Accession Best Practices

Chaos –> Order recently featured a great post, “What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Accessioning“, by Rachel Searcy.  The post argues for the importance of thoroughly documenting accession work and the need for archivists to talk more broadly about accession practices.

I couldn’t agree more.  One of the long term projects I’m working on right now involves cleaning up accession files and linking that information to fonds and sous fonds level descriptions.  A lot of provenance, historical biographical, and other contextual information can be captured in quality accession records.

The lack of field wide accessioning guidelines was touched on during the Roundtable on the Future of RAD.  The Canadian archival field has detailed guidelines on how to physically describe a postage stamp but uniform accession practices do not exist.  Each institution has it’s on way of accepting donations and integrating those donations into their collections. But there is a need to establish broad guidelines for what metadata should be captured during accession work. No one wants to guess where collections came from and documenting contextual information and be extremely helpful to future staff and researchers.

Similarly, there is a question of how and if  accession records should be linked to broader collection descriptions.  Should the metadata captured in accession records be available to researchers? Should it be redacted?  Should be made available only to staff or upon request? I’m not sure there’s a one-size fits all answer to these questions.  But they are definitely worth thinking about and considering how accession practices impact access.

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

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The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba officially opened this week.  The first day of opening  focused on the history of residential schools, reconciliation, and steps for the NCTR going forward.  The second day of he opening emphasized education and included the launch of the NCTR website.

Work on the website is ongoing and materials collected by the TRC have just begun to be uploaded to the site.  Currently video footage from TRC events and hearings are available and a limited selection of archival materials relating to residential schools has been placed online.

This material was all openly available prior to the launch of the NCTR.  But it is now all aggregated on the new NCTR site and integrated into their collection. The national events and hearings were open to the public and some of them live-streamed.

The residential school archival material uploaded to the site is a bit more challenging in nature and is still a work in progress.  I found the school narratives created by the Government of Canada that are linked to each school interesting. However these narratives are very analytical and impersonal.  They are also include some errors (eg. the Spanish Girl’s School being labeled as St. Anne’s instead of St. Joseph’s).

The NCTR does note on that front page of these school narratives that:

“The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has not verified the content of this document. It is provided here for reference purposes only….You are welcome to contact the NCTR if you wish to add, comment on, or challenge any versions of the history presented herein.”

I was also struck by how each school’s page includes a “Featured Images” and “Related Material” section.  The bulk of the Related Material is quarterly return and administrative records from Library and Archives Canada. This material was previously available via LAC and is well documented on the NCTR website with details around origin, dates of creation, author, etc.

Conversely, the featured images are not accompanied by any contextual information or metadata.  The complex nature of residential school photography and ownership of these images that were often taken without active consent makes interpreting these images challenging.  Providing contextual information is crucial to understanding this history.  Ideally survivors and communities should be involved in how to describe, display, and share these images.

The NCTR has the potential to be an amazing resource for communities, educators, researchers and the general public.  I know that the website is a work-in-progress but at a first glance I saw a few red flags that need to be addressed in the near future.  However I do look forward to seeing how the NCTR’s digital access develops in the future.

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.

Roundtable On The Future of RAD

On October 23, 2015 the Archives Association of British Columbia held a Roundtable on the future of the RAD (Rules for Archival Description).  The roundtable was also available as a webcast and participants could send questions via email or following using the hashtag #rethinkRAD.

I stumbled across the hashtag on twitter and ended up watching most of the webcast.  It was a lively discussion that touched on some of the problems with RAD as a national descriptive standard.

The Canadian Council of Archives is currently seeking input from the Canadian archival community while it develops a plan to revise and update RAD.  There have been no revisions to RAD since 2008 and the standard does not currently address the descriptive needs of digital records.  This roundtable was part of this process and included Richard Dancy from CCA.

It was an interesting discussion that highlighted the diversity of opinions in the archival profession about RAD and the need for more open consultation around descriptive standards.  Here’s a Storify of some of the tweets which resonated most with me during the webcast.  I believe AABC plans on publishing something to summarize the roundtable as well.


Archives and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Workshop

I recently facilitated a workshop on Archives and the TRC as part of Huron History Day: An Active History Pre-Conference for High School and First Year Students.

The workshop focused on the history of residential schools, the unique challenges of residential school archives, the TRC, and reconciliation more broadly.  When planning this workshop I was a bit worried about the range of backgrounds that might be attending and how to include survivor experiences.

Typically when working with high school students at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre I have invited a survivor into the archive or classroom and students learn through their discussion with the survivor.  In the case of this workshop the time constraint and location meant this wasn’t possible.

This ended up being a blessing in disguise.  It caused me to think critically about engagement and turn to other great educational resources.  I modified and incorporated two of the activities from the 100 Years of Loss edu-kit created by the Legacy of Hope Foundation and drew on Project of Heart resources.

One of the activities I modified from the edu-kit focused on examining the before/after photographs of Thomas Moore.  I used a different set of before and after photographs but employed the same type of questions to the workshop participants.  Questions about identify, why the photographs were taken, and the impact of residential schools on culture all sparked meaningful discussion. This simple activity worked really well to introduce the topic of residential schools in an engaging manner.

I also incorporated an activity that allowed students to read a first-hand survivor statement about their experience in residential school.  This activity brought home the importance of incorporating survivor experiences into the archival record and highlighted the impact of residential schools on individuals, communities, and all of Canada.  Allowing students to speak about what they read in small groups and then as a larger group allowed for a range of participation and discussion.

I closed the workshop with a discussion of the Project of Heart and we debriefed while students decorated wooden tiles in memory of a residential school student.  This artistic activity allowed me some time to interact with the participants on an individual level and check in on the feelings of the group.  There were also a handful of teachers participating in the workshop and this activity served as an introduction into the Project of Heart and allowed me to invite them to engage their classes in the POH initiative.

Overall I was very please with how the workshop went.  A short workshop is by no means long enough to cover residential schools in depth.  But I feel as though participants left with a deeper understanding of the legacy of residential schools and many of them left with a desire to learn and do more.

Upcoming Presentations and Conference Travel

I have a busy couple of weeks ahead of me with some personal and work related travel on the horizon.  On the personal side I’ll be in Southern Ontario and Buffalo, New York.  As usual while traveling I’ll be keeping an eye out for interesting public history initiatives.

From October 1-4, 2015 I’ll be in London, Ontario at the New Directions in Active History Conference at Huron University College. During the conference I’ll be:

  • Thursday October 1: Running a workshop on “Archives and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission” for high school and undergraduate students as part of Huron History Day.
  • Friday October 2: Jay Young and I will be delivering a workshop titled “Active History in the Archives.”  A description of this workshop can be found in the conference program.
  • Saturday October 3: I am chairing the “Engaging Popular Conceptions of History” panel featuring Jason Ellis, Josh Cole, and Geoff Keelan.
  • Sunday October 4: I am also chairing the New Directions in Active History closing panel made up of Megan Davies, Alan Corbiere, and Hector MacKenzie.

Other than those fixed commitments I’m looking forward to connecting with the Active History editorial collective in person, taking in some of the great panels, and engaging in conversations around active history.  I’m also looking forward to being back in London which I haven’t visited to since I graduated from Western.

Introduction to Archives

As my last post indicated I’ve been thinking a lot about archival instruction and introducing students and other new users to archives.  As part of this process I’ve been gathering resources that explain how archives are organized, introduce the basic of archival processing, and explain different aspects of archival theory.

Some of the best resources I’ve come across so far include:

  • How do Archivists Organize Collections?” by Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives (PAMA). A clearly written introduction to how archives are organized.  This post touches on physical processing, the concept of fonds, and how archives are different from libraries.  PAMA has also written excellent posts on what archivists do and on what it’s like to visit the archives.
  • Archives Association of British Columbia Archivist’s Toolkit. The toolkit provides resources for archivists on a range of archival topics including basic archival principals, uses of archives, and a range of outreach topics.
  • Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology created by the Society of American Archivists. The glossary contains more than 2,000 entries on a wide range of archival terms.  I’ve used this resource when creating presentations to help explain terminology specific to archives.
  • About records, archives and the profession” by the International Council on Archives.  A primer on archives and archivists.  My favourite line of this piece is “archives are for life and for living.”
  • Animating the Archives video series by Tate Gallery.  The series explores the different facets and uses of archives. A number of the videos explore art based archives and the relevancy of archives to artistic and research practices.
  • Archives Association of Ontario Introduction to Archives Youtube series. Includes presentations on using archives, describing archives, arranging archives, and wikipedia for archivists.

What resources do you turn to when teaching about archives?

Archival Competences and University Archives

As September approaches and campus begins to bustle again I’ve been thinking a lot about outreach from the perspective of university archives.  A pair of American Archivist articles , “Archival Literacy Competencies for Undergraduate History Majors” and “Archival Literacy for History Students: What Do Students Need to Know About Primary Source Materials” both speak to the question of archival instruction and outreach at a university level.

Sharon A. Weiner, Sammie Morris, and Lawrence J. Mykytiuk argue that though archival research is generally accepted as a necessary part of historical study there is no standard set of archival research competencies which history students should learn.

Weiner, Morris, and Mykytiuk assert that there is a need for archival literacy, the teaching of archival research skills that can be applied across archival institutions, an understanding of archival principals and access, and understanding the nature and use of archival based evidence. The complete list of proposed competencies can be found in their article.

Most history students are not provided systematic instruction relating to archival research or archival literacy.  Many history programs include a visit to the archive but these orientation sessions are often superficial and do not focus on the building of student skills.  Personally, I had the opportunity in the third year of my undergraduate program to visit a local archives, become acquainted with the staff, and do a project that involved archival research.  However even after that  introduction to an archival repository I was still left with many questions around access and how to most efficiently approach archival research.

Now working within an university archive I see the importance of effective outreach and the need for archival instruction.  Building relationships with students, faculty, and community members is essential and has the potential to benefit all involved. Library instruction has long been a mainstay of undergraduate education. In many cases archival instruction has a lot of catching up to do before it is as common place.

Self Care Revisited

A few months ago I wrote about working in a field that involves historical trauma and the need for self care.  The topic of self care and the mental toll of working on emotionally charged topics came to the forefront for me earlier this week.  I spent a few hours digitizing records and cross referencing the information in these records with our research files.  This isn’t an unusual activity for me.

However the set of records I was digitizing were burial permits relating to residential schools. Working in a small archives or conducting historical research can be a very isolating and solo experience.  There aren’t always built in support networks for mental health.  Maybe there should be.  Particularly for those working with topics that deal with historical trauma.

In this instance when I finished this task I took a walk and spent the rest of the day engaged in positive work — planning for a gathering of former residential school students and working on education pieces relating to residential schools.  But it’s very easy to get bogged down by work that deals with such an emotionally charged topic.  I love the work I’ve been able to do and I am constantly inspired by the resilience of the residential survivors I work with.  But there are occasionally difficult days that require reflection and support.

I’d be interested to hear about what self care techniques or mental health support other researchers and historians practice.

Changing Roles: Archives Supervisor

I’ve been back from parental leave for a bit over a month.  When I left in October 2014 I was working as a Researcher/Curator in the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  I spent a year and a half in that role and had the opportunity to work on a number of great creative projects.  While in that position I also had the chance to brush up on project management, administrative, and exhibit skills.  Some of the highlights involved working with many creative people, artists, and communities.

When I returned to work a month ago my position had fundamentally changed.  I am now working as an Archives Supervisor and  working with the archival collections held by the Arthur A. Wishart Library and the Shingwauk Residential Schools.  This new position also has me working closely with the Anglican Diocese of Algoma Archives which are held at AlgomaU.  The transition wasn’t unexpected. The timing of the transition just got pushed back to coincide with my return to work following my leave.

I’ve been enjoying getting reacquainted with archival processing, arrangement, and general archival work.  Reference requests are back to being a major part of my work and I love getting to actually work with the holdings on a daily basis.  On the public history and outreach front I’m still working with the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre to do educational tours, help plan the annual Shingwauk conference, and the Project of Heart education initiative.  Lots of changes but all of the good kind.