Building Your School Archives

Resource Guide for Building a School Archives

During a school year, schools produce documents, photos, and artifacts that reflect a particular time and place. These items constitute the raw materials for a School Archives.

Creating a School Archives is an ongoing process. It can also be a learning opportunity. Students who participate in building a School Archives acquire unique knowledge and skills. They also gain satisfaction from knowing they are preserving a legacy that will benefit future students, and their school in general.

The purposes of a School Archives are:

  • To be a repository for historically valuable documents and artifacts.
  • To provide resources for celebrating a school’s heritage.
  • To be a resource for teaching research-related and communication skills to students.

(Note: a distinction is made between a school archives which provides public records of heritage value, and school records which are private and maintained for legal and administrative purposes.)

 Suggested Guidelines for Creating a School Archive

(How these are used will depend on the current status of the existing collection, and the level of interest within the school.)

  • Establish a committee of interested personnel to guide the development of the archives.
  • Prepare a brief statement of the form the archives should take to fit with the overall school goals.
  • Identify the person(s) who will oversee the development of the archives and the duties they will perform to coordinate its operation.
  • Select a location within the school to serve as the archives. Ideally, it should be dry, cool, light-tight, and secure. It need not be large – a locked closet or cabinet in the library may be sufficient.
  • Establish connections with those in the local community who have access to historical documents and artifacts (local archives, historical societies, former teachers and students).
  • Identify the roles students can perform in collecting, scanning, cataloguing, preserving and displaying materials. Also, consider their role in conducting oral history interviews and recording special events and performances.
  • Compile an Inventory of existing archival and heritage materials in the school. List these by categories such as PHOTOS, VIDEOS, ARTIFACTS and DOCUMENTS. File an extra copy of this Inventory in the school office files.



Author:  Lisa Glandt, MAS.

With the support of the VSB Archives and Heritage Committee, I recently updated the historical exhibits at Sir William Van Horne Elementary and organized our records into a school archive collection. A full disclaimer – aside from being a mom of 2 kids who attend Van Horne, I am a professional Archivist and Historian and have 20 years of experience working in archives, museums and specialized research libraries. After countless trips down the hallway looking at the 2 old display cases, I decided that they could use a little TLC and were in need of an update.

With the enthusiastic approval of our principal one of my first steps was to see what “old stuff” we had about the school. The display cases held a jumble of sports trophies, ribbons, academic achievement plaques and some photos. In 2011 Van Horne celebrated its 100th anniversary so materials had been previously gathered by the Centennial Committee to create themed decade classrooms, photo displays, and a centennial booklet about the first 100 years of the school. Materials from the event were stored in a small room in the basement. The boxes contained scrapbooks, ledgers from the PTA (1920’s – 1930’s), school attendance and marking registers, class photos (1956-current), videos of school activities, correspondence with alumni (related to the centennial events), sports day ribbons, and sport jerseys and t-shirts with previous school logos. In all, a fairly typical collection of school records and lots of themes that could be turned into a new exhibit.



The display cases themselves needed a good clean they were emptied out and all the trophies were moved down into the records storage room. This very quickly got the kids attention as they watched me pack up boxes with great trepidation. After a morning of non-stop questions, I made a sign so that the kids knew what was happening to their precious trophies! Underneath the dusty fabric backdrop, one of the display cases had a wood finish in almost perfect condition – so I knew that I didn’t want to remove the permanently mounted shelving brackets or add any new holes. With the idea from a fellow parent, I used the existing brackets to create a background “frame” for the new exhibit. I covered the white brackets with black tape so that it could be removed in the future without any damage to the original wood finish.

A trip to the local library provided a number of books on William Van Horne and his role in the CPR. This was one of the things that inspired me to update the exhibit – who was Van Horne and why was our school named after him? I also found some useful information and photographs about the history of the school site at the City of Vancouver Archives and the VSB Heritage Centre. Since my target audience was school-aged kids, the text panels are less academic and written to include fun tidbits like “constant practical jokes got Van Horne fired from his first job when he was 14 years old” and historical facts including “Van Horne was responsible for renaming our city Vancouver”. His role in the CPR could have taken up the whole exhibit – but instead it serves as a starting point for the senior grades to do more research on William Van Horne and the history of the CPR in Canada. The other side of the exhibit frame tells the story of our school and photographs show how the building has changed over the past 100 years. Included in the exhibit is one of the school’s original handwritten attendance ledgers dating 1921-1924 and black and white class photos from the 1920s.



The second display case has a fun, bright design that focuses on school artifacts including trophies, ribbons, posters, old jerseys and lots of photographs that celebrate stories about previous sport and art events. Throughout the project, the kindergarten class across the hall were my both my biggest critics and fans. They eagerly asked what I was doing at different stages of cleaning and installation and were excited to see old photographs and the return of newly cleaned and shiny trophies. Just the other day I was talking to a dad who was looking at the exhibit – he also attended Van Horne and recognized his classmates in one of the 1980s photographs!



So with a little elbow-grease the display cases were brought back to life and are now more engaging to our students, staff, and parents. In all, it cost just under $75.00 to update the displays with the majority of the cost towards the price of photograph reprints to use in the exhibit, cardstock for the text panels and mounting supplies.

Once the exhibit was done, I spent some time appraising and organizing the records, photographs and artifacts into the school archives. Bankers boxes were labelled and papers were rehoused. The photographs were removed from damaging plastic albums and organized chronologically by year. In the absence of archival, acid-free folders and Hollinger boxes (a future budget request), they were also put into clean new file folders and labelled. Organizing the photographs revealed that photos from the early years of our school are rare so any future donations would be welcomed. Only a small selection of trophies were put back into the display case so the remaining trophies were boxed up. The fragile, oversized scrapbooks are now housed in large tote boxes to protect them from dirt and rough handling. In a dark corner of the gym storage room I found old jerseys with the different school logos used over the years so they went into a box with other textile items, including a t-shirt with our current “Van Horne Wildcats” logo. Luckily, the storage room has good sturdy shelves so all of the boxes are now off the ground and protected in case of any flood damage. As per good archival storage practices, the room is kept dark with the lights off and the door is securely locked unless it is in use.



Going forward there are still many stories to tell from our school archives now that the records are organized and accessible. Unfortunately there are gaps in the records and I’m not sure if they can be filled – records were either destroyed or discarded over the years. A school’s archival history is only as good as the intention and willingness of people to identify valuable records and commit to maintaining a safe space to preserve them for the future. I hope that the new exhibits inspire our school community to recognize and donate their Van Horne memories so that our history can be celebrated for years to come.