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Home News Bill Smiley Archives bids farewell to longtime volunteer

Bill Smiley Archives bids farewell to longtime volunteer

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Bill Smiley Archives bids farewell to longtime volunteer
Jamie Benson Manager of the Historical Museum in Prince Albert takes the time to look over an old copy of the Prince Albert Daily Herald that is stored in the archives at the museum dated back to 1929. Herald photo by Sarah Rolles

Jamie Benson’s 20 years of service with the Prince Albert Historical Society may not have happened without a meeting with a former teacher.

Benson was a student at the Prince Albert Collegiate Institute when Bill Smiley worked as the vice-principal. Years later, Benson inquired about volunteering at the Prince Albert Historical Museum, where Smiley ran the archives. The inquiry came after the two bumped into each other in downtown Prince Albert.

“I happened to ask him if he was looking for any volunteers at the museum because I knew he’d been volunteering himself over there,” Benson remembered during a phone interview on Monday. “Since I had a lot of respect for his opinion on things I thought, ‘well, why not ask,’ and by George, 10 minutes later I’m getting a tour of the museum and the archives.”

It was the beginning of a productive period of volunteering for Benson, who not only joined the archive, but spearheaded efforts to digitize Smiley’s vast card catalogue of documents, photos and other historical information. It even led to a stint as museum manager from November 2003 to October 2011.

Benson later joined the museum board in 2012—the same year he received a lifetime membership from the historical society—and continued as a board member until 2015. He kept volunteering in the archives during his time, trying to make them as easy to navigate as possible.

Those years of volunteering came to an end on Monday, when Benson stepped back from his role in the archives for good.

“It’s been good fun, absolutely,” Benson said when asked about his time at the museum. “I won’t miss the work as much as I’ll miss the people I worked with because they were just gorgeous.”

Benson’s decision to step away came as a bit of a surprise to his colleagues. Museum manager and curator Michelle Taylor said it’s hard to imagine the museum without him.

“Jamie’s been here for so long and he’s been such a fixture,” Taylor said on Monday. “It’s just such a shock that he said he wouldn’t be here anymore.”

Benson initially spent plenty of time working side-by-side with Smiley in the archives. Within a few weeks he had his own key, and within a few months he was a member of the board of directors.

“I’d never worked in archives before, but just the process of what he (Smiley) was up to, I found interesting,” Benson explained. “I’m not a historian. I’m more of a data manager, and what he was doing was really interesting.

“The more I got involved with it, the more intrigued I became with what he was doing.”

Benson enjoyed his time in the archives, but that wasn’t his only reason for volunteering. He was convinced the museum’s cache of documents and photos should be accessible to as many people as possible.

That belief was one of the big reasons he set about modernizing the catalogue format by making everything available in an electronic database. Today, Benson’s electronic system helps volunteers answer the roughly 20 requests for information they get every month. He considers it his biggest contribution to the museum.

“I had to devise it from scratch,” he remembered. “My background is in forest inventory, so I was familiar with dealing with data management issues. I had the type of information we wanted to save, to put into a database so it could be searched and people could find it. I spent quite a bit of time designing what I thought would be a good set of criteria to record for every document and every picture and so on and put those into a table.

“A good friend, Harris May, helped design the actual database itself…. I devised the tables, and Harris set up the actual software to access it. It was a good joint effort.”

Transferring Smiley’s archives to an electronic database took seven summers. The museum manager left for Calgary shortly after they finished, creating another role Benson stepped in to fill. The manager’s duties kept him busy, but he always made time for the archives.

Benson said he enjoyed his 20 years at the museum, but it was time to move on.

“I’m at a point where I think I’ve got to decide what comes next in my life,” he said. “I’m planning, to try and get myself back down to New Brunswick where I spent a lot of time. I’ve got friends and relatives who live down there. That prompted me to say, ‘well, 20 years, I’d better think about where I’m going to go in the next while or I’m not going to do it.’”

Regardless of where he ends up, Benson’s efforts to make Prince Albert history accessible for everyone will always be appreciated.

“He just really made the archives what it is today,” Taylor said.

Anyone who wants to volunteer at the Prince Albert Historical Museum can call 306-764-2992.