By: Dianne Davis
Ethan Rosenberg is a Masters of Information Science student at the University of Toronto. As part of his degree, he has been processing a donation made in 2013 to The ArQuives. Ethan is pursuing a double concentration in library information science and archives record management and will graduate this spring. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity).
Can you tell me a bit about the project that you have been working on for the ArQuives?
I am working on the archives of Murray Stewart Wilson, an out gay psychiatrist who lived in Toronto. He was born in 1924 and died in his eighties in 2010. His trusted friend, the custodian of the journals, donated the collection to The ArQuives in 2013.
I was initially intimidated by the thought of dealing with this collection, as it was my first archive experience. However, as soon as I opened one of his journals, he became a person. The materials were so compelling that I lost my fear about it. He had a very rich complex life, full of friends, work and travel.
What is involved in processing a collection?
There are rules for archival description that you need to follow. I would skim the journals and if I found that the current descriptions were sparse I would go through the material and see what aspects of it should be described in more detail. For example, if Murray mentioned a lover, or a friend with AIDS, I would add that detail, elaborating on the materials. Those descriptions then go into something called a ‘finding aid’ which ultimately contains a date range, description and file number that can be published online for all to see.
What makes up Murray Wilson’s personal archives?
The focus of the collection is 19 hand-written journals. Murray dated each entry. He started the journals in the 1950s but wrote in the 60s and 70s a great deal as well. However, the entries go all the way up to 2009, shortly before Murray’s death.
You can see his tone changing over time. In his 20s and 30s, he is really confident, but he becomes more cynical and serious in middle age. In his final days, he seems more content and accepting. You wonder if he was aware of how his tone changed.
He documented his life, lovers, and friends and anyone who was pissing him off. There are also some saucy things … his friends would send him sex stories and letters. He also printed out his emails and sometimes added snarky commentary!
The notebooks also contain some beautiful drawings. He drew his boyfriend’s face when he was sleeping … it’s so romantic. There are also doodles and a drawing that someone did of Murray himself when he was older. I also found an arty black and white photo of him posing shirtless in his attic.
It’s a blessing to have this material and to be able to enter into this man’s life. He lived out and proud at a time when his life could be in danger.
What did you learn about Murray and what it was like for him to live out at that time?
I haven’t read all his journals – that would be too long … but he wrote very openly and freely about his attraction to men. There was no inhibition – he writes about his affairs and the men he thought were attractive, with no sense of shame. For example, he wrote about travelling in Greece and his attraction to a guy at a bar.
But also writes about some straight friends who treated him terribly. There was a stigma then that if you were gay that you were a pervert or a pedophile.
What was the rhythm of his writing? Did he write daily?
He writes throughout his adult life. But there are gaps and then you see him return and write every day again for a period of time. At times he returns twenty years later to comment on an entry.
Throughout his journals, there was a vulnerability that I admire. Murray wrote very candidly about his heartbreaks and joys. He was willing to share so much about himself. He wrote for himself, but an audience of queer people today can connect to this man who has since passed away and can still relate to his insights.
What do you know about his work as a psychiatrist?
Murray practiced as a psychiatrist from the 1940s to the 1960s. He had his own practice and worked out of his home in Toronto. He had very intense cases, focused in the medical chemical side, and had patients who were committed to mental institutions.
It makes sense that he would need a journal to spill everything out of his head … for him to open a journal and to have that time to meet his own brain again.
Murray never explicitly wrote that he was out at work. I think he compartmentalized his life. He was out in his journals and to his friends.
How did the collection come to be in the ArQuives?
Murray’s, trusted friend, the custodian of the records, donated the collection to The ArQuives and indicated that they should be open to the public. Collections can be closed where only staff can access them, or they may be accessed with permission of the custodian or owner. The custodian of the records made Murray’s archive open to anyone who would like to view it. One wonderful thing I found in this collection was a very moving letter that the custodian wrote to Murray, posthumously, after donating the collection to The ArQuives. In this letter, he let Murray know that his journals would be in very good hands.
What stays with you after processing the material in Murray Wilson’s personal archives?
He had a lot of good friends, who were queer, brave and supportive. You need those people to survive – other people like you – or you are not you. It’s a matter of survival.
Looking at his archive reminded me of that word ‘sonder’*. That sudden realization that everyone’s life is just as complex and vibrant as yours is. Reading his journals was like slipping into his shoes and seeing the world through his eyes. You see that as a gay man that you are not alone – community and invisible connections can be formed across time.
*The word sonder is from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows a – compendium of invented words written by John Koenig. Each original definition aims to fill a hole in the language – to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for.
Just to wrap up – I’m curious how you describe the difference between a library and an archive to novice people like myself? Can people enter an archive with the same ease as a library?
In a library you know what to do. It’s an intuitive physical space. An archive can be intimidating – but it really runs the same way. You register; you take out material or look through it. And there are so many interesting things to look at. In addition to books there are papers, costumes, and films. One thing we talk about in our field is the ‘digital dark ages’. We are so focused on digitally archiving everything with no physical trail. But if our machines stop working where would we be? It makes sense to move in that direction but physical evidence of life is also needed.
How do you think about your role as an archivist?
We want to show people history and specifically with The ArQuives, queer history … and enthusiastically!