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Roxanne Wildenstein is somewhat of a detective. As the sole archivist at Unity Health Toronto, she spends her time pulling at historical threads to unravel stories about past staff, patients and places.

For a recent exhibit celebrating the history of women in medicine, Wildenstein pulled together photos, newspaper clippings and old medical devices and arranged them in a glass display case in the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute. Some of the items had been donated by former physicians, others collected by the nursing school that used to run out of St. Michael’s Hospital.

“The stories I uncover during my research work are what surprise me most,” Wildenstein says. “There are so many impressive achievements by hospital staff.”

Wildenstein, who studied anthropology, archaeology, archives and record management in school, never expected to work at a hospital.

“The one thing I really wanted was to work for an organization that had a rich history,” she says.

Wildenstein’s days are busy and varied. She manages the physical archives collection, largely made up of donations that she meticulously catalogues and stores. Medical equipment, photos, newspaper articles and more are logged in a database and placed in boxes to be easily accessible for future research.

She walks through the rolling stacks of materials, pulling out seemingly unrelated items – intricate devices, leather-bound medical textbooks, teacups and saucers – that all, in one way or another, tie in to the history of the network.

The archives are part of the Health Information and Knowledge Mobilization Program, which also includes the library team. Staff from these teams work across all three Unity Health sites and offer everything from research assistance to digital education and training.

Wildenstein helps patients, families and staff to track down information about relatives and historical events. The stories and photos she finds are often used to celebrate recognition events or raise awareness for departments and programs.

“My favourite requests are from people researching family members,” says Wildenstein.

One of the first requests she received was from a man whose late mother was a graduate of the St. Michael’s School of Nursing. Wildenstein was able to find her graduation photo and a photo from the school newsletter.

“He was so happy to have the photos to show to his children and remember his mother. I thought that was lovely.”

Wildenstein has also begun work to build a digital archive from scratch. It’s an expansive project that will allow the network to preserve records that were created in a digital form – think reports, posters, photos and policies.

Physical archive materials require a lot of care (the archive room at St. Michael’s is kept at a cooler temperature to stave off deterioration) but the same is true of digital archive materials.

“While a box of documents will still be readable in 50 years, a digital file might not be accessible even within the next 10 to 15 years,” says Wildenstein.

Unity Health’s sites are all home to more than a century of history. Wildenstein says she is constantly surprised by the stories she comes across.

“There is a lot of valuable information that I’m happy and honoured to look after.”


By Olivia Lavery

Photos by Eduardo Lima