Toronto’s entire history—photographs, council minutes, home movies, memories—is stored inside 131,119 cardboard boxes in a sprawling warehouse at 255 Spadina Rd. Bright blue shelves tower three storeys high and red sprinkler pipes snake through the room. The filtered air, always at 40 to 46 per cent humidity, smells like aged newspaper.
The nondescript brick building, marked only with weathered metal signs and a banner, is climate controlled and boasts fire and security systems to protect everything from the first subway transfer to the earliest photographs of Toronto. And good news: Many of these artifacts are actually available to the public and waiting to be rediscovered.
The city nearly lost a great deal of its history due to past neglect. The current facility opened in 1992 and is one of a pair of storage areas in Toronto. Prior to that, the records were first kept in a leaky attic at Old City Hall, then in the basement of New City Hall among ductwork and other detritus in a circular room known as “the donut.” The current collection includes material from the former Metro municipalities and artifacts donated by the public.
When city documents reach the end of their retention period, commonly around seven years, they are sent to Spadina Road for appraisal by a team of archivists. Surprisingly, much of the material ends up shredded. Not even records already in the warehouse are safe—space is finite and the building is routinely 98 per cent full.
The place is organized like a winning game of Tetris in order to increase capacity, but as veteran employee Fortunato DiVizio says, it wasn’t a quick process. As team leader for organizing the stacks, he recalls that in the early going, “It was all mix-and-match. We did an inventory and consolidated all the same type of boxes…it took about two years.”
In the boardroom, supervisor Michele Dale and archivists Lawrence Lee and Patrick Cummins (who’s also a renowned street photographer) explain what it’s like to be custodians of the city’s past. “There are all these stories, little mysteries waiting to be solved,” says Lee. “You open up a box and it’s always an adventure, every day,” adds Dale.
Oldest record: 1792 map of the Toronto harbour
Newest record: DVD copy of the most recent council meeting
Biggest record: Nine-foot-long plan of Toronto wharves and piers from 1884
Smallest record: 1-cm TTC staff pin
Capacity: 123,000 boxes
Appraised value of collection: $31 million
Incoming boxes accepted in 2012: 25,081
Incoming boxes destroyed in 2012: 26,034
Weight of boxes destroyed in 2012: 275.6 tonnes
Access requests per day: 130–180