The Livesay Papers

The Papers of Dorothy Livesay: A Research Tool.  Compiled by the Staff of The Department of Archives and Special Collections, University of Manitoba Libraries.  The University of Manitoba, 1986.   419 pp.

For decades, researchers in the field of Canadian studies have been lamenting the lack of basic bibliographic tools: no adequate retrospective bibliography of Canadian imprints for the period of 1800 to 1951, very few subject bibliographies, and fewer author bibliographies.  But since 1980, things have been looking up.  The National Library began publishing in 1980 its long-awaited Canadiana 1867-1900.  In response to the Symonds Report, the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions was set up to preserve and catalogue pre-1900 materials.  And a third and very important initiative was the establishment in 1981 of the Canadian Studies Research Tools program, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.  This program supports projects that 1) make accessible materials in libraries and archives through the cataloguing of library collections or the preparation of inventories or guides to archival collections; and 2) facilitate access to sources through the preparation of bibliographies, guides to research, and other finding aids (Guidelines, September, 1982).

     Students of Canadian poetry should welcome a recent fruit of the Research Tools program: The Papers of Dorothy Livesay, which is a guide to the Dorothy Livesay Collection at the University of Manitoba.  The University of Manitoba collection contains the majority of Livesay papers and is therefore the place to start for anyone studying either Livesay’s work or her role in contemporary Canadian writing.

     Livesay’s papers are important because Livesay herself has been, for sixty years, so energetic a participant in the scene of Canadian literature: as a writer of poetry, short stories, memoirs, and plays; as a two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for poetry; as a social activist; as a co-founder in 1941 of the literary magazine Contemporary Verse and the founder in 1975 of CV II; as an editor of Raymond Knister’s Collected Poems in 1949, of 40 Women Poets of Canada in 1971, and of Woman’s Eye: 12 B.C. Poets in 1975; as a literary critic, notable for her work on Isabella Valancy Crawford; as a teacher and writer-in-residence at eight Canadian universities in five provinces; and as a tireless correspondent, writing thousands of letters to approximately 1,800 writers, academics, editors, publishers, and students.

     These activities have generated a vast mountain of paper, which in 1978 Livesay donated to the University of Manitoba (eighteen further donations followed in the next six years and there are yet more to come).  Before the papers could be used, however, the staff had to arrange, order, and describe a collection, to quote the Preface, of “overwhelming size and intimidating disorder”.  The staff has ordered this material into 108 container boxes of manuscripts and papers, 4 boxes of photographs, and 2 boxes of audio tapes.  By alerting readers to what is contained in these 114 boxes, The Papers of Dorothy Livesay opens up this rich collection to its potential users.

     So what does the collection contain?  A large component (36 archival boxes) is biographical or autobiographical, including calendar and appointment books, travel diaries, journals, scrapbooks, collections of clippings, and lecture notes.  Another large part is the correspondence, divided into Family Correspondence (9 boxes) and Professional Correspondence (33 boxes).  Livesay kept duplicates of the letters that she sent, so that the entire exchange of letters is often available.  Among those participating in lengthy exchanges are Alan Crawley and family (133 letters), George Woodcock (86 letters), Beth Varley (78 letters), David and Ellen Godfrey (70 letters), Fred Cogswell (60 letters), and Barbara Pentland (35 letters).  The core of the collection may well be the 11 boxes containing approximately 2,000 poems—many of them never published, many of them scribbled down on envelopes and scraps of paper.   Other categories of material include Short Stories, Autobiographical Fiction, Plays, Reviews, Essays, Research Notes on Isabella Valancy Crawford, Talks, Journalism, and Memoirs.

     The primary purpose of this research tool is as a finding aid.  But, wanting to produce something more than “a mere listing” of contents, the University of Manitoba library staff has augmented the master container list with useful supplements: a chronology of important dates in Livesay’s life; descriptive essays written by Pamela Banting, Kristjana Gunnars, and Richard Bennett to apprise researchers, especially those at a distance, of the flavour of the materials in the various categories; an appendix listing Livesay material held in other Canadian repositories; and six full-page reproductions of photographs showing Dorothy Livesay’s father and mother, Dorothy as a baby in a canoe with her parents, Dorothy in 1937 with Duncan Macnair whom she married in that same year, Dorothy in Northern Rodesia in 1962, and Dorothy in 1977 during a reading of Ice Age. The most useful feature of all is undoubtedly the seventy page index to names, places, creative works, and other proper nouns listed in the Register to the Livesay collection.  For example, looking up Raymond Knister in the Index, one is referred to eight different items including a review of Livesay’s edition of Knister’s Collected Poems, a critical article on Knister’s imagism by Livesay, the text of a radio talk on Knister prepared by Livesay for CBC’s “Anthology,” and three letters from Livesay to Knister held in the Knister papers at McMaster.

     The availability of Canadian Studies Research Tools like this one will make a difference to scholarship.  We need more of them.  By showing what materials exist in a given field and where these materials are located, such projects chart out the territory for future research.

Catherine Sheidrick Ross