Old Times Revival - bringing archival images to light

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jan 03, 2019 11:42 AM

Scurrying across the courtyard before the wind can blow me away, I make it to the safety of Memorial University’s Henrietta Harvey Building, located in the heart of the St. John’s campus. Following the helpful signs, I take a left through a corridor and head downstairs to the Maritime History Archive and into the world of very old documents that provide a window into the past.
I’m here to meet Jenny Higgins for a quick tour of the archives. While I quickly forget the way we came in, she navigates the maze of shelves with ease. This place has been a frequent haunt of hers for several years. As a writer and researcher for the Heritage Website (www.heritage.nl.ca), she wrote about Newfoundland and Labrador’s history, from Resettlement to the Voluntary Aid Detachment to mining and political reform.
Jenny’s also a former journalist, the creator of a mini-documentary series, as well as an accomplished author with two award-winning books and another on the way. Archival photos are a big part of her storytelling method, she tells me. 
“Sometimes it can just be an image that strikes me; I want to tell the story using this image as the window into whatever this story is.” If something grabs her imagination, she’ll follow it.
Jenny’s journey to becoming a writer has taken a few interesting turns. It was in her third year of studying biochemistry at MUN that she was drawn to writing, she says. “And I took an English elective, fell in love with it and I did both degrees. And then I went off and did my grad work in English. And then I went back again and did journalism.” In 2005, she went to work for the CBC.
“Journalism taught me to write. It really refined my writing skills, you know. I loved it,” she says. When an opportunity came up to write for the Heritage Website in 2006, she leapt at it. “You can’t say no to that chance to dig into stories for more than a day.”
For Jenny, journalism taught her to be constantly on the lookout for new ideas. “You’re always thinking, ‘I want to tell that story,’ you know? When I went in to the archive, that’s what pulled me in the most, I think.” That Heritage Website job allowed her to delve into a myriad of topics, as long as it aligned with the school curriculum, which was pretty broad, she says. While it was based out of the Maritime History Archives, Jenny pulled information from wherever she could, including MUN’s Archives and Special Collections, and The Rooms. 
One of the projects she championed was a series of mini-documentaries where she’d create short videos featuring archival photos. “Everything came together " my radio training, my archival experience,” she laughs. “I had to be the narrator, the editor, the writer, everything. But I did have tremendous support for
all of my ideas from the archive. But it’s fun, like wild west-kind of storytelling.”
Jenny worked for 11 years on the Heritage Website, under contract. “If they hadn’t invested in me, I would not have my career today as a writer.” Recently, she took on the role of interim director of MUN’s Writing Centre, while still working as a freelance writer.
Of course, there are challenges when it comes to working with archives. There have been times when Jenny has had to reconcile herself to disappointment when she can’t track down a file. Or she’ll find a document that’s really interesting but can’t follow up, like a photo without any context. It can also be an issue of just not knowing where to look because materials can be in several different archives, like a
tiny town in Ireland she’ll never know about.
“It can be frustrating just because it’s impossible to catalogue all the archives in the world, and often the information is just everywhere, you know?” Jenny says.

From the Web to the Page

Jenny is also a published author and her first book, Perished: The 1914 Newfoundland Sealing Disaster, came out in 2014 and went on to win the Democracy 250 Atlantic Book Award for Historical Writing. It follows the tragedy that befell 77 sealers who died on the ice.
The story behind the sealing tragedy fascinated her, particularly the images in the archives. “I think I just like stories about people finding themselves in dangerous situations; it’s kind of like the frontier, or the ice fields were our frontier.”
The idea came to her while researching an article on sealing, when she realized it could be a series of articles, and then it occurred to her to create a documentary. “And then I’m like, you know what? A book,” she recalls.
Heritage Website articles are typically 1,200 words long in an encyclopedia-style with a few images, and as she researched the seal hunt, “I saw this giant wealth of fantastic documents associated with it that I really couldn’t incorporate into my writing, but a book would let me do that.”
Flipping through Perished is a feast for the eyes. Its pages are filled with pullout materials so readers can get a closer look. “It was the perfect way to tell the story and to bring the archives out that inspired me, put it into the hands of other people,” Jenny says. For example, readers can hold a replica of the sealing ticket those sealers used over a century ago.
Jenny followed the success of that book two years later with Newfoundland in the First World War, which was awarded the Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award for Non-fiction. What both her books have in common is how she focuses on the people and their stories, not battles or finances. “I can’t follow the money. I find it difficult,” Jenny says. “I can follow the people. I love telling stories about people. That’s how I understand history.”
At the moment, Jenny is working on her third book. She teamed with artist Jennifer Lee Morgan for Agnes Ayre’s ABCs of Amazing Women, named after the Newfoundland botanist, artist and suffragist in the early 20th century. Jenny’s always wanted to write something for kids and her previous books had a lot of death, so this time she aimed for something lighter for a younger audience. “And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to teach young people about all these women in our history that we just never hear about?’”
It began as a way for her to explore the lives of people who didn’t make it into her previous work, she explains. “Newfoundland is filled with all these gems and stories.” 
While she couldn’t find a suffragette for every letter, she included remarkable women like photographer Elsie Holloway, and women from previous centuries.
Through her articles, videos and books, Jenny’s helping bring NL history and heritage to the forefront, retelling these stories in interesting and accessible ways. “I’m a little bit selfish as a storyteller,” Jenny admits. “If it interests me, I want to tell that story. And those are the stories you’re gonna tell well because you’re interested in them. So maybe that’s why people find it interesting, because the creator is interested, too.”

-by Elizabeth Whitten