Indigenous Archival Material, Open Access, and Decolonization

Map of the united states

The Newberry Library recently released a digitized collection of early 20th Century drawings by the Lakota community.  These drawings are part of the Edward E. Ayer Collection which contains artworks, books, and other material relating to Indigenous culture.   These drawings were created in 1913-1914 and are now in the public domain.

Any press content I’ve read about the material focuses on how the digitization project reflects “the institution’s awareness of absences within its holdings, and represent important steps towards decolonizing the archives.” Similarly, any of the news coverage I have read focuses on how unique this material is, 40 of the drawings were created by Lakota children.

I kept reading these press releases and articles hoping that there was a mention of the Newberry working with Indigenous communities in developing access protocols and to provide copies of the material to the community. Not a single release mentioned working with the Lakota or any other Indigenous group. Rather, the press releases focus on the missionary who paid Indigenous people to draw the images and subsequent settlers involved in their collection.  Maybe I missed something. Maybe there was consultation. And if so,  I would welcome details on the collaboration.

Open access does not automatically mean decolonization. Indeed, in many cases Western understanding of copyright goes completely against Indigenous intellectual property rights and community ownership principles.  For folks looking to learn more about this I would suggest reading the First Nation Principles of OCAP and the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials. I would also recommend Allison Mill’s Archivaria article “Learning to Listen: Archival Sound Recordings and Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property.”

As many archival and heritage organizations begin to think about decolonization and reconciliation, Indigenous ways of knowing need to be incorporated into how we operate.  Indigenous people know what is best for their communities and their heritage. As archivists and heritage professionals we need to listen to those desires and needs.

Photo credit: United States of America compiled from the latest & best authorities. By John Melish, 1818. The Newberry.

Building Bridges and Reading Across Disciplines

black and white Drone view of San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge.

During one of my recent writing projects I started thinking about the implications of disciplinary silos and the value to reading across disciplines. A lot of my work is grounded in archival theory and public history practice, however it often intersects with the Canadian academic history profession.  From an outsider differentiating these three disciplines may seem like splitting hairs, but they really are proudly different in their approaches and literature.

A lot of my recent work has been thinking about archival silences and the power relationships entrenched in colonial archival spaces. This power dynamic and the challenge of doing research about historically marginalized communities is something that intersects across archival practice, public history, and academic history.  I started diving into this topic by examining archival theory and literature written by archivists. I then expanded to look at community based perspectives and a more public history take on archival voices.  Lastly, after consulting with a couple of colleagues I added a stack of Canadian history books and articles to my to read pile.

This exercise in reading across disciplines was enriching and helped broaden my understanding of the topic it hand.  It also highlighted how fields can approach the same topic from very different angles.  Many of the archival based works I was reading focused on the role of the archivist in creating or mitigating silence within the historical process.  The more public history leaning works focused on communities challenging silence, the right to internal community memory, and ways to build bridges across shared pasts.  Conversely, the more academic history reads were really focused on subverting archival silences – reading against the grain, using non-traditional archival sources to expand historical narratives, and how to overcome lack of records.  All of these areas of interest had overlapping points and areas of commonality.

These areas of similarity struck me as so important. Archivists and historians need to talk more.  Understanding how archives work and the intellectual/emotional/physical labour that goes into making archival records accessible is so important. Historians and media indicating that something was ‘discovered in the archives’ erases the archival labour that went into arranging and describing that material.  The archivist knew it was there and did a lot of work so a historian could access that material as part of their research.  Historians and archivists have definite overlapping interests and we would be better served by increasing the amount of work we did collaboratively.

What are your strategies for reading across disciplines? 

Photo credit: Jared Erondu on Unsplash

Annual Reports of the Shingwauk and Wawanosh Homes

Our Indian Homes Annual Report cover page

I’ve recently been working with a batch of annual reports from the Shingwauk and Wawanosh Homes from 1877-1915.  The first part of these reports have been digitized, OCR’d and are now available to download as PDFs.   We’re still working with the reports from 1899-1915, but hope to have those available to the public by the end of the month.

Working with these reports has once again highlighted the challenges of working with colonial records, especially those which relate to historical trauma.  The annual reports in question were written by the school principals and they also contain statements written by the Bishop of the Diocese of Algoma.  They represent a very particular view of the residential school system, that of an Anglican missionary and organizations who were deeply invested in the assimilation of Indigenous communities.

The reports also offer photographs as snapshots of residential school life.  There are a number of images that repeatedly appear in the annual reports, often showing students working or in school uniforms to highlight the ‘success’ of the residential school system.  The annual reports included these photographs as evidence but also as a means of soliciting support for the residential schools.  The photographs, as well as items made by student at Shingwauk/Wawanosh, were listed as for sale in every annual report.

The use of student labour to sustain residential schools is well documented. The nuanced way in which schools packaged the images of the students for profit is something that is still being explored in the archival and historical profession.  In the case of the Shingwauk/Wawanosh Homes the student photographs were often paired with letters ‘written’ by students.  I put written in quotes because it is clear that these letters were form letters, that the students were instructed (or forced) to write. The letters talk about how good life at Shingwauk is, the great things the students were learning, and how much they liked school.  They are all similar in structure and tone, making the rote nature of the letters clear.

These letters were hard to work through as an archivist. They are a very vivid reminder of how little choice residential school students had. When combined with posed photographs these letters serve as a window into the assimilation and harm inflicted by residential school.

These records made me physically uncomfortable. But I was also reminded of their importance. The student lists included in the annual reports are some of the records we have of students at Shingwauk from 1900-1910. This scant evidence also speaks to challenges of the colonial record keeping system, the lack of material created from student perspectives, and the need to develop narratives using a range of historical sources.

As archivists and historians we need to talk about the emotional toll of working with records relating to historical trauma. We need to acknowledge the emotional and intellectual space it takes to process this material. We also need to think about how we are presenting this material to communities and the general public.  The need for health support within archives can be very real and something that needs to be fought for in the age of ever shrinking budgets.

Historical Reminiscents EP 07: Demystifying Archival Labour – Description

New podcast episode!

In part three of the mini-series on “Demystifying Archival Labour” I tackle the work of archival description and talk about the intellectual work goes into descriptive practices. I also discuss my favourite strategies for teaching about description and the inherent challenges of describing records using RAD.  Missed part one of this series? Listen to it here.

Mentioned in this episode:

Digital POWRR Institute Reflections

Long lines of white light on a dark background

Last week I attended the inaugural Digital POWRR Institute in Naperville, IL.  Since 2012, the Preserving digital Objects With Restricted Resources (Digital POWRR) project has been trying to breakdown digital preservation barriers to a wider range of information professionals.  Building on their past workshop model, the POWRR Institutes are designed to provide hands-on learning experiences, are offered free of charge as a way of breaking down cost barriers, and include sessions with digital preservation practitioners.

The two-day Institute in Naperville was fantastic.  It included a theoretical introduction to digital preservation, covered some of the big challenges of getting started with digital preservation, and included a whole lot of ‘playing with all the things’ opportunities where we had a chance to actually test digital preservation tools.  Hands-on workshops included an introduction to the workflow tools (including the open source tools: DataAccessioner, Bagger, and Fixity), web archiving, Archivematica, digital storage, and recovering outdated media.

The Institute was designed in the cohort model – it included 30 participants, but we were then broken into smaller cohort groups with similar backgrounds.  For example, a number of the members of my group came from small post-secondary backgrounds.  The cohort model allowed you to get to know others at the workshop on a more personal level and also allowed participants the opportunity to learn from each other.  The community skill building mentality that was fostered by the cohorts is something I wish more conferences would attempt.

For me the highlight of the Institute was the POWRR Plan that we created while attending.  Each participant was asked to survey their current digital preservation level and come up with a pilot project for moving digital preservation processes forward.  The pilot project was then used to build goals and action items associated with 3, 6, and 12 month milestones.  The Plan included tangible outcomes, small setups towards better digital preservation, and realistic goals.  Each Institute participant also had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with an instructor and develop their plan within that consultation framework.

I love the POWRR Plan idea. I often come away from workshops full of enthusiasm and ideas but unsure of how to apply them to my day-to-day work.  The POWRR Plan helped solidify steps I can make towards better digital preservation strategies and left me with something to reflect on once I returned home.  I am hopeful that in the coming months I can make solid headway on my pilot project and goals.

I would recommend this workshop to anyone with digital preservation responsibilities in a small archive or library, particularly if they have a limited budget or a limited staff.  Four additional Institutes will be offered in 2018 and 2019 and applications for the second Institute are now available online.

Photo credit: Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

Historical Reminiscents EP 06: Demystifying Archival Labour – Arrangement

New podcast episode!

In part two of the mini-series on “Demystifying Archival Labour” I tackle the work of archival arrangement and talk about how archives are organized, archival arrangement principles and how to teach about arrangement in the classroom. I also discuss the idea of alternative arrangements as a means of shifting away from colonial perspectives.  Missed part one of this series? Listen to it here.

Mentioned in this episode:
How Do Archivists Organize Collections?
Dalhousie LibGuide: Differences Between Archives and Libraries
-Dalhouse LibGuide: How is Archival Material Organized?
-Kimberly Christen, “Tribal Archives, Traditional Knowledge, and Local Contexts: Why the “s” Matters”

Announcing the Historical Reminiscents Podcast

White circle on blue background with text reading "Historical Reminiscents Podcast"

If you know me chances are you also know I have serious feels about podcasts.  I like them.  A lot.  For over a year I’ve been tossing around the idea of starting my own podcast.  I went back and forth numerous times on what to create a podcast about –  public history, fandom, or craft beer in the North.  After much stalling, mostly out of fear, I’ve committed to creating the Historical Reminiscents Podcast.

Part of my podcast creation fear was around the idea that I needed other people to create a podcast.  A lot of podcasts are based on conversation and include more than one person.  I didn’t know who I could approach to create a podcast with me. What if there was just me? Would it sill work? And would people be interested in listening to me talk? Eventually I shoved all those fears and nagging questions aside and decided to dive in.

Inspired by some of my favoruite short solo podcasts such as Katie Linder’s You’ve Got This and Chip Sudderth’s Two-Minute Time Lord  I’ve decided to enter the solo podcast world and create something dedicated to public history practice, archival impulses, and historical insights.  Both Linder’s and Sudderth’s podcasts were designed to feature just one person, on a weekly basis, for a relatively short period of time – 10 or 2 minutes respectively.  After listening to a ton of solo podcasts I kept coming back these two podcasts as a format that I could work with and fit into my life.

The Historical Reminiscents podcast, named after the original history blog I started in 2008, is currently in production with plans to release the first episode later this month. Despite deciding to go the solo route I would definitely welcome guests on this podcast.  Interested in chatting about the shape of public history or archives in Canada? Connect with me on twitter (@kristamccracken) or send me an email at krista.mccracken[at]

Building Archival Boxes and Custom Enclosures

Rows of grey archival boxes on shelves

Archival boxes are expensive.  Specialty archival boxes that aren’t standard sizes are even more expensive.  Acid free enclosures are similarly costly and often simply don’t fit all of the unusually sized items in a collection.  So, what is an archivist with a limited budget to do?  Build all the things!

Hand making enclosures and boxes is something that happens at many archives and museums.  This post compiles some of my favourite box building, enclosure creating, archival-crafting resources.  This list is merely a guide and collection of resources.  Different types of materials are going to require specific storage conditions and when in doubt of how to store something you should consult a conservation specialist.

Archival Boxes

  • How to save money by making your own archival boxes by Emily Lonie. This post provides a step-by-step guide for making archival boxes out of Coroplast.  This guide comes with photos, a materials list, and video resources.  Highlight recommend for anyone who is interested in making basic boxes from scratch.
  • Introduction to box making video by Jane Dalley of Dalley Froggatt Heritage Conservation Services.  This video provides examples of how to build a range of standard types of archival boxes.  It examples what types of boxes are best and how you can craft your own using acid free products.
  • Simple corrugated board box for rare books.  This guide by the State Library of Queensland includes information on how to size boxes correctly and a basic design plan that shows you where to cut/fold when making a box.

Artifact supports

  • An introduction, with photos, to building custom boxes and supports for artifacts.  In this particular example ethafoam is used to carve a secure supports for the artifact to sit in the box.  The foam is then lined with tyvek (an inert material) to further protect the object.
  • This “How to Make An Artifact Box” post goes through the details of building a box from scratch but it also includes instructions for building an artifact tray that will allow you to tie an artifact down with secure supports.  This particular post draws on the custom mount process used by the Eiteljorg Museum. I’ve seen some of the Eiteljorg’s custom built boxes and support in-person and they are pretty amazing — I had serious storage envy.
  • A mount per day keeps the conservator away”  provides a great summary of why artifact mounts are important.  The post includes a description of the work that went into creating storage mounts for 17 cowboy hats, 24 pairs of boots, 29 accessories, and 124 accessories held by the National Music Centre.  It includes a lot of great photos that show what proper mounts look like when completed.
  • There is also a great pinterest board that highlights a range of mounting and storage techniques used in artifact storage.


  • Making Protective Enclosure for Books and Paper Artifacts by the Canadian Conservation Institute.  This guide provides instructions on how to make slip-cases for books, boxes for archival material, and portfolio style enclosures for booklets, manuscripts and other material.  This outline includes a number of very detailed drawings and measurement guides.
  • Making a Four Flap Enclosure for Library and Archival Materials.  Video! If you’re a visual learner and find diagrams hard to follow this this a good demo of a four-flap enclosure.
  • Enclosures for Photographic Materials.  This resource includes information on how to make paper enclosures for photographs and glass-plate negatives. It also includes guidelines for making archival quality plastic enclosures for photos.  For folks who are curious about the advantages and disadvantages to different types of enclosures this post also provides a solid breakdown of pros and cons.
  • Bonus resource: Basic Conservation of Archival Materials Guide (2003 revised edition) by the Canadian Council of Archives provides information on general archival storage, material types, and conservation best practices.

What are your top tips for building archival boxes or enclosures from scratch? 

Photo credit: Burns Library, Boston College. Photo used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Open Access and Community Engaged Research

Open access logo - orange lock that is open on left side.
Open access logo.

If you follow me on Twitter you know I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of paywalls on community engaged research.  My recent article, “Archival photographs in perspective: Indian residential school images of health” that is now out in the British Journal of Canadian Studies (volume 30, issue 2) is currently behind a paywall.  So is every other article in this journal issue.  At least one other author has spoken out about the problematic nature of pay-walling this content

During the publication process I did manage to negotiate a shorter OA embargo period for this article – I’m extremely happy about this and very glad I took the time (and built up the internal courage) to ask about the possibilities.  However, the more I think about my work and the community focused nature of it the more I’m questioning the need for it to be available to community based folks.

It was completely my decision to publish in this special issue and not having asking about the OA conditions prior to writing the article is totally on my shoulders.  I agreed to write this article 3-4 years ago, which speaks volumes to the lengthy nature of the academic publishing cycle but also on how my opinions around community research have developed in that time.  This experience has been a good reminder to me about the importance of knowing all the details of a journal before submitting. It has also made me take a serious look at my publishing goals and reconsider where I’m looking to publish in the future.

If I am engaged in community based work – especially work that is with a marginalized community – that work should be immediately accessible to the community I’m writing about.  In a time where archives, public history professionals, and post-secondary institutions are talking more and more about decolonization we need to take a serious look at making our work accessible to the Indigenous communities we are working with.  People working outside of the academy should not be placed on a second tier and should have the same access to information as everyone else.

In terms of learning more I would point folks toward to the First Nation principals of OCAP when thinking about information relating to Indigenous communities. OCAP speaks to the Ownership, Control, Access and Possession of information and data relating to Indigenous communities.  I would also encourage people to reread the TRC Calls to Action around research and heritage and familiarize themselves with UNDRIP principles which relate to their work.

There are also a ton of fantastic folks doing work on OA publishing and promoting OA within the library, archives, and public history fields.  If you’re looking for additional reading or information I’d suggest:

  • Follow Ali Versluis on Twitter.  Seriously. Go follow her now. She is awesome and frequently writes about OA, publishing, and access.
  • Need a primer on the basics of open access? Check out the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) page on open access.
  • Tri-Agency Open Access Policy.  As of May 2015 any work funded under SSHRC, NSERC, or CIHR grants must be made open access.  For example, any grant recipients that write a peer-reviewed journal article based on their grant work are required to ensure that the research is freely available within 12 months of publication.
  • Check with your university library – there is a good chance they have resources on open access publishing.
  • Check to see if your institution has an open access institutional repository.
  • Open access week is October 23 – 29, 2017.  Check out the website for resources, local events and more information.

Archival photographs in perspective: Indian residential school images of health

My latest article, “Archival photographs in perspective: Indian residential school images of health” is now out in the British Journal of Canadian Studies (volume 30, issue 2).  This article is part of a special issue edited by Evan J. Habkirk and Janice Forsyth focusing on health and the body at Canadian residential schools. Many thanks to Evan and Janice for all their work on this issue and for all of their assistance getting this article published. 

My article examines the use of archival photographs to supplement the historical narrative with an emphasis on using photographs of sport and recreation as a lens for examining student life, health and power dynamics within the residential school system.  This article draws on the idea of archival silence and critically evaluates present day usage of residential school images.  The article is based on my work with the Rev. Father William Maurice fonds held at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  Within this fonds I examined photographs from the Spanish Indian Residential School series which is comprised of photographs of the residential schools located in Spanish, Ontario.  This series is a mixture of photographs taken by staff/administrators and photographs taken by students at the School.  The contrast of student and staff generated photographs provides an insight in the power dynamics present in archival photographs and the context behind residential schools images.

If you would like to read a copy of the article but are hitting a paywall please contact me.