Unpacking the Douglas Coupland fonds

Archivists note: This week our student archivists are going to explain how taxonomies, which is like “tagging” only slightly more sophisticated, is helping them draw out important connections in the Douglas Coupland fonds. It does make me reflect on how the technology we use to catalogue (or arrange and describe, in archives jargon) can affect both the process of arrangement and description, and how the information is displayed to our users. As our student archivists describe below, we at Rare Books and Special Collections are in the process of moving our finding aids into a database system called ICA-Atom. With more, our student team:

A word on taxonomies…

Taxono-what? Ok – so this is library and archives jargon, but if you’re familiar with tagging (who hasn’t tagged a photo on facebook or flickr?) the concept of taxonomies is the same – the only difference being that our “tags” can be organized hierarchically, with broader terms, narrower terms, and related terms. For example, the tag “JPod” could be a narrower term of “literary projects”, and could also have narrower terms to distinguish between the television adaptation script, the drafts, and the final manuscript.

Last post we talked about the challenges in organizing Coupland’s wide variety of materials into an order that maintains a link to how we received the materials, but also organizes them in a way that makes the fonds accessible and understandable to users. Since we have decided to process the materials in the order received, how then will researchers be able to see the relationships between items? Our solution: taxonomies!

Here at RBSC, we are also in the process of migrating our descriptions to a new platform called ICA-AtoM that allows for the use of tags and web-based navigation. ICA-AtoM is an open-source, web-based archival description software that is based on International Council on Archives (ICA) standards, freely available to users (and created by a graduate of UBC’s School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies!). In addition to a lot of other great features, ICA-AtoM also includes a taxonomy module, that will allow us to use a controlled vocabulary of tags when processing the newest Coupland materials.

So how will we go about doing this? First, we’ve created a subject list in ICA-AtoM based on the contents of Douglas Coupland’s material. For example, we have “tags” called Generation A and Girlfriend in a Coma that will be used for all files related to these two literary projects. Collage and Calligraphy are two more that will be used for materials related to some of Coupland’s visual art projects. Clicking on a taxonomy word within ICA-AtoM will reveal all other files related to the same subject. The taxonomy, then, is another  avenue of access that patrons can use in addition to the finding aid/file list to find what they’re looking for. Because we are still in the process of figuring out all the projects and subjects covered in this accrual to the Coupland fonds, we are also creating tags “on the fly” as we work; once we’ve finished the initial process and are working on updating the series-level descriptions, we’ll also be managing the hierarchical relationships between the tags, so relationships between tags are maintained as well. This way, if a patron wants to see everything we’ve added about say, Coupland’s Firefighter’s Memorial in Ottawa, they can search the term “Firefighter Memorial” and all the related records will appear. Further, any of these records will have a tag-link included in the description to all the other related records, as well as listing any other related tags.

Screenshot showing taxonomies in Coupland fonds

Screenshot showing taxonomies in Coupland fonds

We’re excited to be implementing the first use of taxonomies here at RBSC, and we’ll be sure to update you on our progress as we carry on!

The opening hours will be reduced in RBSC / University Archives effective July 30 – August 31. During this time period, RBSC (including the Chung Room) / UA will be open to the public from 10am – 4pm Monday – Friday. Please direct any RBSC-related questions to rare.books@ubc.ca . Please contact Chris Hives with any concerns about University Archives accessibility.

Unpacking the Douglas Coupland fonds

Archivist’s note: When you tell people you’re an archivist, they often assume that we spend a lot of time meticulously re-organizing documents into some kind of “correct” order. This is a misconception- as our student archivists will describe below, maintaining original order is actually an important tenet of archival theory and practice. Here are Dan, Laura and Sarah with more:

Perhaps you are wondering what it is we (student) archivists do when a new set of boxes is delivered? What actually goes on in that processing room? And why is it important? If these questions are keeping you up at night, read on for a look at the first step in processing a new accrual….

The first challenge we faced with the Douglas Coupland project was figuring out how to arrange the material.  We can’t just dump it into acid-free boxes and call it day! One of the fundamental principles of archival work is respect for original order. This states that records should be organized in the order established or intended by the creator. So no alphabetizing! No rearranging by date!

Why is original order important? In a nutshell, it preserves the relationships between records and any evidence that could be gleaned from those relationships. Context is key.

Determining original order isn’t always easy. Sometimes the intended order gets jumbled before or during the transfer of the material to the archives. Other times, if the creator had no system of arranging their own records, there is no original order. In the case of the former, archivists would spend some time analyzing the material in order to restore the original order. In the latter, archivists could impose an order to facilitate arrangement, description, and access.

A small sampling of the variety of material received

A small sampling of the variety of material received


Our first order of business was to survey the material in an attempt to discern the original order.  This proved difficult. Why? Each box of material appeared to be a veritable mishmash of non-related items. Manuscripts next to a hornet’s nest next to doodles next to fan mail. At first, we thought it might be necessary to impose an order by arranging the material by artistic medium. Upon closer examination and reflection, we could not be sure there wasn’t significance to the apparent random nature of the material. Because we were concerned we would break important archival bonds if we physically (re)arranged the material, we came up with the following solution:

  • process the material according to received order (right down to the individual movie ticket stubs)
  • using ICA-AtoM (an open-source archival description software), intellectually arrange the material into series based on artistic medium without physically disrupting the physical order
  • create a taxonomy within ICA-AtoM to link materials to other related materials
The archivist's natural habitat

The archivist's natural habitat

Curious to find out what a taxonomy is? Stay tuned for our next exciting blog post to find out!


We’re very pleased to announce a recent addition (or accrual to use archival language) to the archives of Douglas Coupland (or the Douglas Coupland fonds, again to use the archival terminology). We have been very fortunate to continue our relationship with Doug Coupland since we first acquired his archives in 2008, but for the first time we have decided to shine a light on what happens to archival material between coming in the doors and being made available to users in the reading room.  We think it’s particularly interesting and exciting to do this with the Douglas Coupland fonds because of the wide range of documentation he creates.

We’re fortunate also to have three student archivists jointly handling this project over the summer: Dan Gillean, Laura Hebert and Sarah Hillier are all students from the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies. They will be writing posts on this blog every week or so to keep you updated on their progress. You can see all of our posts on this project by browsing for the Coupland tag on our blog.

Without further adieu, our student archivists:

“On Thursday, June 21st a large shipment of banker’s boxes and strangely shaped packages arrived at UBC Rare Books and Special Collections. The twenty-six pieces comprise the recent accrual to the already substantial Douglas Coupland fonds. Because of Coupland’s varied range of medium (and we mean varied – everything from large-scale sculptures to screenplays to clothing lines) the contents of these boxes present many unique questions from the archival perspective.

“So how to tackle such a diverse accumulation of content? We have been tasked with the arrangement and description of this material and hope to collaboratively produce a clear picture of Coupland’s creative process through our treatment of the accrual. A little about us…

“Dan Gillean MAS/MLIS Student at SLAIS, entering 3rd year
I’ve been working as a Student Archival Assistant since September of 2011, processing a large accrual from the provincial New Democratic Party. I’m particularly interested in the arrangement challenges we will encounter with this project – for example, how will we know if that flattened box of macaroni was meant for a collage, used in one of the Canada photographs, or kept as a reference item for one of his many narrative projects? What if the answer is all three? More importantly, how can we best indicate these linkages and conjectures to our patrons at RBSC?

“Laura Hebert – MAS/MLIS Student at SLAIS, entering 3rd year
I began my work as a Student Archive Assistant at RBSC just over a year ago. In my time here I have worked on the processing of a number of fonds and collections, both of a personal and organizational nature. Of particular interest to me are the items in this accrual that are atypical in terms of what we see in Special Collections. What are the best ways to treat these items that are so far from the textual record and how can we effectively communicate their context?

“Sarah Hillier MAS/MLIS Student at SLAIS, entering 3rd year
I started working at RBSC as a Student Archives Assistant about a year ago. Most recently I’ve worked on the arrangement and description of a new accrual to the Arsenal Pulp Press fonds.  Of interest to me regarding the Douglas Coupland fonds is tackling the challenges associated with the proper storage and preservation of non-traditional archival materials, i.e. a bejeweled hornet’s nest, a digital orca, and a styrofoam leg

Our student archivists: Sarah, Dan and Laura

Our student archivists: Sarah, Dan and Laura

“Influenced by Coupland’s own fondness for the blog format, we will chronicle our journey here. Follow our progress as we unpack the work of the prolific writer and artist.”

Accrual to the Douglas Coupland fonds, awaiting processing

Accrual to the Douglas Coupland fonds, awaiting processing

This post is part of our series on resources featuring the names of B.C. places used as room names in the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. The place we would like to feature for this post is Bamfield, a community on the coast of Barkley Sound on Vancouver Island, and well known for the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.

Suppose you want to find references in historical newspapers to Bamfield. If you search the library catalogue for serial publications and the keyword “Bamfield,” you will find that the furthest back any of our newspaper holdings published in Bamfield go are only to the 1970’s and 80’s. Besides, there could have been articles written in other B.C. towns and cities about Bamfield.

There is a great resource provided by the UBC Library Digital Initiatives department that can help! BC Historical Newspapers is an online database for a number of digitized newspapers. You can browse by title of newspaper, date, or even better for this situation, full text search the newspapers. Here is a screenshot of what a search for “Bamfield” looks like:

Searching BC Historical Newspapers for Bamfield

Searching BC Historical Newspapers for Bamfield

As you can see, the database highlights your keywords and also gives you the name of the newspaper and the date the article is from. Click on the result to read the actual digitized article- the database will zoom in to where the highlighted word is located. For example, if you replicate this search and click on the article from the Cumberland News on October 8, 1902, you will read that the laying of the trans-Pacific cable line off the ship Colonia was about to begin from Bamfield. This marked the establishment of the Pacific Cable Board Cable Station, which would later become the site of the above-mentioned Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. Give searching the BC Historical Newspapers a try with another British Columbia town!

In the Barber Centre, the Bamfield Meeting Room is number 157, located on the first floor of the building.

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