Sheldon Goldfarb’s long road to exactly the right place

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At 17, Sheldon Goldfarb was writing novels. Now, he tells stories differently, cataloguing 114 years of UBC history as the AMS’s archivist.

Goldfarb’s office is large, a far cry from the cramped space described by visitors to his office in the old Student Union Building — known today as the Life Building. His office is cluttered but not full — pieces of an in-progress woodworking project sit in the corner behind his desk, his master’s thesis is among a stack of volumes helmed by papers beside his computer — and though the space is lacking in bookshelves, it is not lacking in books.

Goldfarb appears unassuming, sitting with legs crossed facing his window, an AMS thermos perched on his knee. Yet as he tells stories of UBC history, he effortlessly fills the space, often veering on sweeping tangents and occasionally pulling out his book on UBC history ­— The Hundred Year Trek — or opening his computer for a reference. But nearly all of his stories were told from memory.

Goldfarb has been an archivist for the AMS for 28 years, nearly a quarter of the time of UBC’s existence.

“While I [attended] the [UBC] archives school, I thought about how maybe I’ll get to go archive the papers of Malcolm Lowry or something like that,” but instead he found that “the job and I work well together,” and stayed with the AMS.

He describes himself as always having been like a “human encyclopedia,” but it may be more accurate to describe Goldfarb as an oral historian — a storyteller and keeper of seemingly endless knowledge.

From a young age, he wanted to absorb as much information as he could find.

Goldfarb was always quick to share the knowledge he gained from books. One incident from the fifth grade sticks out in his memory where he was insisting that Mars was the next planet closest to the sun after earth — something he remembered reading in one of the series of books called the ‘All About’ books which he was obsessed with as a child. It wasn’t until someone pointed to their textbook where it said Venus was in fact the next planet that he gave it up. While Goldfarb says he no longer insists on his correctness, he was sure to jokingly point out any apparent disagreements between his archives’ facts and those of other UBC organizations.

“As the archivist I can tell you when [Storm The Wall] started: 1980, which I tried to explain to the people over in [UBC] Athletics, but they still insist it’s 1978.”

Despite his enthusiasm for UBC history, Goldfarb is quick to say that he has never been uniquely passionate about any one subject. Instead, it is learning new information, rather than the information itself, that has always fascinated him.

“If you asked me ‘Do you want to spend your time looking up information about a student society?’” he said. “[The subject] doesn’t matter. It’s the finding out that matters.”

Though Goldfarb’s work in archiving and telling the story of UBC seems to fit him well, his path to the AMS was anything but clear. While he wanted to write novels, he studied the sciences for two years “to get a proper job.” But while all seemed well from the outside, he realized that it didn’t matter if his grades were alright if he “did not understand physics” and “didn’t do science in [his] spare time.”

“I wrote instead, that should have been a sign,” Goldfarb said.

He wrote for the McGill student newspaper, The McGill Daily, so his initial inclination was to choose a field more in line with journalism. He switched to sociology, where he ended up enjoying a history-oriented course so much that “it convinced [him] to switch into history and go study the English Civil War.”

This took him to the University of Manchester where he tried and failed to prove the war was caused by the new economic system of capitalism. “The failure in Manchester taught me something about what not to do … if you know what you’re going to find, it’s not research.”

He left Manchester and came to UBC to take a few literature courses, completing two graduate degrees in English literature. “When I finished that, I didn’t want to be a teacher … I never felt comfortable at the front of the classroom.”

So he pursued further education, enrolling in library school after hearing about it from a peer.

“I was thinking of changing my career path, and the only way I understood to change a career path was to take a different degree,” Goldfarb said. “The first thing they said to me when I walked in the door was ‘library or archives’ and I thought, well, I really liked looking up those old newspapers [for my dissertation].”

Now, Goldfarb is the foremost expert on UBC history and AMS code and bylaws. Despite his knowledge about the university, his other interests have only expanded as he’s gotten older. He has now been able to publish numerous books in genres ranging from commentary on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories to narrative fiction to the aforementioned year-by-year chronicle of UBC history and continues writing to this day.

While Goldfarb may not have expected to become the AMS archivist, by following his interests he has found the perfect position for himself. “It’s sort of like it’s a retrospective discovery: Oh, the reason I like this job is I’m doing what I always used to do from the time I was a kid.”

“You can go from science to journalism to thinking you’re going to write novels, to studying English literature to being an archivist and writing a history book …. So don’t worry about it. It’s going to come around to those things that you like to do.”

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