Newton-area resident Diane Johnson, a volunteer with Surrey Archives, won an 2019 Award of Recognition from the British Columbia Historical Federation. (submitted photo)

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Surrey history buff transcribes her way to a provincial award

‘It can be tedious work but it’s also very interesting,’ Diane Johnson says

Diane Johnson’s typing skills and appreciation for Surrey history have earned her a provincial award.

The Newton resident is a 2019 winner of a British Columbia Historical Federation award of recognition, for her work to transcribe thousands of hours of town council meeting minutes and oral histories.

Johnson, a Surrey Historical Society member, has volunteered at the Surrey Archives for 11 years. In 2019 alone she contributed 1,030 hours of volunteer time to extensive transcription projects that make archival records accessible for modern researchers, according to the BCHF.

“It can be tedious work but it’s also very interesting,” said Johnson, who was a fraud analyst for a bank prior to retirement.

“I’m a longtime Surrey resident and I was really interested in helping to preserve and learn more about Surrey’s history,” she said.

Johnson is especially keen to transcribe the oral histories the Archives has collected. To date she’s done close to 250 of them — painstaking work that requires listening to each interview carefully, many times over, and typing the words exactly as spoken.

“Some of them are people I knew or have heard of, and just hearing their stories is really quite interesting,” she said. “It helped give me a good mental picture of Surrey’s history. They’re recorded interviews, and some of them went back years and years ago, into the 1960s, including one of firefighters talking about fighting a large fire at Queen Elizabeth High School in 1967. I’d been a student at that high school prior to that, so that was really interesting.”

The council minutes are more tedious, she said.

“Some interesting things do come up,” Johnson added. “For example, just the other day I came across an item from 1951 when they had a referendum to decide whether or not to keep the municipal police force and go with the RCMP, so history does seem to repeat itself.”

Her work to make those meeting minutes keyword-searchable is “invaluable to both outside researchers and staff at the Surrey Archives,” the BCHF says.

The federation’s Award of Recognition is for those who have given exceptional service to their organization or community, either for a specific project or for long service in the preservation of British Columbia’s history.

The BCHF’s annual conference and awards event was to be held in Surrey in June, but is cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the prizes are being announced early, and plans are to honour winners during the 2021 conference hosted by the 98-year-old federation, which “encourages interest in the history of British Columbia through research, presentation, and support in its role as an umbrella organization for provincial historical societies.”

Johnson said she received her award certificate in the mail a few days ago.

“I hope to continue on doing this, as long as my eyesight and my fingers work,” she added with a laugh.

“Right now I’m working on transcribing some of the council minutes. I started on that when they started recording them in 1880, and now I’m up to 1951, which is a lot of work. Most of the minutes were scanned, and those are on the city’s website, so I can take them right off the internet. A few got missed in the scanning, so on days when I’m at the Archives I transcribe those ones from the original minute books and then slot them in the appropriate place.”



tom.zillich@surreynowleader.com

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