Ryerson journalism instructor Gene Allen is probably the first and only person to have had access to the archives of The Canadian Press (CP). The dozens of boxes of papers and long reels of microfiche records in the basement of CP’s office on Toronto’s King Street E. had mostly been forgotten, filed away without much thought to organization. Even with the help of a handful of research assistants, going through them was a daunting task.
“It’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle when you don’t know what the picture on the cover of the box is, and you don’t know how many pieces are missing,” says Allen about the archival research he conducted for his 2013 book, Making National News: A History of The Canadian Press.
Allen finds a certain joy in archival research. “It’s kind of a detective story almost, trying to make sense of all of this. And I find that incredibly engaging.”
Last month, Allen learned Making National News is a finalist for the Canadian Prize for Humanities, which awards work that has “made an exceptional contribution to scholarship and enriches the social, cultural and intellectual life of Canada.”
“If people think that about my book, I’m really happy,” says Allen, who didn’t even find out his book had been nominated for the award until it made the final short list.
Allen had to keep focused as he rummaged through the mountain of archives and notes, to distinguish what might be useful and what wouldn’t. He knew he wanted the book to be not just about the history of CP, but how the institution affected Canadians’ views of their country and the world.
The notion of “imagined communities,” famously proposed by academic Benedict Anderson, helped unify the seemingly disparate scraps of history that Allen culled from the archives.
“That was one of the ideas in the back of my mind: To what extent did CP create a kind of imagined community?” asks Allen.
Allen found a number of historical gems among the bureaucratic detritus. He recalls, with excitement, scouring a word-for-word stenographic transcript of a particularly heated 1914 meeting between the heads of The Associate Press and CP, then only in its infancy. There were also the minutes of a CP meeting circa 1930, in which concerned newspapermen discussed the issue of radio and other newfangled technology.
“For a historian it was absolutely wonderful,” says Allen. “It was like having a tape recording of something that happened a hundred years ago.”
Allen ended up with thousands of pages of painstakingly detailed notes, which he took years to distil into a 350-page book (including about 100 pages of footnotes).
While it’s primarily an academic book, Allen thinks the themes have a broader appeal to anyone interested in Canadian history.
“What’s the relation between the information that we all have in common and our sense of nationality? That’s really the theme of the book,” says Allen. “It tells you how the news that people got about Canada and the world, how was that organized, how did it work, and what difference did it make?”
Keeping with his studies in the history of news agencies, Allen is currently working on a biography of long-serving general manager and, later, executive director of the AP, Kent Cooper.
The final award recipients for the Canada Prize will be announced on April 22.