Allison Mills became Bryn Mawr's second full-time archivist this summer after working as a researcher at the University of British Columbia's Dialogue Centre. In the below Q&A, Allison talks about her previous work, what she'll be doing at Bryn Mawr, working with students, and her recently released children's novel The Ghost Collector.
Tell us about the work you did at UBC's Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.
Prior to coming to Bryn Mawr College, I worked as a researcher at the Dialogue Centre. The Centre is a small institution, but it does a lot of heavy lifting. It was established to continue the work started by Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was part of a larger settlement agreement—the largest in Canadian history, actually—between survivors of Canada's residential school system and the government of Canada, as well as several church organizations. For more than 100 years, Canada and those churches ran a system of schools that removed Indigenous children from their families, homes, languages, and lands.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were sent to these schools—in my family, almost everyone in my grandfather’s generation went to residential school. Schools were generally underfunded and overcrowded. It’s important to emphasize that the schools weren’t aimed at educating kids—their purpose was extinguishing Indigenous cultures and, through assimilation, causing Indigenous peoples to cease to exist. The system’s legacy is still very much present on both the societal level and at the personal and familial level.
I worked on multiple teams at the Centre, doing research and writing record descriptions and finding aids as part of the curatorial team, and working with the metadata team to help construct the unique metadata schema and subject thesaurus for the Centre’s collection management system—the system that allows users to access the Centre’s digital collections. The Centre aggregates records from archival institutions—government records, records from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, church organization records, etc.—so the majority of my time was spent doing research within those records to try and make them more accessible, and to answer any reference questions we received. We only had three full-time employees at the Centre when I started there, so I got to wear a lot of hats!
What are some of the most immediate projects you'll be working on?
One of the first big projects I’m working on is revamping the College’s Records Management Policy, especially since many of the College’s records are now electronic. Digital files are more vulnerable to degradation than physical records. The College Archives has photographs from when Bryn Mawr College was first founded, for example—they’ve been around for more than 130 years, but they’re still in pretty good shape. Depending on the format it was stored in, we might not be able to open a digital photograph from five years ago, or if the file was compressed to make the bytes it took up smaller, it might be so small and pixelated that it’s virtually unusable by our standards today. Thinking about how and where and what format they’re being stored in early on is important if we want to make sure digital records are accessible in the future.
Tied to that, I’m part of the Tri-Co team—led by Natalie Shilstut, the Digital Collections and Metadata Librarian here at Bryn Mawr—that is working on migrating our digital library assets to a new system, called Islandora, that will help ensure they’re preserved and accessible now and in the future. Natalie and I are also running Personal Digital Archiving workshops for students—we had our first workshop in October and are in the midst of planning more for the spring semester.
What sort of opportunities are there for students to work with you or the College's archives?
Special Collections hires students to staff the reading room, undertake research projects, and to help process archival and manuscript collections. If students are interested in doing any research about the history of Bryn Mawr College or former students, I’m the person to get in touch with. I started in July, so I’m still new enough to remember how daunting navigating our finding aids and figuring out where to start can be. I am more than happy to help students figure out where to start for their projects—just reach out and let me know what you’re interested in!
In addition to being an archivist, you're also an author. What can you tell me about your new book?
The Ghost Collector is a children’s novel from Annick Press. It’s a story about grief and loss, but one that I don’t think gets too dark or scary for kids. The book follows Shelly, a Cree girl who has a close relationship with death and ghosts. Recently passed people, pets, and a boy who lives in the local graveyard and lends her tapes by The Cure are all part of spirit world women in her family have a connection to. Shelly and her grandmother help lost souls transition to the next world by catching them in their hair. But when Shelly’s mom dies, her relationship to ghosts—and death—changes. Instead of helping spirits move on, she starts breaking the rules and bringing them home as she searches for her mother’s ghost.
I started writing it while I was working with records documenting Indigenous trauma and damage to family connections at the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. The job made me think a lot about how important the connections between people are—especially the intergenerational connections. I also grew up hearing stories from my mom and grandfather about my great-grandma being called on by the RCMP to help find bodies in Chapleau, where my family’s from, and those two things combined to produce the short story that The Ghost Collector is based on. This is my first novel and I’m really excited to have it out in the world!
This is your first time living and working in the U.S. Has anything surprised you or is there anything you've had to adjust to?
The adjustment has been surprisingly smooth! Honestly, the hardest part has been the little things—like using different money and the lack of metric system here. We don’t have pennies in Canada anymore and I keep forgetting that dollar bills are a thing and thinking I have more cash on me than I actually do. Wrapping my head around the way Fahrenheit works has been tricky too. I’ve just gotten the hang of the hot temperatures and now everything has cooled down and gotten confusing again—45° Celsius is the equivalent of 113° Fahrenheit so when I hear “It’s forty-five degrees out today!” I picture something very different.