Labatt virtual exhibit at Western offers a public taste of Canadiana

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One of the world’s most significant corporate archival collections has now become among the most accessible and dynamic, with digitization that offers new public glimpses into 170 years of history in Canada.

The virtual exhibit, accessible on the Western Libraries website, highlighting the Labatt Brewing Company Collection 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.

It offers hundreds of digitized images, audio interviews, and radio and TV ads – all available on a single site that illustrates the storylines of Canada and local history. Renowned Canadian historians also provide expert insights and highlight how Labatt began brewing some of Canada’s best-loved beer in 1847. This collection represents key items of the larger Labatt Brewing Company Archival Collection, housed at Western.

“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 that you simply won’t find anywhere else.”

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 artifacts for the virtual exhibit.

A taste of the contents:

  • Prohibition-era Canada, when Labatt brewed low-alcohol ‘temperance beer;’
  • The Franklin search for the Northwest Passage, an expedition under way when Labatt was founded;
  • Labatt’s donation in 1859 of 1,000 pounds of flour to destitute Londoners;
  • The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, at about the time Labatt sent bottled care packages to Canadian soldiers in the Korean War; and
  • Timeless TV ads and radio jingles that evoke past and current musical tastes.

Mike Dove, acting director 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.”

Sharon Mackay, Labatt’s Director of Corporate Affairs, added, “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 that other corporate citizens can follow as they try to ensure the preservation and use of their collections for the public good.”

In 2011, Labatt donated its corporate archives to Western – thousands of documents and artifacts – and augmented this in-kind gift with significant donations to support researcher access to the collection, including this digitization project. The complete Labatt archive, which includes the Labatt Material Culture Collection at Museum London, is considered one of the top three collections in the world – valued at $8.3 million when donated to Western and the museum in 2011

Matt Bellamy, a Carleton University historian specializing in Canadian corporate and consumer history who has studied the Labatt archives extensively, 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.”

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.”