographer, Parks and Recreation, and private collections that have been donated to the Archives. The Archives also work with the City’s historic museums, the Toronto Public Library, and the Ontario Archives to collect and share resources. Sometimes mandates overlap, but according to Lindsay, relations are usually pretty genial. The Archives’ goal is to place donated or acquired material where it needs to be. If something is donated that isn’t part of its mandate, the Archives try to find the proper place for it. “We’re not that interested in images of Sudbury,” said Lindsay. “The taxpayers of Toronto need to know that their taxes are going to process City of Toronto records.”
Since its humble beginnings, more than a dozen unique exhibits have been created on topics including the earliest photos of Toronto, the end of the Second World War, and the Great Toronto Fire of 1904. The Archives’ next virtual exhibit will be based on a physical exhibit of Toronto’s architecture called “A Work in Progress.”