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Behind the scenes with Melissa Caza, archivist

Mar 19, 2021
By Guylaine Spencer

75th Anniversary logo

The McMaster School of Nursing is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2021.

McMaster University’s Health Sciences Archives houses several Faculty of Health Sciences collections, including those of the McMaster School of Nursing. Recently, we have featured a series of articles highlighting some of our historic treasures. In this story, we meet the archivist in charge of the collection.

Melissa Caza

Photo above: Melissa Caza, in front of just a few of more than 70 boxes containing the School of Nursing archive collection  

Walk down to the lower level of the Health Sciences Library, and through the hushed quarters of the C. Barber Mueller History of Health and Medicine Room, and you’ll come to a door labelled Archives. In pre-pandemic days, this was the daily domain of archivist Melissa Caza. These days, like most of us, Caza is usually working from home, with occasional on-site visits as needed.  

Caza is an important campus partner of the School of Nursing. She joined McMaster University in 2018. She oversees the Health Sciences Archives, which includes the School of Nursing collection.  

The archive is our history-holder, our institutional memory. Unlike a library, “an archive collects original unpublished records,” says Caza. In the case of the School of Nursing, this means more than 70 boxes of archival content relating to the history of the School of Nursing. This includes photographs, reports, minutes, transcriptions of interviews with past faculty and students of the school, correspondence, curriculum material, scrapbooks containing early articles about the school, alumni newsletters, and various other documents relating to the programs and to alumni. 

Globe and Mail article

Above:  a page from the scrapbooks, showing an article about the school published in 1949  

Beyond the written documents, however, the archive holds other interesting objects. These include, for example, “Glimpses into the Life of a Student Nurse”, a publicity film shot in 1952 for the school, first shown in 1953.

film and tapes

Above: the 1952 film is available in many forms, including digital  

There are nursing uniforms dating from 1946 to 1970 and a collection of doll-sized uniforms made by Henrietta Alderson showcasing the evolution of McMaster’s nursing uniforms from 1946 to 1992. “When I’m giving tours of the archive, everyone always loves these uniforms,” says Caza. She also shows visitors the photograph album made for Alma Reid, a former head of the school. “It contains snapshots and greeting cards from early alumni and shows what life was like for students from the 1950s to 1970s.”

Henrietta Alderson with dolls

Above: Henrietta Alderson with a display of her doll-sized nursing uniforms in 1992  

The archive was founded in 1974. The first transfers of nursing material to the archives were likely by Henrietta Alderson who had collected documents in the 1970s for her McMaster School of Nursing history book “25 Years A’Growing”. “But history is constantly evolving,” says Caza. The collection continues to grow and Caza is always interested in hearing from departments and individuals who may have records for the archives.  

One recent addition was a donation of material now known as the Vicky Bach fonds. Bach was a graduate of the McMaster nursing programs (both BScN and Masters). She died in 2014. “Bach did some research around the history of nursing including interviews. Those interviews and the transcripts as well as some material she collected from the narrators are the physical records we have, but everything else is digital files,” says Caza. “We had a remote co-op student over the summer of 2020, so he processed that collection.”  

The archive, like most of the rest of the university, is temporarily closed to the public due to the pandemic, but researchers continue to access material remotely by contacting Caza by email. “Thankfully, a lot of our most popular items like transcripts for oral histories, some video and sound recordings, and photos have been digitized, so I have been able to pull those materials,” she says. And if you’re just curious about some of the more unusual items in the collection, you can read about a few of the items we have featured here on our website:  

Henrietta’s Scrapbooks 

Photographs of Henrietta Alderson 

1952 film promoting the School of Nursing  

Architect’s drawings of the proposed School of Nursing Building  

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