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Time in a bottle

Labatt gift digitizes corporate history

by Debora Van Brenk, BA’86, MA’87 | January 2, 2018

One of the world’s most significant corporate archival collections is now among the most accessible and dynamic, thanks to a generous gift-in-kind from an iconic Canadian business.

The Labatt Brewing Company generously donated its archives – thousands of documents and artifacts that filled more than 2,600 boxes — to Western in 2011 . The archive, which includes the Labatt Material Culture Collection at Museum London, is considered one of the top three collections in the world. It was valued at $8.3 million when donated in 2011.

Labatt augmented the in-kind gift with a significant financial donation to one day digitize the material. Completed in October, the digitization project now offers greater access and new glimpses into 170 years of history in Canada.

Kelly Cole, Vice-President (External) at Western, said the collection showcases how Western can add to valuable corporate archives. “Gifts in kind, such as the one Labatt has made, are an important way corporations and individuals can support Western and contribute in a significant way to global knowledge and research,” she said.

The virtual exhibit (labattheritage.lib.uwo.ca) offers researchers and the public a rich new opportunity to learn about Canada, London and an iconic brewing legacy through the unique lens of Labatt’s archives. The project came to fruition as Labatt celebrated its 170th anniversary in 2017.

Offering hundreds of digitized images, audio interviews and radio and TV ads, the project also offers expert insights from renowned Canadian historians. The collection represents key items of the larger Labatt Brewing Company Archival Collection, housed at Western.

A graduate student in Western’s Library and Information Science program and five Public History undergraduates were pivotal in bringing Labatt’s and Canada’s remarkable histories to life through the selection and digitization of the artifacts. “It’s much more than the history of Canada’s most venerable brewery,” said Robin Keirstead, University Archivist at Western Libraries. “It’s a multi-faceted view into events that shaped this country, from the ordinary to the extraordinary; it’s a source of cultural, social, political, industrial, corporate and sports history you simply won’t find anywhere else.”

John Kinder Labatt founded the iconic Canadian Brewery in 1847.

The exhibit illustrates Labatt’s ties to local economies, its business leadership (it was one of the first in Canada to provide paid annual vacations), brewing innovations, philanthropy during peacetime and war, and its commitment to sports locally, nationally and internationally.

Mike Dove, acting director of the Master’s program in Public History at Western, said, “None of these events in the Labatt corporate life took place in isolation. We believe these highlights, placing the Labatt timeline in the context of other things happening locally and around the world, will help people gain a deeper understanding of history.”

Labatt’s director of corporate affairs, Sharon MacKay, said, “Labatt has been a part of Canadian communities for 170 years. This virtual exhibit underscores how Labatt’s history is interwoven with the diverse and rich history of Canada. From academia and marketers, to sports fans and beer aficionados, our goal was to bring our archives to life and make them accessible to everyone.

“We hope we’ve shown a path other corporate citizens can follow as they try to ensure the preservation and use of their collections for the public good,” she said. Matt Bellamy, a Carleton University historian specializing in Canadian corporate and consumer history, who has studied the Labatt archives extensively and whose insights are included as online commentary, said beer is a cultural force in Canada — nowhere more pronounced than at Labatt, where the company’s founding pre-dated Confederation by 20 years.

“Trends in Canada parallel those at Labatt. When you examine the cultural, sports and marketing history of Labatt, you’re also gaining key insights into what defines Canada. This collection beautifully captures time in a bottle.”

For more information about supporting Western Libraries, contact Julie Ryan, Alumni & Development Officer, Western Libraries (519.661.2111 ext. 88078 or jryan63@uwo.ca) or visit extraordinary.westernu.ca


This article appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Impact Western
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