One of the million things that makes Trent University so special as an undergraduate university is the opportunities it provides to its students. From research opportunities with professors to groundbreaking research on the national stage, to working closely with community partners on meaningful local research. The Trent Community Research Center matches passionate undergraduate students with community partners that need research done but cannot afford to pay a researcher or a masters student / PhD candidate. These partners need research, like the Turtle Conservation Center needing a student to map and study turtle movements to help stop cars running them over while crossing the road. Community research is so important because it allows local research to get done. Without these undergrads, who would study Peterborough, a small town in Ontario?
I was lucky enough to participate in some of this meaningful research. In my fourth year of my history degree I had the opportunity to work with the County of Peterborough to write and research the history of the, now demolished, Peterborough County Jail. The jail was being torn down and turned into a public park. The country wanted to build something educational so the public could learn the history of the jail that was older than Canada.
I learned so much from this experience and I am forever grateful for this opportunity. I won't say that it was always fun, and it was almost never easy. Left is a photo of Logan during Earth hour 2017 when we were trying to finish our final revisions and formatting and neither of us could take an hour as a break because we needed to finish. Logan strapped her phone to her forehead with a headband so she could keep working. For 9 months all our family and friends heard about was small county jails and the difficulties we were having.
To be completely honest with you, we feel a little bit like we failed. We know we could have done better. When the county brought this to the TCRC they had lofty goals about including stories from community members about inmates and past employees, doing research in Canadian and provincial archives, and doing the massive amounts of primary research that this project both deserved and needed. We sat down with an established Peterborough historian near the beginning of the project. They gave us pages and pages of resources, then told us to buy a membership to the Peterborough archives and spend hours doing a massive amount of research there. The county really only wanted the primary research, or what most people think of as the "really cool stuff." We had a problem reconciling what might be more interesting to the general public with our duty as historians to also consult secondary sources and present a fuller picture. We also were unsupported in primary research and felt like we kept missing important information. I think that this project will weigh on me for (potentially) the rest of my life, it feel unfinished. We needed it to be a 2 credit course or we needed a whole team of undergrads or a masters project. It deserved more people and more time.
Although we had the opportunity to present our research to the stakeholders, and then again at a forum of all the community-based research projects (right) we still felt like we didn't actually accomplish anything. I wasn't until we were invited to attend the the grand opening of the jail park that we realised the scope of what we did.
We had about 10 minutes of plaque-writing training from an expert (the amazing Michael Eamon). We also worked with one of the foremost researchers in Canadian women's history, Joan Sangster, who inspired and supported us every step of the process. Despite our lack of expertise, our words are set in stone. We have been published ( ptbocounty.ca/jailpark ) and we have made a major impact on this community. I am grateful that I can use this experience to show my future students that history is not irrelevant, it is bigger than us. Despite the hardships and roadblocks we have something pretty amazing to show for it. There is a place I will be able to bring my children to and actually show them real work that I did. That is pretty cool.
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