February 25, 2011
Preserving links to the past
Sheldon Goldfarb manages UBC’s Alma Mater Society records.
Who was the first president of University of British Columbia’s student council? Sheldon Goldfarb knows the answer. What concerned the student slates and candidates in student elections at the university over the last decade? Goldfarb is your man, again. As the archivist of the Alma Mater Society (AMS) at UBC for the last 15 years, he takes delight in his job.
“I didn’t dream of becoming an archivist when I was a child,” he said with a laugh. “I wanted to be a famous novelist.” When he was 17, living in Montreal, he wrote a novel, but nobody wanted to publish it. Undaunted, he got a BA in history from McGill University and then wrote another novel, but again, no success. Goldfarb decided to continue his education and got his master’s in English at the University of Manitoba, specializing in Victorian literature. His next step was a PhD at UBC.
He settled in Vancouver, taught English at UBC and published a couple of academic books on his favorite research topic, William Makepeace Thackeray, but overall contentment was elusive – something wasn’t right. “I didn’t like teaching,” he recalled. “Didn’t like being in front of the classroom, being responsible for all the students. What I liked was research. I liked providing information, finding answers.”
Following his calling, he enrolled in classes once again and received his second master’s – this one in archival studies from the UBC School of Library, Archival and Information Studies. At the same time, he worked as an assistant to the AMS archivist and the job and the man fit together perfectly. When his boss left the position, AMS offered the job to Goldfarb and he started working as the AMS archivist in 1996. He is still there today, happily digging up information for another generation of students.
His office in the Student Union Building is tiny, and the archives are in a windowless room off the food court, but Goldfarb can’t imagine himself anywhere else. “Our archives serve as a record centre for AMS,” he said proudly.
Everyone at the AMS knows his passion and everyone knows that he is the man to go to for answers. “Someone would ask what happened during the student council election five years ago. I find the answer. What was a policy on this or that? The data is in our archives. Who were the AMS presidents during the ’60s? I can give you the list! It’s very exciting for me to dig up information,” said Goldfarb.
Over the years, Goldfarb has become an expert on all the bylaws, rules and regulations governing AMS proceedings. When in 2010 a fraud was perpetrated in the AMS election process (someone hacked into the electronic voting system and fudged the results), Goldfarb was among those who, together with the forensic IT people and the lawyers, found and rectified the illegal votes. No culprit was discovered.
Aware of his one-of-a-kind knowledge, many researchers ask for his help and, at times, the questions are unusual. “Once, someone asked me about student mental health services in the ’30s. We have such documents,” he recalled. In another instance, he helped Lawrence Aronsen with research for his book City of Love and Revolution: Vancouver in the Sixties. The grateful author mentioned Goldfarb on the acknowledgements page.
And finally, Goldfarb’s childhood dream came true: in 2005, his young-adult mystery novel, Remember, Remember, set in Victorian England, was published in the United Kingdom. In 2006, the novel was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for excellence in Canadian crime writing.
Like in his work at the archives, his novel links the past and the future, informing young people about the lives of their contemporaries of generations past.
Even in his hobbies, Goldfarb stands with one foot firmly in the past, the other anchored in the digital culture of the 21st century. Goldfarb writes encyclopedia articles for Salem Press and he leads an online book club on Yahoo, whose members are concerned with classical literature. For more high-brow stimulation, Goldfarb participates in the Aristotle reading club at UBC. And for physical exercise, he and a bunch of his friends play street hockey every Sunday, rain or shine. They have been playing together for about 20 years.
A man of many talents, Goldfarb occasionally writes poetry as well. On his office door, beside a brass name plaque, hangs a humorous poem, “Does it Mater?” which is dedicated to his beloved workplace, AMS:
“Now, would you say that alma mater / Rhymes with ‘Later, alligator?’ / Or should we seek a rhyme with otter / When pronouncing alma mater? / Or maybe choose a rhyme with chatter / For our dear old alma mater?
“Chatter, otter, otter, ’gator – / Which one rhymes with alma mater? / And is it ‘al-muh’ we should say? Or maybe ‘awl-muh’ is the way. / The whole thing seems like quite a mess. / We’ll have to stick to A-M-S.”
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She’s available for contract work. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.