Between May 2012 and August 2013, I had the privilege of working with Dr. Michael DiSanto and Robin Isard on the George Whalley Project, based at Algoma University. The George Whalley Project is one of the most exciting humanities projects that I have had the opportunity to be involved with. This project is devoted to exploring the life and work of a man that too few Canadians are familiar with; furthermore, it is innovating in the area of humanities research by assembling an open-access digital archive as research is being carried out.
Let me explain my enthusiasm by offering a typical research scenario. Let’s say you want to learn about a person. Where do you start? Probably with that person’s writings, which are likely in an archive. So you get time off, and you travel, and you search through boxes and microfilm and books and files until you find what you need, taking notes and photos along the way. If anyone after you wants to research this person, they’ll embark on the process all over again – if, that is, they have the time and money to do it.
Person-based research is at the core of the George Whalley Project. English professor Dr. Michael DiSanto is researching the life, work and thought of the late George Whalley, with the ultimate aim of publishing a biography. Who was Whalley? An acclaimed poet and literary critic; a Rhodes scholar; a decorated naval officer; an inventor; a secret intelligence agent; a concert-level musician; a translator of Aristotle; a CBC broadcaster; a mentor to Michael Ondaatje; and a husband and father – just to name a few of his accomplishments. Yet his name is unfamiliar to many Canadians, partly because the material relating to him is scattered around the world. So far, Dr. DiSanto’s research has involved lengthy visits to archives, hours of interviews, thousands of pages of reading, and months of travel.
Now you might say that similar projects have been done before, and you’d be right. What makes the George Whalley Project special is not only the end product of the research, or the person being studied, but the methods. As Dr. DiSanto looks for material, he is scanning his sources and putting them in a DropBox folder which automatically synchronizes with computers elsewhere. Assistants in Kingston and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario are transcribing, cataloging, and describing the incoming material. This is then uploaded into an online database created by Systems Librarian Robin Isard. When it goes live, it will make material on Whalley much more accessible to the average Canadian. It will also become the first stop for subsequent Whalley researchers, professional or amateur.
Once it goes live, the online database can be accessed anywhere, anytime. You could read a Whalley poem and easily compare it with unpublished versions, recordings of Whalley reading it, and related documents such as photos, letters and newspaper clippings. Everything in the database will be fully searchable and ready to study, download or print free of charge. I like to think that my work on the project (as a research assistant) is helping to reunite Canadians with their primary sources.
People-based research matters. In today’s digital age, we are able to make the research process better than ever. Canada has a lot to be proud of in George Whalley, and this project will give you everything you need to see why. Although the complete database is not yet publicly available, several items of interest are posted on the website, including poetry, essays, recordings and photographs. I invite you to explore and be inspired!
The George Whalley Project is a part of the Editing Modernism in Canada initiative, and is made possible through the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.