Rhizomes: An Interview with Jay Young

Jay in the Archives of Ontario’s newest onsite exhibit, ANIMALIA: Animals in the Archives. Photo credit: Archives of Ontario.

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Editor’s note: This is the eighth post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. In this interview, series editor Tina Adcock speaks with Jay Young, an outreach officer at the Archives of Ontario.

Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current position/career. What key choices, encounters, or moments brought you to where you are today?

My interest in environmental history developed at an opportune time. In 2006, I started my PhD in the History department at York University with a focus on Canadian history, urban history, cultural history, and the history of technology. My participation in NiCHE’s first summer school in Toronto that year, with its theme of “Exploring Urban Environments,” convinced me that environmental history had strong links with my historical interests. I also saw firsthand the wonderful community of scholars developing within NiCHE. Plus, how many academic events can boast of walking tours in places like the Don Valley? 

During my PhD, I became interested in connecting the work of historians with non-academic audiences. In part, this interest grew out of my dissertation research, which examined the growth of the Toronto subway system and its impact on the city’s identity and landscapes. My research happened at a time when public debate over transit expansion (or the lack thereof) was front and centre, and I was asked to give a presentation about my research at a Toronto Public Library branch. To my surprise, a packed audience came to the talk. Also around this time, a group of York U grad students—including myself—developed ActiveHistory.ca as a forum to share historical research and thinking with wider audiences. I remember some skeptics at the time, but I’m amazed at the impact the site has continued to have over the past decade. 

Well before I defended my dissertation in 2012, I realized that my career path was likely outside of academia. With hindsight, I’m glad I had this awareness early on. Both personal and professional factors came into play. The importance of family and friends close by, along with my wife’s career in a city-centred profession, meant we wanted to stay in Toronto. The limited job prospects for young academics, as is well known, often means frequent uprooting to new locations—a sacrifice I was increasingly unprepared to make. (Andrea Eidinger and others have written eloquently about the impact of relocation on young academics.) I also began to think my knowledge of urban issues and ability to engage popular audiences might make for a promising career in fields such as public policy, outreach, and communications.

Following more than a year of temporary research and writing gigs, I began a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship in 2014 in the History department at McMaster University. I was excited to continue my academic research, but also saw this as an opportunity to build more breadth of involvement outside academia. For example, I volunteered as chair of the Toronto Transit Commission’s Expert Panel on (Subway) Second Exits, which gave me more practical experience in a public policy/government/stakeholder relations setting. In the end, I think a combination of my historical research skills and my accomplishments outside academia made me the successful candidate for a position in outreach and promotion at the Archives of Ontario in 2014. 

What do you like most about your current position/career? What things would you change about it, if you could?

For almost five years I’ve been an outreach officer at the Archives of Ontario, the largest provincial archives in Canada. My job is all about increasing awareness about the collections and services at the Archives. In many ways, I still “get to be a historian” by conducting archival research and telling stories documented in the Archives’ collections. Some of my specific responsibilities include creating social media strategies and content for the Archives’ Twitter and Facebook channels (follow us!), expanding the Archives’ YouTube channel (now with 100+ films from our collections), curating online, travelling, and onsite exhibits, and giving tours of the Archives’ public facility, located on the Keele Campus of York University.

Jay giving a tour to members of the public during Doors Open Toronto. Photo credit: Archives of Ontario.

It’s rewarding that the projects I work on reach large, diverse audiences. For example, our onsite exhibits see nearly five thousand annual visitors and are intended for people of different ages and educational backgrounds (“Grade 3 to PhD,” as we like to say). This poses some fun opportunities in terms of the conception and curation of exhibit content. Our team selects topics with broad appeal. The content needs to cater to different learning abilities and styles, from engaging interactive displays to academically rigorous interpretive text for featured records and artefacts. I also enjoy working with so many talented, motivated people with unique areas of subject expertise—archival science, preservation, and recordkeeping, just to name a few. I’m always learning new things. My job also has good work/life balance, which is important in this stage of my life as a father of two young children.

Working in government means my research and writing is now the face of a large organization. It may be cliché, but I had to get used to the pace of working as a public servant. Patience in this regard is a virtue, as projects take some time to come to fruition. However, I’ve come to appreciate that the flipside of working in a large organization also means more resources at my disposal, and that good planning is essential to any project. 

Which aspects of your graduate training in environmental history have helped you most in your current position/career?

In general, the transferable skills I developed during grad school—project management (a.k.a. completing a dissertation!), the ability to synthesize complex patterns and ideas, and clear communication, to name a few—are valuable in many work environments.  

More specific to my training in environmental history, over the past few years I served as curator of the Archives of Ontario’s newest onsite and online exhibit—ANIMALIA: Animals in the Archives. We wanted our next exhibit to focus on the natural world, and my training in environmental history made me aware that Animal Studies is a growing field in academia. My training also gave me a conceptual background to structure the research required for the exhibit, and an awareness of the kinds of stories we wanted to explore. 

Jay in the Archives of Ontario’s newest onsite exhibit, ANIMALIA: Animals in the Archives. Photo credit: Archives of Ontario.

ANIMALIA explores the importance of animals to Ontario’s history, and the ways in which nonhuman species are documented in our collections. The exhibit features records about five animal groups that represent Ontario’s diverse landscapes and the complex relationships Ontarians have with other species: fish, bears, horses, dogs, and birds. Themes throughout the exhibit, such as conservation, cultural understandings of various species, and animal agency, drew on my environmental history training. But I also learned new things during my research. I had no idea how common it was for families to include their pet dogs in formal portraits in the early decades of photography! 

Three seated girls, three standing boys, and a dog, [1895-1910], Bartle Brothers fonds, Archives of Ontario (I0053545)].

What kinds of skills or training do you wish you could have acquired in graduate school, in light of your current work?

One thing grad school does is show the value of being willing and able to learn new skills on the fly, and I hope I’ve kept this attitude in my current job. For example, I have no formal training in exhibit development or social media communications, but I’ve morphed the skills I did learn in grad school to these new uses. I’m also fortunate to work with staff here at the Archives with other, complementary skill sets who have helped me develop my own knowledge in these areas. 

I know there have been some calls for grad programmes to create a more formalized system to prepare students for work outside of academia, including internships or co-ops. I can see some value in that, although I wonder if it would be of interest to all grad students. One relatively simple initiative that grad students would likely find helpful is expert-led guidance offered by universities on how to “convert” the accomplishments found in an academic CV to a standard resume. This knowledge (which was passed on to me primarily by my wife and non-academic friends) was essential when I began to pursue non-academic career options.

What advice, thoughts, or reflections arising from your experiences would you offer to graduate students studying environmental history?

I’d encourage grad students to get involved—with other grad students, with their communities, with relevant institutions—in initiatives that demonstrate how your skills translate outside of academia. Doing so builds resumes, but it’s also fun, rewarding, and maybe even increases productivity in research and writing in the long run. Although grad school is undoubtedly a busy time in one’s life, it’s also an opportunity to see what non-academic careers are out there. 

I’d also encourage grad students to meet and talk to people (especially former grad students) who work outside academia in careers that are of interest. When I began to expand my professional network this way during grad school and following my defense, I was struck by how generous people were with their time to grab a coffee and chat. These conversations often led to other opportunities. 

My last reflection? Working outside of academia can be personally rewarding and intellectually challenging. I look forward to my work when I wake up in the morning, and that’s the best test of a job there is. 

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Jay Young is an outreach officer at the Archives of Ontario, the largest provincial archives in Canada. He has a PhD in history from York University.

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