Meet Jeremy Heil, Digital and Private Records Archivist

Post Date:
Jan 26, 2024

It’s time for another feature to get to know your library staff! This time we had a Q&A with Archivist, Jeremy Heil.    

How long have you worked here?  

22 years (going on 23!) 

Where did you go to school, and where did you work before coming to Queen's?

I did my BA in History and Visual Arts at Brock University (with a one-year exchange to Albert-Ludwigs Universität in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany), then my Master of Archival Studies at the University of British Columbia. My first archival job was cataloguing the Chung collection before it moved to UBC Special Collections, then as the archivist for the CN Rail West project at the Provincial Archives of Alberta. 

What is your typical “day in the life” 

Outside of responding to reference requests and email, what distinguishes what I do from what my colleagues do revolves around all things digital. My days start and end with metadata – extraction, transformation, and attribution – encompassing the joint roles I serve as our description database administrator, digital assets management administrator, digitization supervisor, and digital preservation specialist. 

Some days I am uploading file descriptions of recently processed records into AtoM, while others I will ingest parts of our massive backlog of digitized photos, paper files, moving image and sound recordings to the QULDC. On the digital preservation side, I spend my time removing files from donated media, including USB keys, external hard drives, and CDs … and then I get into the fun challenges in reading old hard drives removed from computers, 3.5” and 5.25” floppy disks, among other esoteric formats. The digital files then need to be packaged for transfer and processing in our digital preservation system, Permafrost. Occasionally, the media doesn’t want to cooperate – this is when I get to wear my detective cap and enter the realm of digital forensics! If bit rot hasn’t set in the files themselves, I can usually recover most of what crosses my desk. 

Who or what inspired you to pursue the career you have today? 

I finished my BA with jobs in a living history museum and two art galleries. I loved the idea of curation and preservation and was looking for education in this field (museology, MA in Art History). Somebody awesome (I may be married to her!) found the MAS programme and thought it would be a good career path … and I agreed! I hadn't considered Archives before, only because I’d never used them in my undergrad. Once I started the programme, I was hooked! 

What’s the best advice you can give to someone who just started their career at the archives or library? 

Be open to new experiences, both professionally and geographically. I didn’t set out to be a digital archivist (in fact, there weren’t many when I graduated outside of within the largest national institutions), but my comfort with computers naturally led me in that direction. And as an avid traveler, I was happy to move to where the interesting work was. 

What do you love most about your job? 

There’s a real sense of satisfaction I get from taking an unruly mishmash of records (physical or digital) and finding the order within it. But even more than that, I love enabling the sense of discovery – when a researcher finds the one document that unlocks a whole new area of inquiry after hours of pouring through records ... or when I get an email out of the blue that something we’ve made available online finally answers a long-burning question (I just had this last week!). And then there’s my own discovery, both in the records and in the process of teaching myself new technology (or reviving old technology). 

What are the toughest challenges you’ve had at work? 

Technology is a blessing and a curse. My job is figuring out how to retrieve the unretrievable and preserve what I can get. Since digital preservation practice has really matured throughout my career, there is always some new practice or software I need to learn. But it’s the constant challenge that keeps me engaged. 

Which accomplishments are you most proud of? 

The longest and hardest slog has been the development of a fully functioning digital preservation programme. When I started devoting my time to this in 2006, the path seemed so long and unattainable. Now that I’m devoting most of my time to digital preservation, the biggest challenge is the backlog – but at least I know how to preserve most of what I’m getting. I am also incredibly proud of Stones (, a project I coordinated from its digital inception with several partners in Kingston. Even though we launched it in 2005, it continues to be an incredibly valuable and well-used resource to this day, with new social histories of Kingston added every few years. 

Who are some of your biggest inspirations within the archives/library? 

Honestly, everyone I work with in the Archives. We are not a large staff, but we all do some amazing things. Our team’s a real powerhouse! 

How have you grown professionally while working here? 

Queen’s has been my entire professional life, short of a year since I first started as an archivist. I began as the “Technical Services Archivist,” which encompassed getting our descriptions online, our website, and setting up new (scratch that … semi-used, but new to us) computers and printers. I outgrew this position to immerse myself almost fully in the digital realm as the Digital and Private Records Archivist (the second part of my position keeps me in the analog world). The years I’ve been here have given me so much room to grow as a regular contributor to the profession through conferences, publications, course instruction, and as a volunteer on so many boards and committees. 

What do you think are the most important skills that someone in your position needs to have? 

Comfort in a digital environment and a passion to learn new things. What I knew at the beginning of my career barely hinted at what was to come. 

Tell me something about you that most people you work with might not know. 

I love curling! I actually look forward to the cold weather when I can get back to three nights+ a week at the curling club. 

What’s your secret talent no one knows about? 

Whether truly a talent, I cannot say … but I’ve been very keen to teach myself music production and promotion over the past few years. I’d dabbled with a four-track in high school, then jumped in and out of digital recording until my youngest son wrote an album’s worth of songs in one day … then I had to figure out how to make it sound good! He’s been very prolific in analog and digital music creation, so we’ve had to expand the home studio to accommodate all of these areas. My nephew has also joined our roster. I have plans to spend a good part of my holidays mastering four albums worth of material! It’s been a fascinating process, and I have so much to learn. 

Is there anything you want to add? 

As an archivist, I’m often asked what’s my favourite document or item in our collections. There’s a few, to be honest, but my top two are the first prototype of the Canadian flag and a letter from George Orwell to George Woodcock. I won’t tell you what’s in it, so you’ll just need to come to the Archives and read for yourselves! 

Ask Us

Ask Us

For help locating resources, using the library, or to request a research consultation, try our Ask Us service.

ask us more