"Got any pictures of Terry Fox?"

July 05, 2022
Terry Fox at SFU, May 29, 1979 (UNS 79207).

This is a question we often receive in the Archives. And others like it: a request for an image of a specific person or event at a specific time and place at SFU - e.g. the opening of a new building on campus, a recently retired faculty member, a celebrity who appeared at Convocation, or somebody's grandfather who was a charter student in 1965. The Archives holds over 300,000 photographic images. How do we find needles in the haystack? Happily, we have some tools to help us out. And we're now moving these online to make them available to anyone who wants to search our photo holdings.

There are three main series of photographs relating to SFU. Two were created by SFU staff photographers working in units that were the predecessors of today's University Commmunications and Marketing (see F-18-1 and F-61-1); and a third by student journalists at The Peak newspaper (see F-17-1). The Archives holds many other photographs from many other sources, but these are the best places to start when looking for images of SFU personalities and events.

Contact sheet UNS 79207

Up until about the year 2000 at SFU, photographers worked mainly with analog film. The photographer shot a roll of film, cut it up into a number of strips (negatives), then developed the strips onto sheets of photographic paper as a page of thumbnail images (contact sheets). Contact sheets provided a quick view of the contents of a roll of film, allowing photographers to select the best frames for use in a newspaper story or publication. Photographers would make their selection, then develop the negatives into full-size prints or slides.

Over the years, SFU and Peak photographers transferred to Archives over 14,000 of these contact sheets, each one typically representing 20-30 image negatives. It's fun to just flip through the contact sheets, but if you want something specific, best use the index. This was originally created in the early 1980s, as an application developed by SFU's then Computing Centre on the university's MTS mainframe server. Archives' staff assigned brief descriptions, keywords and names to groups of frames. Subsequently, photographers could access the same system to index own their photos as they made them.

SFU retired the MTS system in the early 1990s. The photo index data was printed into five over-stuffed binders that still sit in the Archives' reading room today. But the data was also migrated to a standalone FileMaker database for use by the Archives, and SFU photographers also received their own copy so that they could continue to index their own images. As the last transfers of contact sheets and negatives came to the Archives in the 2000s, we also acquired the index data and integrated it into our own system. This allowed us to respond to queries, and a standalone copy of the database is accessible in our reading room.

Photo index data was printed out to five binders in the Archives reading room
Photo index sample page showing Terry Fox entries

To make access easier, the Archives has begun digitizing the contact sheets. In May 2022 we uploaded the first batch of contact sheets and index data to our online catalogue, SFU AtoM (Access-to-Memory). This represents the first 10 years of photographs (1970-1979) from what was then known as the University News Service. This gives the public direct access to the index data, with a link to the image of the contact sheet. To request a copy of an image, just contact the reference archivist, give us the ID of the contact sheet (e.g. UNS 79207) and the position of the thumbnail (e.g. strip 1, third from the top). We'll make a high-quality scan from the original negative and deliver it to you offline. Over the years, we've made many such scans and we'll soon begin uploading these to SFU AtoM as well.

So, how do you find an image of Terry Fox? There are a few ways to do it, but the easiest is simply to type "terry fox" into the search bar along the top of the screen in SFU AtoM.

AtoM search box: enter search text, click the search icon

The database returns a list of matches (to date, 89 hits). Besides photos, these include textual records, press releases, posters, audio and video. You can scroll through the list to find the contact sheets; click one to go to the full record, where you can view and download it as a pdf file. You can also save search results to a Clipboard by clicking the paper clip icon next to its entry in the results list. Click the paper clip icon in the upper menu bar to retrieve your Clipboard; printing as a pdf in most browsers will save the active links in your pdf document.

AtoM search results: click a link to view the full description record

Our plan now is to upload all of the index data by the end of 2022, so that all descriptions will be searchable. We'll also work on getting the images themselves online, continuing to digitize the contact sheets and upload them in batches, along with individual photos that have been scanned on request from the original negatives. Stay tuned!