Discovering a Future in Studying the Past

Victoria Hawkins says what she loves most about studying history is the sense of “discovery” that comes with uncovering what nobody else has seen before. (Justin Tang Photo)

Victoria Hawkins still remembers grumbling over the thought of studying history as a kid. Younger and slightly broody, as she puts it, she just couldn’t understand the allure of revisiting the past.

Now, at 22, the Owen Sound native has since had a change of heart. As she is about to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in history from Carleton, Hawkins hopes to make a career as an archival researcher, helping others see that history is about more than just dates and textbooks.

“It’s about people and culture and the human experience,” Hawkins says. “It’s really interesting to see how times change and ideas change but people remain the same.”

While Hawkins credits her change of heart to the enthusiasm of her high school history teacher, it’s the hands-on university opportunities that helped her discover a career path in archival research – something she never realized was possible when she began university.

“When you’re in high school, there’s a bit of disconnect between all the career options that are available,” she says. “People would just assume that I wanted to be a teacher if I was in history.”

A third-year history practicum at the Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC) in Ottawa, where she sorted through historical documents for a documentary filmmaker, introduced Hawkins to the world of archival research. After spending her days working with research assistants at Library and Archives Canada, she began to envision a career for herself.

“I really love researching, so I thought that’s definitely something that I could do,” Hawkins says. “The practicum was a really nice thing because I did the background work in the archives, but it illustrated for me how archives can be applied today.”

Since then, Hawkins has put her passion into practice around Ottawa and back home. She’s helped digitize archive materials as a volunteer at the City of Ottawa Archives, uncovered the history of a women’s organization through Carleton’s I-CUREUS research program and spent a summer working as a museum assistant at the Billy Bishop Heritage Museum in Owen Sound. As part of her fourth-year honours research essay about the history women’s advertisements, she travelled to Montreal to interview the founder of Wonderbra.

Next year, Hawkins will embark on a two-year Master of Information degree, with a concentration in Archives and Record Management, at the University of Toronto.

While it’s something she never expected to do with her degree, it’s all part of the “discovery” she says drives her passion for history. Whether it’s uncovering unique photos in the archives of a former Ottawa mayor from the 1950s, or discovering the municipal government used to hold beauty contests for female staff, there’s always something new to learn, Hawkins says.

“I had no clue I’d be going into this in my first year of my undergrad,” she says. “But I feel like I’m an example of somebody who’s taking history and doing something non-generic with it. I’m not a teacher. I’ve been able to see the applications of archives work.”

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