ACA Conference June 2007

I attended the conference of the Association of Canadian Archivists in Kingston, Ontario from June 21 to June 24 2007. As I’m the only Australian at the conference (there is also a New Zealander here), I’ll summarise the sessions I attended for the interest of Australian colleagues (this may take a while – I have 31 pages of notes!).

Unfortunately, I missed the welcome reception on the evening of June 20. I arrived safely in Kingston from Boston in the early afternoon, but my luggage took 6 hours to join me. I felt I would really be letting the Australian archival side down if I turned up wearing my tracky dacks and sneakers, so…

I also missed the first plenary (by a Canadian senator on the value of archives to Canadian society), due to the little matter of sleeping in after yet another night of not getting to sleep until the wee small hours. My Australian friends will be pleased to know that a purely medicinal glass of red wine one each of the last two nights seems to have sorted that problem out! From then on, however, I’ve attended each session. I’ve inevitably had to make hard choices between papers, but have been most impressed with all that I’ve seen.

First, a few comments on the ‘feel’ of the conference. It’s much bigger than Australian conferences (unsurprising), and my impression is that there is a wider group of archives represented. I have personally met and chatted to people from Library and Archives Canada, provincial archives, municipal archives, university archives, hospital archives, sports archives, science archives and photographic archives. There are probably more groups represented. The big thing I’ve noticed is that there are many, many people here between 25 and 30. Two sessions solely on student research were scheduled, and it’s clear that the strength and number of the university programs in archives is really beneficial to the profession. I suspect – but am not sure – that the gender mix might be a bit more even too. This is a very friendly conference. Even as a stranger, I have never been left alone – but perhaps because I’m getting bolder as I get older and will happily introduce myself to people first. It’s also very well organised and with lovely social activities (see my posts page).

I’ve summarised the sessions I attended below, and am happy to discuss with anyone interested. With any luck, some of these papers will appear later in the journal literature.

Thursday 21 June, 10.30-12 session

Unfortunately I had to choose between an interesting sounding session on a U of Montreal/LAC research project on ‘professional identities of librarians and archivists’, and the implications for future skills needs, in order to attend a session on ‘Accessing Archival Information in the 2.0 digital age’. The speakers were Brian Bell, Executive Director of Alouette Canada, and Loren Fantin, project manager of Knowledge Ontario, specifically Our Ontario. These are both discovery services for Canadian cultural material in all formats. Unlike the Australian landscape – parts of which are carved up by format, e.g. Picture Australia, Music Australia, and the Register of Australian Archives and Manuscripts, Canada seems to be concentrating on ‘all formats’ services.

Alouette and Our Ontario are strongly linked – Our Ontario is just a ‘view’ of the Alouette dataset, and there are similar views for other states. Alouette provides a number of services:

    aggregation of metadata from multiple ‘hubs’ up to the national Alouette service, across the GLAM (Galleries, libraries, archives museums) sectors)
    a discovery service for this aggregated content (with views deploying very similar discovery interfaces)
    a toolkit to create and provide this metadata in standardised forms and using standard vocabularies. The toolkit also supports two or more organisations to create their own mini-aggregation, e.g. a museum and an historical society for a specific region
    support for digital content creation
    hosting of digital content (on pages that replicate the institution’s own ‘branding’)
    advocacy to government for funding etc.

Alouette’s developers are clearly interested in the same Web 2.0 that we are discussing at the National Library of Australia. Some early experiements have seen cloud tags and ‘add your comment’ features in prototype services. They have also used geographic subject headings to display images of places alongside Google Maps.

Many of our assumptions – that we have to put ourselves where our users are – are clearly shared by Canadian colleagues. At the NLA, we have already successfully put ourselves into the Flik’r space, and recently talked about getting ourselves into Wikipedia in a large scale way. Here, people were talking about getting into Flik’r, Face Book, Second Life and U-Tube.

Many of the issues are very similar to ours. The key differences to the Australian scene are:

    the focus on support for digital content creation and for hosting content for large and small organisations unable to do so themselves. There are no similar programs to support national digital content creation in Australia.
    Allouette is funded by the Canadian Association of Research Libraries. This includes national, provincial and university organisations.
    Canada already has existing archival networks and discovery services such as Archives Canada and various provincial networks which cross the government records and collecting archives sectors. Australia does not have a federated discovery service across government records, and these records are not included in the Register of Australian Archives and Manuscripts
    The focus is on multi-format digital discovery services. The reference services quoted in this talk – including the Online Archive of California, and Michael, were all multi-format, digital-only services
    At this stage, the federating paradigm appears to be metadata harvesting only. In Australia, various cultural organisations are testing the OpenSearch protocol as an alternative way of supporting users to navigate to content of interest – especially where very large databases are involved.

It will be interesting to see how Allouette develops, particularly deployment of Web 2.0 technologies.

Thursday 21 June, 1-2.30 session

After lunch I attended a session on university archives.

The perspectives of Dr Charles Levi – institutional historian and archivist in training – were interesting. Charles spoke about what professional historians writing histories of universities need to find in the archives. In short, historians need unfettered access to records and the trust of the commissioner. Charles noted that institutional historians test the effectiveness of university archive collection development policies! This session engendered spirited debate about privacy issues, for example, providing unfettered access to student or employee data. This was a continuing theme throughout the conference.

Brett Lougheed of the University of Manitoba spoke about the special features of university archives. He noted that they have some different user groups – notably undergraduate students taking instructional courses, who need quite different support to academic or professional researchers who want to ‘do it for themselves’, and value subject guides highly. I liked a phrase Brett used, when he referred to ‘efficient production of research through efficient archival management’.

Maria Phipps – whose company is a major InMagic vendor – gave me another new term. She used the term ‘research asset management’ rather than ‘collection management’, and I can see that this might be very helpful in some contexts. Maria described a new InMagic tool for indexing documents and its applicability to university archival documents. We chatted about Australian use of InMagic during the boat cruise that night, and I met several archivists from small archives who rely on this product.

Thursday 21 June, 3.30-5 session

With earlier sessions making me aware that privacy issues might be ‘hotter’ in Canada than they are in Australia (they have a Special Interest Group devoted just to this issue, and many people expressed the difficulties of having difference privacy laws in each province), I passed on the first of the two student research sessions in favour of a session on privacy and access. One of the speakers in the session had already sought me out as she was talking about Australia’s Pandora web archive. I gave her a quick update on our whole domain harvesting activities and hope she was able to mention this.

Johanna Smith of Library and Archives Canada spoke about retention of census data. In 2006 Canada – like Australia – asked Canadians to nominate whether they were happy for their census data to be retained and made available after 92 years. 56% said yes, 32% said no and the rest did not respond. They are still analysing their data but do know tht the results were pretty consistent across all provinces. Johanna noted that the force of media opinion is on the side of retaining and later releasing census data. On the other hand, privacy advocates have strong concerns about retention of data. In 2001, Canadian reactions to news that the US corporation Lockheed Martin was undertaking census analysis for the Canadian government was so strong that the contact had to be terminated.

I’m not sure about you, but I ticked ‘yes’ on my 2006 Australian census. For historians, of course, the destruction of all censi previous to 2006 is a sad loss indeed.

Michael Moir – University Archivist at the University of Manitoba – spoke on privacy and access issues for writers’ personal papers. This is a very familiar issue for us at the National Library of Australia. Competing demands – the donor’s desire to control some of all of their archive, the researcher’s need to have barrier-free access, and the institution’s need to realise its investment in acquiring and managing the archive – are often at work here. Michael noted that those working in archives are often caught between a researcher wanting access and a donor wanting to screen researchers. Like us, our Canadian colleagues are getting a bit ‘tougher’ on this, trying to minimise restrictions and to have definite time periods to agreed restrictions. And, as in Australia, the local taxation incentives for the arts scheme – the equivalent of the Australian Cultural Gifts Program – is increasingly asking hard questions about the extent to which the market value of a personal archive might be compromised by restrictions. Watch this space!

Thursday evening was the wonderful boat cruise on the St Lawrence – what a great way to meet people and to chat about issues of common interest.

Friday 22 June, 9-10 plenary

Friday was full of intellectual goodies, and started with Ian Wilson – Librarian and Archivist of Canada – announcing that he had just been informed that the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives and the Archives of the Quebec Seminary had been listed on the Memory of the World register. This is Canada’s first registration. Cook’s Endeavour Journal and the papers of Edward Koiki Mabo were proposed by Australia and registered in 2001.

The morning plenary was two writers – Helen Humphreys and Michael Redhill – talking about how they had used archives to support writing their historical fiction. They had the audience absolutely captivated, and several people noted afterwards that they had a new respect for the tenacity of fiction-writing researchers. I especially enjoyed Helen’s description of her 2 years of research to support her novel on early women aviators, Leaving Earth. Among many other archival and museum sources, Helen used the records of the ’99ers’ – the International Organisation or Women Pilots, and spoke to a now elderly but still feisty pioneer aviatrix. I caught up with her afterwards to say that the NLA holds the records of the Australian chapter of the ’99ers’, and that these had recently been indexed by one of our wonderful volunteers. I bought the book to read on the way home (seems appropriate) and for Marie to read. I also told Helen about last year’s wonderful visit by Nancy Bird Walton – one of our own pioneers. Age had not dimmed her, nor her penchant for bright pink suit, stillettoes and tales of many love affairs. Helen confirmed that her source was very much in the same mould!

Michael Redhill noted that both the novelist and the archivist are sensitive to the difficulty of grasping the past but dream of doing so. Michael’s novel Consolation traces fictional photographers involved in Toronto’s mid 19th century bid to be Canada’s capital, and therefore in a project to show the city as they wished it to be seen. Michael argues that archivists are responsible for making the truth available, if not to tell it. Or – a slightly more nuanced view – he argued that if the role of the archivist and the novelist is not to show the truth, then it is at least ‘not to block the light’.

For a literati, this really was a treat.

Friday 22 June, 10.30-12 session

This session featured two outstanding papers, both by LAC staff members.

Katherine Lagrandeur – a Ph.D. in French literature and now archivist – gave a wonderful paper on Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a two volume graphic novel about conversations between a holocaust survivor and his son. Both my sons have previously recommended these books, and I will certainly now read them. Katherine gave a wonderful nuanced reading of the books as a son’s ‘yearning for archives’ and a father’s ‘fear of archives’ – fear of the pain that records can bring – and his gradual becoming as an ‘archivist’ in telling his story after many years of silence. This was one of the best papers on testimony – its values and its problems – that I have heard. And underlying theme of much thinking about holocaust testimony is the ‘impossibility’ of the stories that are told.

The paper was very moving and questions were similarly intense. The moderator warned that we were about to have a total change of pace and so it was. Marcel Barriault gave a terrific paper on what very rare records and publications can tell us about the development of contemporary male homosexual erotica and pornography. Marcel is a specialist in these scarce resources and certainly got a giggle when he used his term ‘homotextuality’. He has published in this area, including ‘Out of the closet and into the archive’. Marcel noted that few Canadian archives hold personal papers of gays or gay organisations, and most of the historical record consists of public records and their insistence on ‘perversity’. He also noted that many gay men avoided creating or keeping personal archives because of justified fear about persecution or prosecution. He told us that many in the gay community still choose to withold their papers from mainstream archives, and that the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives had become a repository for papers, organisational records, publications and museum objects.

Marcel traced the development of gay erotica from early 20th century ‘physique’ or ‘beefcake’ magazines. In these early magazines, men were often depicted in ‘classical’ poses, claiming an authenticity in framing images within respected aesthetic conventions. Over time – along with the loss of the ‘posing pouch’, which disappeared in the 1970s – this classical metaphor gradually gave way (and Marcel traced this change) to a range of ironic commentaries on masculinity, including many we are familiar with today – the cowboy, the biker, the boxer etc – all emblematic of the dominant ‘male power struggle’ paradigm. The Village People, of course, brought this iconography to a very wide audience.

In the 1980s, with the advent of the video and AIDS, the hirsuite male ideal gave way to the smooth body ideak, with a strong emphasis on manliness and ruggedness in publications and ephemera. Marcel had us in stitches as we learned of the 1990s fetishization of authority figures (e.g. police officers), and the new-ish genre of gay spoofs of Hollywood blockbusters. Examples apparently include ‘Licence to thrill’, ‘Goodfellows/Badfellows’ and – cleverest of all – ‘Shaving Ryan’s Privates’.

This was a very coherent – and lavishly illustrated! – account of the development of a particular aesthetic, using very, very rare sources. I discussed the paper with Marcel the next day and noted that it had made me realise that personal use erotica rarely comes into the Library with personal archives – surely a self-censoring on the part of the donors! We also wondered whether sources to try to trace such a story for gay women would be easier or harder to find – a good research project perhaps.

LAC should be very proud of having staff able to research and present such excellent papers.

Friday 22 June, Lunch

Friday’s lunch was a formal one, as it was the occasion for annual awards presentations. LAC’s Bob McIntosh – who has kindly organised my 2.5 days of talks at LAC next week – was recognised for his consistent contribution to the profession and the association. The incredibly influential Professor Terry Eastwood – who is about to retire from the University of British Columbia – was awarded lifetime membership of the association. He was very moved at the standing ovation from a packed hall and was rendered virtually speechless. Many Australians will be familiar with Terry’s work and will be glad to hear that although he is retiring from his academic position, he is clearly not retiring from the profession.

Friday 22 June, 1.30-3 session

Again, what a corker of a session. Three speakers gave different persectives on how archivists are seen in popular culture, science fiction and contemporary film.

Karen Buckley started by noting that Gandalf broke all the rules when searching the archives for documents on the ring (yes, I winced too), and went on to note that this stereotype of an archive – dark, dusty, disorderly, fully of ‘lost’ knowledge’ – is commonplace. There appears to be, she said, a particular affinity between vampires and archives, and many ‘dirt, tomb and death’ metaphors: ‘dig the files up’, ‘knowing where the bodies are buried’ etc. In more contemporary depictions, archives are often creepy places with absent archivists, or archivists who are obsessed and know exactly where everything is. Stories often hinge on the ‘missing record’, and are therefore catalyists in many popular culture stories. Karen noted that these media depictions are in stark contrast to public perceptions of archives as ‘trusted repositories’, and perhaps closer to media portrayals of dark and dangerous identity issues.

David Mattison – who keeps several blogs including the Ten Thousand Year Blog – gave a knowledgeable and entertaining paper on archives and archivists in science fiction. As a non science fiction reader, only one text – Canticle for Leibowitz, which I’ve never really regarded as Sci-Fi – was familiar to me. He mentioned that four ‘types’ of archivist can be fond in Sci-Fi: the human archivist; the post-human; the alien; and the machine. He felt that Sci-Fi’s recognition that stone tablets are the longest lasting record was particularly apt in the age of fragile digital data, and noted that in post-apocalyptic dystopias such as Canticle, records are often the only thing left. And notes that dust seems to be always present.

Tania Aldred finished the session with an analysis of the 19 films she could find that featured archivists. She compared public stereotypes of archivists with media portrayals. Tania also noted that the archive and archivist are often critical to plots, with the location of a record – or finding that a record is missing – often just preceding the high point of the plot. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that while there are plenty of archives in films and television shows, the archivist is often absent. Tania pointed to CSI as an example of this phenomenon. Where the archivist is present, he/she is often portrayed to fit the physical stereotype (glasses etc.), but not the public’s behavioural stereotypes (screen archivists are often extroverts and very strong characters). Tania noted that the work of an archivist is often misrepresented. These characters are typically portrayed as knowing exactly where everything is in their archive, without the benefit of catalogues or finding aids.

I coud not help thinking that they must have taken Graeme Powell as their model. I am quite sure he does know where everything is at the NLA!

The rest of the afternoon was given over to committee meetings etc. Along with others, I enjoyed the historical trolley car tour of Kingston. It was a beautiful afternoon, and a great way to see many of the public and private buildings in this very charming city. I was joined at dinner by a young woman who is the curator of the Canadian golf archive/museum. This was very interesting, especially as I am very aware of the absence of sports papers and records at the NLA. Previous attempts to overcome this lack have not been particularly successful, which makes the Library’s new oral history joint venture with the Australian Institute of Sport even more important.

Saturday 23 June 10.30-12 session

I followed my literary leanings again by attending a session looking at the ways that debates about identity and authenticity in other disciplines – especially textual studies – can inform archival practice. Associate Professor Heather McNeil of the University of British Columbia drew strong connections between editorial theory, debates about the 1990s cleaning of the Sistine Chapel frescoes, and the desire for authenticity ‘in original order’. She notes that in our emphasis on original order we assert the integrity, authenticity and therefore authority of the creator, and what the creator intended: original order as the embodiment of ‘authorial intention’. She argued that when we try to retain or reconstruct original order, we are really creating a ‘facsimile’ of what we think that order was, and that the intentions of custodians is as relevant as the intentions of creators. Heather was by no means advocating throwing away the original order paradigm, but was arguing that archives should not necessarily see past arrangements as ‘contamination’ of the record, but as part of their constant ‘becoming’, in the same way that the grime accumulating over Michelangelo’s frescoes was part of their history. She pointed out that simply by removing records from their original context to an archive changes them and they become cultural objects. Even our ‘non-invasive’ process – putting material into clean, neutral coloured folders and then into boxes of uniform sizes (oh I love the uniform box size!) – change the context of the records quite dramatically.

Jennifer Douglas is a Ph.D. student at UBC, and is working on the implications of digitisation on arrangement and description theory. Jennifer outlined research that had been done to look at the ways in which archival resources are presented through digital libraries. Many digital exhibitions or ‘highlights’ take and show an archival resources out of its context, with few providing good navigation through to that context. I am pleased to say that although the National Library of Australia’s digital highlights page certainly shows thumbnails out of context, the user is taken immediately to a contextual display that allows them to navigate through a collection. But many worries remain. I have been concerned for some time that digitised content from a partially digitised manuscripts collection is difficult to find. Try, for example, to navigate your way to guess which bits of the Deakin papers have been digitised! This is a technical problem that I am sure we can overcome. But perhaps it is even more important to use our finding aids to let our users know why we have digitised selected parts of a larger collection. After all, we use our finding aids to outline custodial history, and to describe arrangement of the papers. If we ‘declare’ these institutional interventions, perhaps we should similarly declare our reasons for digitising parts of collections?

In conversation with Jennifer afterwards, we discussed the ‘skewing’ that can result from the grant-funded nature of much of Canada’s digitisation (I assured her that we have no grant opportunities!), which are generally focussed on a narrative, and insist on a certain ‘story’ being told. In wishing for more funding for digitisation, perhaps we should be careful what we wish for?

Bonnie Mak – also a Ph.D student – gave a terrific paper on mediaval/early modern era attempts by various religious orders to gain ascendancy – and land – by calling into question the authenticity of various documents and charters granting special privileges and rights. In other words, appeals to authenticity and the authenticity of precedent were often made to preserve privilege, and questioning of authenticity was effectively a legal challenge. Debates on authenticity were therefore often deployed as agents of change.

[I feel I have to break in at this stage and tell you that I’ve been writing up these notes while a great band pumps out the rock just outside my verandah. I suspect they are about to finish up – they finished at 11 pm last night – so am happily bopping along to ‘Play that funky music’ while it lasts… From mediavel to funk – that’s what I call seamless access! Damn – I was right – they have finished up for the night when I’m ready to keep bopping for quite a while yet. ]

Saturday 23 June 1.30-3 session

I was very interested in this session, which was about developing rigorous methods to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of archives. Wendy Duff, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, outlined an international research project to develop robust evaluative tools to facilitate comparability, disseminate research, support benchmarking and encourage scholarship. This research – funded by the Mellon Foundation (St Andrew Mellon) – is being undertaken by academics in the UK, US and Canada. The network is called Ax-Snet, and interested organisations can join their listserv.

The group has already done considerable research. They undertook focus groups and interviews in the US and Canada to get an initial ‘feel’ for what is needed, and have developed – and are in the final stages of refining – a standardised survey to evaluate experiences of onsite and offsite users. This covers the ways in which users find archives, how they use them and what their search experiences have been like. Such a survey is of obvious interest to many Australian collecting and government archives, and of special interest to the NLA, as we rethink ways to provide access to the distributed Australian archival collection.

The group also worked with Yale to develop a ‘tutorial’ for undergraduate students using an archive for the first time. They did two surveys with this group – the first immediately after their first visit, and the second at the end of the academic term. The aim was to assess ‘impact’ – did going to the archive increase students’ familiary and ease with archives, and did they go back? The results suggested that such a tutorial definitely increased students’ confidence in being able to find archival resources of interest. I wondered how we could translate this to an online tutorial, given that we do not have a captive market?

The next papers was closely related, as Helen Tibbo of the University of North Carolina talked about the use of web analytic tools to assess what users are doing when they come to our sites and to our finding aids. Helen noted that we need to know how our users get to our online sites and resources, why they use the repository site, whether they can navigate successfully, what they look at, and whether they are successful in their search. If we could reliably answer these questions, we would have a blueprint for improving our web site design. As many of you will know, this is easier said than done, and many analytic tools are expensive without doing quite the job we want. Without ‘advertising’ it, Helen noted that Google Analytics is a robust tool that gives very detailed information, that it is free, and does not need much technical support. On the other hand, she felt it was important that any institutions deploying Google Analytics tell their users that this is happening, as significant ‘personal’ information can be gathered by Google during the process.

Helen noted that it was the use of Google Analytics that helped Beth Yakel and others to undertake sophisticated analysis of the Polar Bear Expedition site and to use that research for their next generation finding aids research. I’ve read and re-read Yakel’s article on this project over the last month or six weeks, and it seemed to be the article on everyone’s lips at the ACA conference.

The last paper was by Geoff Pick of the City of London archives. He described the UK’s annual survey user experiences of archives – now in its seventh year. The idea for this survey was initiated by an informal Public Services Quality Group back in 1996, and in 2002 – when the group affiliated with the National Council on Archives – the dream became a reality. In addition to the annual survey, the group also run an annual forum (the 2006 forum was on the 21st century archives reading room), and. developed and publishes a quality standard. The survey is in 4 parts: About your visit experience; About your visit today; Valuing the archive service; and About yourself. The survey is run each year for 1-2 two weeks in a two month ‘window’. The process is self-funded – archives pay to participate, with the payment set according to archive size – and is very standardised. Wherever possible, the survey uses UK census questions and definitions, to avoid duplication. For example, they use the census cultural identifiers and age groups. This means that they know that 96% of archives users are white, but that of the 4% that are of non Anglo-Saxon backgrounds, the age cohort is much younger than expected. Over time, this should mean that the users of archives more accurately represent the UK’s cultural diversity.

The survey is available from the National Council of Archives site. I will definitely be looking at the survey when I get home, as we start to really rethink the ways in which the National Library of Australia offers its onsite services.

Saturday June 23, closing plenary

Professor Terry Eastwood gave the closing plenary, talking about the ways in which the archival profession has changed in the years he has been involved in it, and about all the causes for optimism for the future. The theme of the conference was ‘as others see us’, and Terry said he talked about he ‘I saw us’. He spoke of the many challenges faced by contemporary archives and archivists – the struggles to cope with large, diverse, multi-format modern collections, the problems of being a ‘growth services industry’ when funders do not want to recognise the reality of growth and increasing costs, the tenuous place of archival studies and programs in the academy, and the challenge of turning ‘latent need’ into ‘demand’, for example in the obvious need to have skilled digital archivists. He exhorted all archivists – many of whom are increasingly physically and managerially remote from the records in their custody – to spend time with records, and to spend time with our users. He noted that – as a group – archives still suffer from a ‘stunted service ethic’, and advocated the traditional librarian’s virtue of ‘radiating geniality’. He concluded by noting that we all do what we do as an ‘act of faith in the continuity of things’.

Although I was booked, I decided not to attend the final dinner dance. My 13 days on the road – with only one full ‘normal’ night’s sleep among them – finally caught up with me today. By 5 pm when I got back to my hotel, I was barely awake and enjoyed a much needed nap. I would no doubt have had a great night if I had attended, but really felt that a quiet night in (with throbbing rock music a floor away!) was what I needed after many days of meeting new people and hearing new things. And it gave me a chance to get this record of the conference up to date while it is still fresh.

I thought it was a terrific conference – well organised, friendly, and with a consistently high standard of papers. With the demands of my work giving me fewer and fewer hours to keep up with professional reading, I really feel that I’ve had three days of brain food, with much to think about and ponder on my return to Australia.

A big thanks to all the Canadians for making me so welcome!

And just as a postscript to the theme of ‘how others see us’, see the last line of this Maureen Dowd article, which appeared on 24 June. I suspect this is a new perception!

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One response to “ACA Conference June 2007

  1. Pingback: Last day in Kingston, Ontario « Love archives, will travel

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