Historical Reminiscents EP 08: Demystifying Archival Labour – Preservation

New podcast episode!

In part four of the mini-series on “Demystifying Archival Labour” I discuss preservation best practices and why preservation is a fundamental part of making archival records accessible. I chat about  my favourite resources and tools for teaching about preservation. Missed part one of this series? Listen to it here.

Mentioned in this episode:

National Archives at NCPH

The final session I attended on Thursday at NCPH was “Competing Narratives, Competing Needs: The Roles and Responsibilities of a National Archive and its Audiences.”  The panel was comprised of staff from Library and Archives Canada (LAC) including: Rebecca Giesbrecht, Jenna Murdock Smith, Jennifer Wilhelm and Katherine Comber as facilitator. 

Giesbrecht began the session by comparing display practices and national concern surrounding Canada’s founding documents with that of the United States.  I wrote about my views on this drastic national difference in 2012 when I made a visit to the NARA in Washington, D.C.  Giesbrecht’s presentation provided a framework of national identity to examine the treatment of ‘founding documents’ by archival bodies and provided insight into LAC’s past and current preservation practices for founding documents.

Following Giesbrecht, Wilhelm discussed the role documents held at LAC have played in relation to the Indian Residential Schools legacy.  Wilhelm also spent considerable time explaining the creation bias and archival bias that impacts the IRS documents held by LAC.  How LAC describes IRS photographs and documents is linked to archival standards, which often results in titles of records reflecting the Euro-centric views of their creators.  Wilhelm also mentioned Project Naming a LAC program designed to identify Inuit in photographs of Canada’s north and LAC’s participation in past Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) national events.

The panel concluded with Jenna Murdock Smith looking at the changing archival policies surrounding documents relating to the Japanese Canadian Redress Secretariat.  The Japanese Canadian Redress was the first instance of an individual compensation process being created in Canada to address historical wrongs.  Smith’s presentation focused on the archival apprasial of case files relating to the Redress.  Early on these case files were considered not of archival value for LAC and slated for destruction, even though these case files contained massive amounts of individual and potentially relevant information.  Smith described the challenges of attempting to find a new home for these records and the ultimate the decision to keep the case files because of a technology failure that lost related information.

This was an interesting panel.  It was great to see staff from LAC engaging with the public history community and sharing their experiences documenting Canada’s ‘official’ past. 

National Archives as a Destination

National Archive Building, Washington

When planning a family trip to Ottawa a visit to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is on the itinerary of very few Canadians.  The lack of visitors center and recent cut to open research hours makes visiting LAC difficult for researchers, let alone tourists.  LAC has no formal tourism competent and many Canadians would be hard-pressed to pick out the LAC building in Ottawa.

Conversely, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) building in Washington does an excellent job of packaging the Archives as a destinations for visitors.  For many visitors the main draw to the NARA are the historic documents that are on display — the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence all reside inside the Rotunda of the NARA.

However, aside from these documents the NARA features a permanent exhibit  in an area called “The Public Vaults” and a rotating temporary Exhibit Hall.  The Exhibit Hall was closed during my visit but I did have a chance to visit the Public Vaults and the Rotunda. The Public Vaults display a number of interesting and historically significant documents and provide insight into archival practice.

What I found most compelling about the Public Vaults exhibit was the extent to which the exhibit educated the general public about the NARA.  For example, there was an interactive display that focused on what records are collected by the NARA and how to go about finding those records.  This display included sections such as “If my grandfather was in WWI would he be in the archive?” and “My ancestors immigrated to the United States, would they be in the archive?”  I liked this element of the exhibit as it highlighted the tangible uses of archival records and introduced people to archival research in a friendly way.

The Public Vaults also included an interesting section on conversation and preservation.  This section included information on the damage of light to paper records, fold damages, and the challenges of preserving so many different formats.  This section also highlighted the reasons why photography isn’t allowed in the NARA and the damage that photograph could have on documents.

My love of archives might make me a bit biased, but I really think the NARA building in Washington is well worth a visit.  Seeing documents that helped shape the United States is an experience in itself.  Additionally, the public vaults exhibit at the NARA is well throughout, educational, and includes a number of electronic or hands on components.  The building is not  merely a place to look at paper in, it’s a space that facilitates the active engagement of the past.

ACA2011 Conference: Day Two

The second day of #ACA2011 open with a plenary session by Dr. Laura Millar. Milliar’s presentation was titled Challenging the Fundamentals: Considering the Future of the Canadian Archival System. The organizational theme of Milliar’s talk was based in creating a new ‘strategic plan’ for the Canadian Archival System. This plan called for a coordinated national strategy for record keeping and preservation, a plan for preserving the digital record, public engagement, and a revised education system. Milliar maintained that archivists should be “auditor, protector, historian, advocate, and adviser.” According to Millar, the archival field is currently faced with a time of opportunity – to shape the future of the profession and to shape the society’s perception of the field. Similar to Terry Eastwood’s presentation yesterday, Millar’s talk emphasized the need to be proactive in shaping the archival profession and was hopeful in looking toward future archival developments.

The morning session I attended was entitled The Tangible and the Intangible. Speakers included Anne Lindsay of the University of Manitoba and Creighton Barrett of Dalhousie University. Unfortunately the third panelist, Teague Schneiter, was absent. Barrett’s presentation explored English ballads as a type of intangible heritage. This talk highlighted the problem of documenting and arranging intangible heritage based on guidelines designed for written, Euro-centric documentary heritage. Additionally, Barrett called for the use of flexible arrangement during the archival processing of intangible heritage, which would allow cultural heritage to be linked to a provenance of place and an expanded definition of creation.

Lindsay’s presentation provided an interesting contrast to the paper presented by Barrett. Lindsay’s paper, entitled “Archives and Justice: Willard Ireland’s Contribution to the Changing Legal Framework of Aboriginal Rights in Canada” focused on the contributions of archivist Willard Ireland which impacted political, social, and legal forms of knowledge. Lindsay provided an excellent summary of Ireland’s involvement in two legal cases which examined the question of Aboriginal title and treaty rights. This presentation saw the role of archives as that of a witness and as playing an essential role in the creation of memory. One of the more profound examples in this discussion of archives of witness was Ireland’s court testimony. This testimony placed a piece of paper with 159 ‘X’ marks on it, into the context of a larger treaty framework. The work presented by both Barrett and Lindsay was intriguing and provided food for thought regarding how to best contextualize and preserve unique forms of heritage.

This first afternoon session I attended discussed Collecting in Canada from a historical perspective. This session included presentations by Paulette Dozois (LAC), Anna Shumilak (LAC), and Edward P. Soye (Royal Military College). All three papers in this session focused on the development of different aspects of the archival system within Canada. There was a particular emphasis on the development of LAC. Dozois‘ work focused on the legacy of Joseph Pope in the shaping of the Canadian archival system, and Soye’s work highlighted Dominion Archivists Arthur Doughty’s efforts to establish a war museum. This session provided a great overview of the development of government archives within Canada and a good starting point for discussion of how these early beginnings have shaped current government archive policy in Canada.

The final session I attended today was entitled Round Peg Square Hole. This session featured Geoffrey Yeo of the University College London, Joseph T. Tennis of the University of Washington, and Fiorella Foscarini from University of Toronto. All three speakers examined ways in which the movement to a digital environment have challenged traditional assumptions about archival practice. Yeo’s work discussed the rise of participatory digital environments and the notion of multiple modes of arrangement. Termed ‘arrangement on demand’ Yeo suggested that is impossible to predict how all users would like to use archival material and which type of arrangement of material would best facilitate this use. Yeo suggested that technology has provided archivists with an opportunity to arrange records in multiple ways, without changing their physical context. This was a great technology conscious and forward thinking panel that combined traditional archival theory with potential tech innovations.

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.