How much do you know about U of T’s history? Do you know who “Sid Smith” was named after? Or what year women were allowed in Hart House? Don’t feel bad if your answer to these questions is “no.”
Although U of T has an incredibly storied past, many students are unaware of the details of this history. The University of Toronto History Society (UTHS) was formed with the intent of changing this and making the history of the university more accessible to all students, staff, faculty, and community members.
In January, the UTHS launched their online historical databaseat a public event in the Hart House Debates Room. Three years in the making, the website is the first and only student-curated history of U of T.
The website aligns with our club’s mission statement, which recognizes the importance of the internet and accessibility. This is why we focused on making the project an online database which can be used by anyone — not just students, and certainly not just history students. The website was entirely made, researched, and written by students and will continue to grow with new articles and information.
There are currently three main sections on the website: a Hall of Fame with biographies of notable alumni; a Hall of Remembrance with profiles of student-soldiers who fought and died in the World Wars; and Building Histories, which detail the history of buildings on campus. There is also a space for on-camera oral history interviews that the club has conducted with notable alumni such as Margaret Atwood, Atom Egoyan, and Margaret MacMillan, focusing on their experiences as students at the university.
The launch event was well attended by students, staff, alumni, and community members alike, and included a keynote address from renowned historian and U of T history professor, Robert Bothwell, as well as a virtual tour of the website by developer Morgan Wowk. I also gave a speech, as founder and president of the club.
The presentations were followed by a reception, during which attendees were encouraged to peruse the tables set up by the University of Toronto Archives & Records Management Services and the Victoria University Archives. There was an array of artifacts presented, including E.J. Pratt’s war medals, and attendees ranged from current students to alumni, Soldiers’ Tower Committee volunteers, and Dictionary of Old English staff, among others.
The UTHS was founded with the belief that a student-curated history of the university is a valuable contribution to the historical record, and we have a strong dedication to accessibility. Another important part of the UTHS’s mission is the creation of a space that would foster a greater sense of community on campus. One of the most important aspects of the study of history is that it fosters empathy.
By understanding ‘the other,’ we can better empathize with them. One way that the UTHS engages with this principle is through the Hall of Remembrance, which memorializes student-soldiers who fought and died in the World Wars. There are currently over 1,000 profiles in this section — an overwhelming number.
By providing a biography of each student-soldier, the club hopes to personalize the impacts of war, encouraging visitors to empathize with even just one student soldier in order to facilitate a better appreciation for the loss of thousands.
The UTHS also offers undergraduate students from all disciplines the opportunity to work with primary sources at the various archives on campus and publish this original research on our website. It is truly a unique and exciting club for students, and the launch of the website is the first step toward building an ever growing, accessible, and student-curated history of U of T. We hope that students, staff, alumni, and community members will share in our excitement and help us expand upon our vision.
Disclosure: Hannah Lank is the founder of the UTHS and was its president until April 2019.