Determining Meaning and Impact: Montreal’s Expo 67

April 2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of Expo 67, a gigantic World Exhibition that Montreal hosted from April to October 1967.  The Exhibition was one of the largest of its kind in history and was one of the highlights of Canada’s centennial year.  It brought dignitaries from all around the world to Canada including Queen Elizabeth II, actress-turned-royal Grace Kelly, Haile Selassi, Jackie Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Charles de Gaulle and other world leaders.  It also brought a host of celebrities including Neil Diamond, Christopher Plummer, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier.  Not to mention 60 countries participating along with a host of private corporations setting up pavilions.  It was a grand spectacle, probably the largest and longest international event Canada has ever hosted.  I have met a few people that attended the Expo, and they still talk about what and incredible, historic event it was.  They speak about specific memories they had, and even have souvenirs and mementos from their visit.


Expo 67 logo

Expo 67 logo


Official Map of Expo 67

Official Map of Expo 67.  From Compagnie canadienne de l’Exposition internationale de 1967 (Société de la couronne – Gouvernement du Canada)

To be honest, I don’t fully understand why the Expo had such an impact on people.  For the last three weeks, I have had the task of poring through Expo 67 records here at Library and Archives Canada to determine whether they are appropriate for public viewing.  In the back of my mind, however, I have tried to answer some basic questions that aren’t related to my project:

  • “What was the Expo for?”
  • “What did it achieve?”
  • “Why was it significant?”
  • “If it’s so historical, why aren’t we talking about it in university classes?”

As I have looked through the records, I can only conclude that the Expo was just a big, oversized fair that lasted for 6 months. As a child of British immigrants who arrived in Canada after 1967, I have a difficult time relating to the Expo or comprehending the magnitude of it.  Moreover, having taken university History courses, we barely talked about the Expo.  The only mention of the Expo that I recall from these classes was former-French president Charles de Gaulle’s “Vive le Québec libre!” speech.

Aerial View of Canada to Quebec Pavilions

Aerial View of Canada to Quebec Pavilions (From Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN #3198390)

I think my main problem is that I didn’t grow up in the time period.  This meant that I needed to do some more secondary research on the topic so I could get a greater sense of context around these records.  What I realized was that the Cold War was raging at the time and, with the Cuban Missile Crisis still fresh in most peoples’ minds, everyone in the western hemisphere was prepared for a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union.  Not to mention the Vietnam War, former colonies in Asia and Africa fighting for independence from their European overseers, social change occurring in the United States with African Americans fighting for civil rights, and the Quiet Revolution occurring in Quebec.   It was truly a violent and uneasy time for a lot of people, a time that I have a difficult time relating to since I was only born in the mid-1980s.

From the reading I have done, I am beginning to think that the Expo was an escape from the global turmoil.  It represented the idealized utopia that people wanted the world to be.  It is interesting that the ticket into the Expo was a passport, and participants could take their passport and go to all of the different pavilions and get them stamped.  International borders didn’t exist within this micro-globe and the “citizens” of the Expo could freely “travel” to each country as they pleased.  A participant could easily jump from the United States Pavilion to the USSR, then go to Thailand, and then Cuba.  Though many of these nations were closed in real life, they were open for six months in 1967 in Montreal.

USSR Pavilion

USSR Pavilion (photo owned by Laurent Bélanger)


Now, was it really a utopia?  Had nations really come together to resolve each other’s differences?  Probably not.  I am sure there was gamesmanship between rival countries to put together a more impressive pavilion, garner more attention from the crowds, and spend more money on their displays in an effort to win this small battle of the Cold War.  I am also certain that countries inserted their own national propaganda in their pavilions to promote their way of life and governance.  Nevertheless, it seems that either Expo participants didn’t realize these competitions or just simply ignored them.  Nevertheless, at the end of the closing ceremony of the Expo, General Manager of the Expo Andrew Kniewasser remarked that he saw lots of people hugging, crying, and holding hands.  I believe that this happened for two reasons, first, that the utopian, idealized dream that had persisted throughout the Expo had to come to an end and the people had to face the harsh reality that they lived in.  The second reason, a little more positive, was that Canadians felt that they had accomplished something that only the great nations of the Old World and the economic super powers had achieved.  Finally, the young nation of Canada could claim some a bit of territory on that high pedestal for themselves.

I am also hesitant to suggest that this was an event of major global importance on its own, in isolation.  About 51% of the participants in the Expo were Canadian (half of which came from Montreal.  46% of participants came from the United States, leaving non-North American participation a paltry 4% participation.  However, I do believe this was an important milestone for Canada’s collective morale.  I think after having hosted the Expo, Canada felt like it had made a splash on the world stage.  The Expo was also likely a big step in demonstrating that Montreal could host the Olympic Games, which eventually occurred in 1976.  The two events combined gave Montreal some significant notoriety as a world-class city.

Montreal Biosphere

Montreal Biosphere (Photo by Philipp Hienstorfer)

On a local level, the Expo sped up improvements in infrastructure, development, and tourism as it left behind La Ronde amusement park, extensions in mass transit with the development of light rail to the Expo, the innovative and modern apartment structure Habitat 67, and the development of the islands in the St. Lawrence off the coast of Montreal.

All in all, the Expo was a monumental success for Canadians at the time.  It was the first step to greater international recognition and credibility as a cultural, economic, and artistic centre.  I think more research ought to conducted to determine why it was so important to individuals on a personal level.  Its importance seems to be well-documented at the national and global levels, but I want to know why people were hugging, holding hands, and crying with complete strangers at its end, and why so many people look back at it so fondly, even 50 years later.

Sources Consulted

Kenneally, Rhona Richman and Johanne Sloan (Eds.). Expo 67: Not Just a Souvenir. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Lownsborough, John. The Best Place to Be: Expo 67 and Its Time. Toronto: Penguin, 2012.

The Corporation of the 1967 World Exhbition fonds. The Board of Directors and the Executive Committee series, 1963-1967. Library and Archives Canada. Ottawa, ON.

The Corporation of the 1967 World Exhbition fonds. Department of Finance and Administration series, 1963-1967.  Library and Archives Canada. Ottawa, ON.


Librarians and Preservation

Recently I wrote an essay about the Baker-Cox debate.  This debate reached its height between 2001 and 2002, but the points discussed during this debate still have not been resolved.  Nicholson Baker, in his book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, accused librarians of being careless in their stewardship over current and historical newspapers.  He hated that common practice in libraries was to take newspapers, microfilm them, then throw the paper away.  One of the reasons why libraries would throw the paper away would be because they would have cut the paper up into single sheets, making the scanning a lot easier.  Similar procedures are used for digitization. Baker saw this as irresponsible and that libraries should shift their focus toward preserving the original copies, and adopting microfilming practices that don’t damage the newspapers.  Baker was adamant that libraries ought to preserve every newspaper possible since microfilm is tedious to use, and that the newspapers themselves are important historical artifacts, in his opinion.

Richard J, Cox, an archivist, defended librarians in their current practices saying that librarians are not in the preservation business, they are in the information business, meaning that they are not guardians of paper information, but guide people to all information no matter the medium on which it is found, whether it be online, on a CD, or a stone tablet.  Public Librarians go beyond the responsibility of being information guides and carry out programs that help, for example, new immigrants to Canada learn English and help adapt to the culture of the country.  Librarians also put on a multitude of other programs such as resume workshops, clubs for youth (e.g. chess, video games etc.), test proctoring, and nutrition classes.  In essence, the library has evolved from being an information repository to an important community centre.  Some cities built new library buildings as the start of

Library of Birmingham

Library of Birmingham

downtown revitalization projects, like in Birmingham, UK.  Say what you want about the the post-modern architecture of this particular library, it is exciting that the city decided to build a new library as a means of cleaning up downtown.  Same goes with Vancouver Public Library in British Columbia whose library structure has become an iconic feature of Vancouver’s downtown landscape.

Baker’s opinions represent a fundamental misconception over what librarianship has become and what its purpose is.  To be fair, Baker isn’t the only person that’s fallen into this misunderstanding.  I’ll bet if we surveyed lots of people in the community, many would say that one of the librarian’s main purposes is preservation.  While preservation of information is important, it’s not the librarian’s job.  In terms of collecting, the librarian needs to stay on top of reading trends and purchase the books that will best meet his/her patrons’ needs.  If the librarian collected and never discarded or put materials in alternate formats, library buildings would need to be massive structures.

So whose responsibility is it to preserve the written word?  Well, it depends on the community, but generally it falls on to the shoulders of the archives–or, if your community is privileged enough to have one–a rare book library or special collection.  By the way, most public libraries do not have rare book collections.

So, should the librarian be in the business of both preservation and dissemination?  Possibly, but the problem is that their parent institutions are not willing to increase the library budget, increase staff, or give them a larger building in order to take on that role. When a librarians discard a book, or pulls it apart to digitize it, don’t worry, they haven’t devolved into Nazis or the Westboro Baptist Church, burning books they don’t like or agree with, they are simply doing their best to work within their budgets. Collection review is a challenging task (most of the time), and it’s difficult to be cold-hearted and take a book off the shelf and put it out of its misery, but that’s the way it is for now.

If you feel libraries should be in the business of preservation, contact your town councillor and make a fuss.  Politicians won’t change until their constituents tell them to (democracy!).  As it stands, most communities are not interested because the money  and support isn’t there.  To be honest, I believe most librarians would like to keep more books; I don’t know a librarian that hates their collection, but the powers that be have determined that it’s not financially viable to keep all of the books, so the librarians are forced to make do with what they have.

Thoughts on Community Outreach and Doors Open London

The other day, my wife asked me about the story of Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.  In 1917, the Russian monarchy was overthrown, and subsequently executed in 1918 by Bolshevik Revolutionaries led by Vladimir Lenin. Rumours persisted for the longest time that Anastasia had survived and somehow escaped the coup and was living in hiding somewhere.  I was not clear on the story since I had not spent a lot of time during my undergraduate years studying Russian History outside its involvement in World War II–I’ll be honest, most of my knowledge of Anastasia came from this film…

…Not a promising start.

After doing some quick research I learned that the rumours of Anastasia’s survival stemmed from the fact that her burial place was unknown during the decades of Soviet rule since the Tsar and his wife were only buried with three of their daughters, meaning the body of one daughter, and their son was missing.  Furthermore, many women came forward claiming they were the missing princess, which fuelled suspicions and conspiracies.  In 2007, the bodies of  one of the daughters–either Maria or Anastasia–and Alexei were discovered, confirming they also died in 1918 with the rest of their family.

So where did I find this information?  I’d love to say I hopped on the next plane to Russia to visit some archives in Moscow to figure it all out, but the truth is I went directly to Wikipedia for my answer.  I was struck by something I read in Nesmith’s article, “What’s History Got to Do with It?: Reconsidering the Place of Historical Knowledge in Archival Work.”  Nesmith arugued that,

Archivists can continue to renew and enhance their social relevance and professional knowledge by constantly exploring and critiquing their professional and societal pasts and opening this (their own “archive”) to different ideas, experiences, and circumstances. Where, then, should the still developing archival profession go from here? It can develop further by more fully embracing the historical knowledge relevant to its work and by welcoming and encouraging the reviving historical interests in society at large. (The more society values historical information, the better will be the archivist’s position as one of its key providers.) (Page 4).

As much as I appreciate Nesmith’s optimism, the truth of the matter is that when society looks to quench its thirst for historical knowledge, the likelihood of those people banging on the archives’ doors is slim.  Why?  I believe theses are some of the main reasons:

1. Few people know what an archives is and what it’s for

2. Most people don’t know how to use an archives

3. Archives have very specialized collections and some people’s questions may veer outside of the expertise of the archives

4. Most people have access to the internet and will run to Google or Wikipedia before the archives because it’s easier (Think about Zipf’s Law!)

5. The answers found on the web, even if they’re not quite right, will mostly satisfy the information needs of the user

Though I agree with Nesmith in that introspection and self-critiquing is necessary to improve archival services, we ought not to sit back and wait for our citizens to stroll in.  Self-improvement is only half the battle, community outreach is the other half.

On that note, I wanted to applaud Doors Open London event last weekend.  This was an amazing example of community outreach well done. I was shocked at how many community and cultural institutions opened their doors to show off to the public what they were all about.  When I heard about the event, I was very excited to enter some institutions I had never been to before.  I visited three sites on Saturday.  First, I visited the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum.  I was pleasantly surprised at how large the facility was, and how extensive their coverage was of the key events in Canadian Military history, and the regiment’s involvement in those conflicts.  They had everything from authentic hat badges, medals, weapons, and uniforms on display.  Definitely a family friendly place, I recommend it to anyone with even a casual interest in Canadian military history, It’s obvious that the museum’s donors are very generous with sharing their artefacts for the benefit of the community.

I then made my way down Adelaide to the Banting House National Historical Site, the house where Sir Frederick Banting had his epiphany and discovered insulin.  Though the house is small, I was impressed with the exhibits and how the site managed the challenge of being informative like a museum, but also maintained the character of a historic site.  This is a great place for folks to learn about Banting’s contributions to medicine and his impact on individuals suffering from diabetes, and to get a glimpse of what medical practitioners were like in the early-Twentieth Century.

My last stop was London Life Insurance Company in downtown London.  This was a unique opportunity because Doors Open is the only time when London Life is open to the public.  The building itself is a historic treasure, built during the decadent 1920s, the elaborate details in the architecture are stunning.  London Life also put together a small exhibit chronicling the construction of its first computer in the 1950s.  The photographs are a stunning reminder of how far information technology has come in the last 60 years.  My favourite picture was one of an IBM technician standing in the midst of a complex wiring system and hooking it all up.   I don’t have the actual photo, but the computer in the image looked something like the one below.

Complex wiring inside an early computer

Courtesy of The Computer Museum

In summary, it’s this kind of outreach that will grab the attention of the public and have them banging on the archives’ door.  We can’t just assume, that people will come when they realize they need us, because that realization may never come, and if it does, it may be too late for the archives.  Archives must advertise, and jump into the public eye to grab their attention and tell the public what they can do for them. I think the general public likes history.  I think they enjoy looking at documents from the past, I think the challenge is that they do not know where to find them, and do not realize how accessible those documents actually are.  In movies, archives are often seen as these exclusive places where only VIPs are permitted and only top secret information is held, like in this scene from Angels and Demons where Dr. Langdon is begging for access into the Vatican archives.

This myth needs to be dispelled now, and the archives need to simply open up and reach out.  Let the public know they can do Family History research, let them know they can look at older pictures of their neighbourhood and community, or let them know children can get help with school projects.  Whatever, archives’s specialty, let the community know what the archives can do for it.