History of the Beaton Institute

The Beaton Institute, and its predecessor Cape Bretoniana, has served as the regional archives for Cape Breton Island for the past 59 years. The Beaton Institute collects and preserves the social, economic, political and cultural history of the Island and through this mandate supports and fosters research related to Cape Breton – its people, its industry, its history, and its rich cultural heritage.

Fifty years ago, prior to digital technology, the information landscape was quite different; however, it was not without its challenges. Mother St. Margaret of Scotland (Sister Margaret Beaton), in her role as Librarian at Xavier Junior College, recognized that many documents of historical and literary significance to Cape Breton Island were being lost due to neglect and the lack of an appropriate repository. In a pro-active response to this challenge Sr. Beaton began collecting Cape Breton related documents and artifacts with the objective of preserving materials of historic significance for future scholars.

It all began in 1957 with the acquisition of the first manuscript – The Minutes of the First Agricultural Meeting in Cape Breton. Today, the Beaton Institute is recognized in the archival community as having a rich regional collection including: 3,000 manuscript collections, 60,000 images, 2,500 sound recordings, 1,500 video cassettes and film reels, 1,500 reference books, 2,000 maps and plans.

This collecting, in the beginning, was sporadic and unplanned – more serendipitous in nature, but fruitful all the same. By 1966, Sister Margaret turned her attention to building Cape Bretoniana and the College of Cape Breton Archives on a full-time basis. Cape Bretoniana grew substantially during these years with several appeals to the local community for donations of archival material. As a result there was the on-going need for additional space for the archives, first housed within the library then in the MacDonald Arts Building on George Street in Sydney, followed by a move to the MacLeod Building on Nepean Street in 1967 and then to the Logue Building at George and Pitt Streets in 1970.

In 1975, Cape Bretoniana was expanded to include two main divisions: the Archives and Institute Library, and the division of Ethnic Studies, Folklore and the Social and Cultural History of Cape Breton Island. In the same year the Archives was struck a blow with the sudden death of Sr. Beaton as a result of a car accident. The direction of the Archives was taken on by Dr. Malcolm MacLellan as an interim measure until the appointment of Dr. Robert Morgan as the permanent director and archivist. The Archives was renamed, the Beaton Institute, in honour of its foundress and as a pledge that the work of this outstanding woman would continue.

In 1979, the Institute, along with the rest of the Sydney Campus, moved to its new location on the Grand Lake Road. The Institute was located in the Information and Communications Centre near the Library and Art Gallery. The expanded quarters and improved facilities were the culmination of many years of planning and made the Institute one of Canada’s important regional archives.

Today the Beaton Institute is housed in a 17,000 square foot complex within the Student, Culture and Heritage Centre at Cape Breton University. The modern facility houses a reading room, the vault, several specialized collections rooms, offices and work room. The foundation of the Beaton Institute is its collection. The manuscript collection is particularly strong in the industrial, labour, and political history of Cape Breton. The audio visual holdings include an oral history collection, a wealth of material relating to Cape Breton social life, songs and ballads. The Celtic Music Collection includes hundreds of recordings of Cape Breton’s best fiddlers and pianists playing tunes, which are in many cases, one of a kind. The photographic holdings include over 60,000 images dating from the mid-nineteenth century and dealing with every phase of life on the Island.

Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the Archives is its special collections of ethno cultural materials. The collection reflects the many cultural groups present in Cape Breton including the Mi’kmaq, African Nova Scotian, Jewish, Acadian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Polish and Italian communities. A great source of pride is the quality of Gaelic material including original manuscripts, tapes, a small reference library and a complete file of the Gaelic newspaper MacTalla, published for many years in Cape Breton.

It is through this collection that the Beaton Institute serves those who quest for knowledge – the student, the teacher, the filmmaker, the author, the genealogist, the community. The collection offers researchers a window through which to understand, compare, analyze and educate today by understanding and knowing our past. The goal of the archives is to collect and make available historically significant records in a manner that conveys the processes and contexts through which the record was created. The Beaton Institute for 50 years has endeavoured to preserve and make available those materials that have enduring value to our society. Today the Beaton Institute’s staff of five receives and responds to over 4000 enquiries a year from around the world.

– Catherine Arseneau