Creating the Historical Record in Literary and Personal Archives

My most recent post, “Creating the Historical Record in Literary and Personal Archives“, can be seen over at Activehistory.ca.  This post looks at the specific challenges around historical use of literary archives, the unique nature of documenting creative process, and how historians can use literary archival material.  I also look at the Brian Vallée fonds as an example of the type of material held in archives created by writers and the social history that is often included in these collections.

Interviewing and the Power of Perspective

In December 2015 I interviewed for University Archivist position at a Canadian university. I’ve attempted to write about this experience a couple of times but have repeatedly deleted what I wrote.  I initially considered writing broadly about the university archives/faculty hiring experience. The interview process for this position was completely different than any of the other position I’ve interviewed for — which for me highlighted the difference between staff and faculty hiring processes at universities.

But these drafts while personally significant but didn’t really add a lot of value to the already extensive conversation around academic hiring.  Suffice it to say that the on-campus interview was a busy and exhausting day filled with lots of talking.  And that you need to remember that you are there to learn about them as much as they are trying to learn about you.  Fit is important.  If something doesn’t feel right ask yourself why and don’t ignore those gut feelings.

Interviews often bring with them a whole host of feelings and introspection.  This experience was no exception.  When I applied I figured it was a long shot and that I wouldn’t get an interview.  My education background is a bit of an anomaly for most archives job postings.  I have an MA in public history, not a MLS or MAS.  I fall into the category of “equivalent combination of education and experience.” This lack of traditional fit can be a blessing and a bit of a personal worry point.  To add to that introspection I also really love where I currently work and there are a lot of potential life implications that come with moving for any job.  Suffice it to say I was a swirling vortex of doubt.  Doubt about my abilities, my education, and my personal life.  Doubt in my strength to continue to work so closely with the legacy of residential schools.

Go high or Go deep.

Yesterday, I read Erin R White’s “What It Means to Stay” piece and had a “By George, I think she’s got it” moment.  What resonated with me was the idea of going high or going deep.  Staying means going deeper into your specialization, deeper into your organization, and growing in your job.  The alternative being going high and focusing on moving upwards in a organization chart, possibly outside of your institution.

When I moved to Northern Ontario in the spring 2009 I was supposed to be in this area for 6 months on a short contract.  Very near to end of my anticipated stay in the area I applied to an archives technician job that seemed like a perfect and I’ve been here ever since.  My position has changed a lot since 2010 – I went from working exclusively with the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre (SRSC) archives to being responsible for large and small scale art installations and a myriad of admin type work to working with the University Archives, the Diocese of Algoma Archives, and the SRSC archives.  I’ve learned a lot.

Familiarity Is A Good Thing

The nature of archival work means the more you work with an archives the more familiar you become with its holdings, its organization, and its nuances.  I’ve worked with almost every fonds and collection in the SRSC in some way.  I’ve either accessioned, processed, described, digitized, or pulled material from each collection.  This familiarity gives me a kind of reference request super power.  If someone is looking for a particular kind of image, information on a particular residential school, or a very specific research topic I can usually come up with where they need to look, a list of resources and research suggestions.  I’m also familiar with the ins-and-outs of my institution by that which internal department to turn to for help with outreach, which form to fill out, or other day to day tasks.  Those skills and that familiarity is important too. Institutional knowledge is important and takes time and effort to learn.

Building Relationships

Perhaps more significantly I’ve also become familiar with the local survivor community and the members of Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association.  Building personal relationships with the individuals and communities that the SRSC is dedicated to surviving has been a invaluable experience and one that I am continually humbled by. I also have a great set of supportive colleagues here.  We work well together and the internal community is friendly and welcoming.  Having a supportive workplace makes life a lot more enjoyable.  I’ve also gained colleagues in the local community and within the broader public history/archival community in Canada — people know me for my work at the SRSC and this work is something I feel grateful to be a part of.

I also routinely get opportunities to build new relationships with students.  Be that through students placed in the archive on work study, volunteers, or students working on projects.  They ask challenging questions, training them requires me to routinely refresh my own skills, and many of them go on to be engaged in interesting graduate studies or careers.

Long Term Projects and Flexibility

One of the nice things about staying at an organization – about going deeper – is the ability to tackle longer spanning projects.  Earlier this week I hit a milestone in a project I started in 2013.  The project has shifted on and off my priorities list for years.  But I can see an end and have this overwhelming feeling of satisfaction of nearing the finish line of a project that has taken so much time, effort, and dedication.  My role here also has the great ability to allow me to pursue the projects I’m interested in.  Yes, there is some items that are always on the to do list – reference requests, handling and processing new donations, and lots of day to day work to keep the archive functioning.  But I’ve also been able to develop outreach practices, education initiatives, and specific archival projects I’m interested in.  That flexibility is a blessing.  I know I’m fortunate to have it.

Growth Can Still Happen

You don’t need to move institutions for professional growth to happen.  Looking back at my work since 2010 I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.  I’ve learned a huge range of new skills, I’ve organized and participated in conferences, I’ve joined committees of professional organizations, I’ve written papers, and pursued professional development training.  I am still challenged by my work and I have a range of opportunities internally and externally if I want to explore different possibilities for professional growth.  Staying with an organization doesn’t mean becoming complacent or ceasing to learn.  Staying doesn’t mean settling.

Stewarding Collections of Trauma

The Fall 2015 issue of Archivaria included “Stewarding Collections of Trauma: Plurality, Responsibility, and Questions of Action” by Lisa P. Nathan, Elizabeth Shaffer, and Maggie Castor.  The article looked broadly at efforts to manage archives that contain material relating to historical trauma and more specifically at the work of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).

As the authors point out there are a lot of ethical and professional questions around how work with materials relating to trauma should be done.  Collections of trauma in this instance have been defined as intentional collections relating to violent and disruptive histories and the resulting aftermath of those histories.  The complexities of residential school archives and the NCTR collection are varied and archivists are still working to determine how best to work with this material.

In particular, I found the article’s section on “Incorporating Distrust” insightful to current challenges.  The authors note that, “The same juridical and political systems that conceptualized, created, managed, and perpetuated the harms of the Indian residential school system continue to be forces that shape the work of the NCTR.  Canadian universities contributed to the running of the Indian residential schools (eg. training teachers); one such university now hosts the NCTR” (p.115).  Many of the same colonial systems that were involved in the residential school era are now involved in the administration of reconciliation policies and the administration of archival collections relating to residential schools.  How does an archive existing within this system acknowledge this challenge and respond appropriately.

This tension is something I’ve felt while working within a residential school archive that is housed in a university and is jointly governed by a university.  The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre is slightly different – being founded through the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and jointly managed by a survivor group.  But, it’s physical home is within a university and it exists within a very similar framework as the NCTR.  As the authors argued there is a need to acknowledge the distrust that comes with being part of these colonial systems and the need to develop new professional approaches to residential school archives.

How does the historical context of residential schools, intergenerational trauma, and colonialism impact how residential school archives are processed, accessed, and managed?  The TRC’s Calls to Action challenges the archival community to look critical at its approach to Indigenous archives and residential school archival collections.  This call is something that needs to be examined and responded to as archives continue to struggle with how to best care for this material.

Journal of Western Archives: Native American Archives Special Issue

The current issue of the Journal of Western Archives focuses on Native American Archives.  The articles are open access and on a range of topics including tribal archives, decolonizing archival practice, developing training opportunities for Indigenous archivists, and the challenges faced by archives holding contrived photographs of Indigenous people.

I’m still working my way through all the articles but Zachary R. Jones’ article, “Images of the Surreal: Contrived Photographs of Native American Indians in Archives and Suggested Best Practices“, is an excellent read for anyone interested in the complex nature of colonial photography.

Archival Community

During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Prompt: Ah ha moment: Did you have an “ah ha” moment this year? Was it a big one? Or just a small enlightenment?

I changed roles in late 2013 to move from an archives technician position to a researcher/curator role.  I have enjoyed the new challenges that the researcher/curator job brought and the new relationships I was able to build with local and national art communities.  However, this year I realized that though I enjoy project management and working on community inspired art projects I was missing the time I had previously spent immersed in archives. 

This ah ha moment inspired me to reconnect with the archival world.  Presenting at this year’s Archives Association of Ontario conference, participating in SNAP Roundtable twitter chats, and reconnecting with archival literature helped return me to the archival sphere. Living in a very small city that does not have a wealth of heritage professionals has made me more aware of the need to build supportive professional networks and communities.  Many of the people I consider colleagues and who I turn to for advice live miles away and work in a range of different public history and archival settings.  

Order Through Processing

During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Today’s prompt: Small Pleasures: What small pleasures did you discover this year? 

Part way through this year I reconnected with some of the archival work I love.  My role as a Researcher/Curator meant that I was spending less time focused on archival practice.  Reconnecting and spending a few days accessioning and physically processing a collection reminded me how much I enjoy archival work.

I love the sense of accomplishment that comes with seeing order brought to a jumble of papers. I find physical processing oddly relaxing, perhaps it’s the organizational side of me rejoicing at the rules of processing and description.  Knowing that the work I do makes material accessible and discoverable online is a huge motivator. It’s rewarding to see archives actively being used and researchers engaging with the material that was previously an unorganized box of papers.

Creating Archival Professional Development Workshops

Over the course of the spring and summer my work is holding weekly events focused on library and archives professional development, training, and themes.  The sessions will be open current staff, university faculty, and local professionals. 


As part of this series a colleague and I are going to be facilitating three sessions focusing on archives.  Our library/archives staff is primarily made up of personnel with significantly more library than archival experience.  We hope our sessions will help library staff, other departments, and community members understand a bit more about archival practice.  Our sessions will focus on the basics of archival organization and preservation, community based heritage projects, and how to establish a successful digitization program. 

So, what makes a good professional development workshop? How do you gear your programing to suit a wide ranging audience who hold a variety of skill sets? What have been some of your best workshop experiences? Some of the aspects I particularly value in workshops include:

  • Hands on learning. In this particular instance incorporating hands on experiences could be done with preservation techniques, numbering files, scanning items, and creating metadata.
  • I also like having resources available after the workshop.  Be that an email with links to projects mentioned, a PowerPoint presentation, or additional resources for participants to look at.
  • Specific examples of successes, failures, and work-arounds.   Theory is all well and good, but at a workshop I prefer to learn about actual best practices and implementation that is in progress.
  • Being able to ask questions throughout the workshop if in an informal setting or having ample time at the end to ask questions about the material.  

What do you think are essential components of archival (or any other) professional development sessions? 

Introducing the Archive: Greeting First Time Visitors

The overwhelming majority of visitors to the archive I work at have never been inside an archive before.  Many of the visitors come from outside academia or are undergraduate and high school students stepping into an archive for the first time.  In addition to being new to archives, many visitors are searching for documents relating to their personal or family history. 

How do you frame the uses and potential research value of an archive to new visitors? 
This is often the ‘elevator pitch’ for the archive and includes a condensed version of services, resources, and archival holdings. We emphasize that staff are available to help new researchers, that material is available online (and we can provide instruction on navigating the site), and that material can be copied for research purposes. 

If the visitor is a student, we often point out potential research topics in their field of study, suggest relevant publications, and encourage them to ask questions.  We also remind students of hours and that we aren’t open weekends.

Additionally, all visitors can take a contact card which has our website, email, and phone information on it.  We also have more in-depth pamphlets for those interested. 

How to you facilitate non-academic research? 
Since the majority of our visitors are not engaged in academic research, our reading room contains material to help people research family history.  We have reproduction photo albums which visitors can flip through, media clip binders (copies of newspaper articles), and copies of frequently used government documents which visitors can flip through at their leisure.

Typically, people researching family histories are able to find necessary material without staff ever having to pull anything from the archive.  This cuts down on staff work and the use of reproductions helps preserve original documents and photographs.

How do you greet new visitors at your organization?

Photo credit: Dublin City Public Libraries

Association of Canadian Archivists Conference: Day One

Today was the first official day of proceedings at the 2011 (ACA) Conference. The day opened with a keynote presentation by Terry Eastwood, entitled Thinking About the Base of Archival Practice: Is there a Firm Foundation or Not? Eastwood presented an intriguing look archives through a lens of interpretive social practice, with an emphasis on dissecting the constructivist theories as they relate to archives. Eastwood’s talk also challenged accepted archival paradigms – with a particular emphasis on the current accepted modes of description. Overall, Terry’s talk seemed like a call to arms for archivists to engage in both theory and practice and to look at the history of archival practice as a means of making progress within the field.

The morning session I attended was a roundtable discussion on Reaching Out to Canadian Society. The panel featured Rob Fisher (LAC), Jonathan Lainey (LAC), Leah Sander (LAC), and Christine Bourolias (Archives of Ontario). The panel framed this discussion of outreach by examining acquisition policies. The speakers emphasized the necessity of using outreach to cultivate the type of acquisitions your institution desires. The discussion portion of the session focused on specific case studies -mainly outreach to ethnic and minority groups. The majority of these examples highlighted the need to build trust relationships within communities and the need for innovate ways of connecting and supporting communities. The session provided a lot of food for thought about ways to engage the general public and the importance of maintaining a strong outreach and acquisition policy.

The afternoon session I attended was entitled Preservation and the Total Archives in the
Age of E-records. The presenters -all trained conservationists -included: Ala Rekrut (Archives of Manitoba), Greg Hill (Canadian Conservation Institute), and Rosaleen Hill (Canadian Council of Archives). Greg Hill’s presentation focused on the evolution of the role of conservators within the archival field. Hill placed conservation and preservation within a wider historical context and provided a good overview of the field in general. Ala Rekrut’s talk was narrower in scope and emphasized the need for collaboration between conservators and archivists. Rekrut discussed the nature of both traditional and digital records and the importance of context and structure in defining the intrinsic value of a record. This session concluded with Rosaleen’s remarks on the changing roles and responsibilities of conservators in the age of digital archives. Rosaleen highlighted how modes of technology have fundamentally altered how material needs to be preserved. She also emphasized the need for increased education among conservators and archivists regarding the proper care of electronic records.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions, including a panel on tangible and intangible heritage.