Friday, August 28, 2009

Barbara Sears 1946-2009

Researchers are people who know the good, inexpensive places to eat around all the libraries and archives. When I had lunch with Barbara Sears in one of those places in January 2008, I was thinking of profiling her, for I was aware her contribution to Canadian history in the last forty years was really second to none, and I was intrigued to know how she had built a career that seemed entirely unique. But she deftly and artlessly turned the conversation away from herself, and in the end I wrote a much different column from her suggestions.

She was like that. Not an author of books, not the star director, never seen in the media as a commentator, not caught up in The Barbara Sears Show. She first gained renown as Pierre Berton's lead researcher, and as she became an indispensable part of his team he credited her lavishly and shared royalties with her. She then helped other people -- as diverse as Dave Broadfoot and Frank Augustyn -- write their books. But in particular she became the go-to person for film and television research and she worked constantly but mostly behind the scenes in that field. Dig around in the credits, and you will be astonished how many Canadian historical documentaries she played a vital part in. She would be brought in as researcher, or visuals researcher, but her contribution was generally a lot larger than than, at least if she was working with people capable of spotting talent and listening to it.

She was mostly a facilitator of other people's work. Sometimes they were people with much less conviction about history that she herself brought to the work, but mostly she worked with what was at hand and improved everyone's game. She wasn't academically trained and took a restrained interest in that world. She took one university course nearly every year, but she told me it was partly so she had a student card and access to all the library and online resources that provided.

Sandra Martin wrote a brief obit in the Globe the other day. Barbara probably would not have wanted it any longer. Hers seems to me an entirely admirable career. The death notice suggests donations to an endowment fund in her name at The Visual Researchers Society of Canada. Y'know, it's not up to me, but if they named the organization the Barbara Sears Society, they wouldn't be going far wrong.

Barbara Sears photo from the Visual Researchers website
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