In the Field: The ACA Blog
The 9th International Conference on the History of Records and Archives (ICHORA), held virtually by the University of Michigan School of Information, featured a variety of presentations and keynote speeches. Given the scope of the conference and the quality of the speakers, ICHORA constitutes a good indicator of the current state of archival research and research about archives. The theme of the conference, with a full week-long program starting on October 26, 2020, Archives and the Digital World, allowed for multiple discussions and perspectives that testified to the power of the digital in the overall direction of archival research and practice.
[ICHORA 2020 yellow and light blue poster with the title of the conference, the location, and the Michigan University logo. Featuring an 1980s looking computer]
Past ICHORA conferences gave birth to groundbreaking and innovative scholarship that challenged and changed archival theory and practice. From Andrew Flinn, Mary Stevens, and Elizabeth Shepherd’s presentation about community archives – which led to the article “Whose memories, whose archives? Independent community archives, autonomy and the mainstream” – to Jeannette A. Bastian’s “Reading Colonial Records Through an Archival Lens: The Provenance of Place, Space and Creation” and Tom Nesmith’s “Reopening Archives: Bringing New Contextualities into Archival Theory and Practice,” ICHORA has been a fertile ground for the dynamic evolution of archival theory throughout the twenty-first century.
This year’s edition featured a range of presentations that will certainly leave their mark in the archival realm and beyond. Multidisciplinary research is now established as part of the nature of archival studies. This has brought new horizons where a plurality of fields, including anthropology, media studies, history, gender studies, postcolonial studies, computer science, digital humanities, and others have contributed to the expansion of archival studies. On the other hand – and this is something that was evident by the type of research presented during the conference – increasingly, the diversity of archival research is also penetrating other academic fields.
Marisa Elena Duarte’s keynote speech set the tone for rich conversations that marked the five days of the conference. Duarte’s eloquent connection between the digital and the birth of new worlds, and on notions around digital bodies of knowledge, testified to the extent of archival relationships and power. Duarte mentioned that “the technically powerful archive is but a shadow of the relationships among us.” As Duarte brilliantly put forward, data sovereignty, digital literacy, and radical empathy signal the dynamic engagement of archives and digital archival conceptions in the shaping of memory and digital relations.
Discussions of digitization practices and the impact of the digital world resonated with Duarte’s perspective on knowledge development and the relational encounters of archives. Tomla Ernestine Tatah Lukong, for example, talked about the challenges faced by the Cameroon National Archives. Drawing attention to the volume of records created in Cameroon institutions, alongside financial and infrastructural challenges, Tatah Lukong offered a compelling account of archival advocacy oriented toward bridging the gap in the archives, and on the importance of community engagement in the trajectory of the national archives. While digitization and digital practices have been presented as crucial players that contribute to historical knowledge and access to records, other presentations highlighted darker impulses of digital initiatives and use. Katharina Hering discussed the potential crumbling of historical contexts around digital records represented in the database Ancestry.com. Acknowledging the immense market power of the genealogy-based platform, Hering highlighted that the maximization of access to records could be made at the expense of political and ethical concerns associated with private information. By paying attention to the participation of public archives in the development and expansion of Ancestry, Hering presented compelling arguments about the importance of the relationality of records and their context, and the responsibilities of archivists who work with public records.
The manipulation of records and their digital afterlives was further emphasized by a keynote speech given by Tonia Sutherland. Sutherland presented a powerful account aligned with social and cultural tensions associated with the use of what was called “digital remains.” The speaker provided an exposé concerning the commodification of Black bodies and the deaths of black people in digital spaces. Sutherland mentioned that, through the use of images and records about the death of Black people, social and political forces are extending the lives of Black people, and ultimately changing their present and future narratives. Sutherland argued that while offering new uses and recontextualizations, the sharing of records through digital platforms and in the media is deconstructing the agency and the realities of Black lives and death. Accordingly, this use of Black bodies was presented as being performative, where imaginations and projection of narratives ultimately separated the Black body imaginary from the lived experiences of Black peoples. Sutherland identified this process as being very dangerous. In talking about the digital afterlife, Sutherland insisted that race, records, and the violence of archival processes converged. Furthermore, Sutherland presented the digital afterlives of records portraying, using, and recirculating Black death as being part of expansive colonial powers in the digital world.
Critical views of the digital resonated throughout the conference. Critical lenses on digitization, technology, and archival standards powerfully illustrated colonial conceptions of archival practice. James Lowry, for instance, indicated that normative procedures of the ISO standard emerged from a universalist and colonial framework. This association of documentation standards with the legacies of colonialism was echoed by a presentation given by Hannah Turner, who has done research on the history of documentation in an ethnographic museum. Turner signaled the importance of studying documentation in order to situate ethnographic knowledge development. In doing so, Turner highlighted the durable and performative qualities of documentation technology and situated its crucial role in colonial knowledge production and limitations. Ayantu Tibeso, in turn, challenged conceptions of colonialism, exclusion, and marginalization by drawing attention to the silencing of Oromo peoples through recordkeeping practices in Ethiopia. By situating these activities through a colonial frame of reference, Tibeso reflected on the dynamic nature of colonial practices and of the importance of ancient oral recordkeeping practices in archival spaces. Diana Marsh pursued this theme, providing strategies and practices conceived to fill the gap in Indigenous knowledge, through the power of the digital and of digitization. Marsh reiterated that understanding the impact of digitization on Indigenous research is crucial when crafting archival processes, insisting on themes such as historical sovereignty, representational belonging, and the limits of digital knowledge sharing.
All of these notions forced the participants to reflect on traditional archival conceptions of provenance. New perspectives of the concept of provenance was the highlight of two rich presentations. In discussing two feminist activist archives, Jessica Lapp offered a critical analysis to provenance, by proposing what is defined as “provenancial fabulation.” Lapp talked about the many variables associated with records creation, by insisting on the imaginative process of archival creation. Furthermore, Lapp discussed the dynamic and temporal characteristics of provenance, through structures and infrastructures, and ultimately through feminist perspectives that challenge official historical narratives. Gracen Brilmyer put forward the concept of crip provenance, by highlighting the creation of records about disabled people made from the perspective of people in power. Brilmyer argued that traditional notions of provenance contribute to historical absence, erasures, and partial and non-existence evidence. While doing so, Brilmyer offered a critique of this sense of wholeness to recordkeeping, formulated by traditional visions of provenance. Moreover, they indicated that restoring some sort of order to records can provoke inequities and further marginalize people with disabilities.
If the impact of archival research and the innovations of archival theory were unequivocally expressed throughout the conference, a pertinent question was at the heart of the panel discussion in honour of Richard J. Cox. David Wallace, Lindsey Mattock, Joel Blanco-River, and the host of the conference Ricky Punzalan attempted to respond to the question posed by the moderator, Jeannette Bastian: Is archival work more a profession or part of a discipline? Based on the responses of the members of the panel, if it is a profession, it is heavily subject to academic directions; and if it is more a discipline, it is a discipline ingrained in practical articulations. David Wallace spoke about the ethics of archival work, being engaged in research and writing. He mentioned that the academic dimension improves the intellectual positioning of archival work. On a personal note, Wallace testified that the social and cultural scope of archival endeavours and research was, for him, a “salvation.” Blanco-Rivera, for his part, emphasized the multidimensional aspects of teaching to highlight the reach of archival theory and practice. Mattock added to this by mentioning that archival studies is an academic discipline that informs practice, with its own intellectual history. To conclude, Ricky Punzalan framed archival studies and practice from a multidisciplinary perspective, suggesting that these discussions do not need to be informed by this binary (profession/discipline), but should rather be thought in terms of a duality that emphasizes the importance of connectivity in the development of archival thinking.
Various connections between digital spaces, archival records, and the scope of archival work was reiterated in the final keynote address given by Margaret Hedstrom. Problematizing the use and the ubiquity of the term “curation” in public spaces and social media, Hedstrom associated the power of the digital with surveillance capitalism. Hedstrom offered explanations that touched on the commodification of people and their representations in the archives, and how curatorial practices in the archives must be deliberate and better defined to counter the neoliberal and authoritarian impulses of surveillance capitalism in the digital world.
The richness of the various presentations certainly evoked the multidisciplinary and multifaceted scope of archival initiatives and research. While discussions of social justice, colonialism, and social movements emerged – alongside conceptions and the reach of the digital – the different panels convincingly highlighted the impact of archival thinking and archival involvement in the direction of a plurality of memories and memories’ conceptions. ICHORA 2020 certainly left important intellectual trails that will push archival theory toward new areas of research and practice.
François Dansereau is the Senior Archivist at The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada and a course lecturer at the McGill University School of Information Studies. He is the author of the chapter “Men, Masculinities, and the Archives: Introducing the Concept of Hegemonic Masculinity in Archival Discourse” in the volume Archives and Special Collections as Sites of Contestation (2020), and of the article “The Portrayal of Gender in Health Care: An Examination of Hospital Photographic Archives” (Archivaria 90, Fall 2020). Dansereau holds an MA in History from Université de Montréal and a MLIS with a concentration in archives from McGill University.
As online academic and professional conferences are now becoming the norm rather than the exception, Claire Williams and Jasmine Charette reflect on the importance of social media in the planning, development, and organization of conferences, and on the use of social media to share crucial information during the course of the 2020 ACA conference.
Social media is a fantastic tool for engagement and promotion, which the ACA Communications Committee has harnessed over the past several years to advertise and showcase the annual conference.
The ACA Communications Committee recently reinvigorated its presence on Instagram - this coincided promotion of our ACA 2020 annual conference. Originally, the plan had been to have Claire Williams, Communications Committee member and Host Team member, take awe-inspiring photographs of the beautiful Vancouver for conference attendees to see. However, as the COVID-19 situation developed, we quickly began to realize that the photogenic Vancouver would have to be saved for another year. Instead, Instagram was used to advertise many of our wonderful sessions and plenary speakers, as well as how-to's for registering for the conference and downloading the WHOVA app. Together with Alexandra Alisauskas from the Programming Committee, we crafted a schedule of highlights to share with potential attendees on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. It was wonderful watching the ACA Instagram account grow in size as attendees, organizers, and speakers engaged with our conference program.
When it finally came down to the week of the conference, we saw followers and likes pour in as we posted about TAATU, the SIS meetings, ‘All Shook Up: The Archival Legacy of Terry Cook’ book launch, downloading the virtual poster sessions, and our amazing opening reception talk with Leslie Weir. We had no further to look then sharing the amazing programming through the conference, as the first and second full day of speakers and sessions began.
When it came time for our closing plenary (all too fast!) we shared just one of the amazing quotes from Michelle Caswell’s talk on Feeling Liberatory Memory Work. All-in-all Instagram proved to be a great place to share our first ever digital conference and we look forward to promoting the amazing work of our ACA community on this visual platform as we all learn to see archives differently.
Given the exceptional nature of the conference, our Twitter and Facebook response evolved as well. While many major updates are communicated to members by email and through our website, our Twitter and Facebook presence (and recently, Instagram), has allowed us to further promote the conference to non-members of the ACA and other interested parties. Thanks to the wonderful visuals cross-posted from Instagram, our Twitter and Facebook page audiences grew significantly in the lead-up to the conference, allowing us to share these posts to a larger audience than in years past, furthering discussion of new theories and great thinkers in the archival field.
Since not everyone can attend the conference, even with our record-breaking numbers in 2020, we have previously live-tweeted from specific sessions, using and promoting hashtags such as #ACA2020 to add to the stream of conference tweets. This allows for anyone interested to follow along at home, and attendees can read recaps from sessions they may have missed. However, we decided to take a step back from active tweeting during sessions this year and instead highlighted, through retweets, what attendees found engaging and thought-provoking from various sessions. In addition, through our use of Facebook Live, we saw high engagement with the book launch of ‘All Shook Up,’ as the launch was open to the public.
We are grateful for the impact social media has done to increase engagement with the archival field, presenting new ideas, and keeping us on our toes for how to move forward in these novel times.
Claire Williams and Jasmine Charette
ACA Communications Committee
Alongside the Association of Canadian Archivists’ move to an online conference in 2020, The Archives and Technology Unconference (TAATU) met via videoconference on June 10. Started in 2008, this BarCamp for archivists is a place for all archivists interested in IT and digital culture to meet, exchange ideas and have a bit of fun. The only requirement is that everyone is expected to participate in some manner. This year, with as many as 92 people on the conference call at one time (the largest number of attendees in TAATU history), participation was, in some ways, greater than ever, if a bit harder to keep track of.
This short blog post will highlight what was discussed at this year’s TAATU and hopefully encourage people to join and participate in new and different ways – online or not – next year.
With such a huge group, split across nations and time zones, land acknowledgements appeared in a variety of ways at TAATU: some individuals unmuted themselves and acknowledged, over video, where they were speaking from. Some people typed greetings in the chat window of our call. Other folks entered information about the land they are living and working on in the TAATU agenda and participants list. Vancouver participants, as a group, acknowledged by typing into the agenda, the lands of the Coast Salish people, where the ACA conference was going to be held in person. With people in dispersed locations, it was surprising (in a good way) to see that participants were still able to bring focus to this small act of reconciliation.
There were four sessions this year. From my notes…
Peter Van Garderen: Preservation Action Registries and Archivematica
Peter summarized this project that seeks to share technical best practices. Artefactual Systems, Preservica and Arkivum are all participants. The potential of this is huge but, at this time, it is a proof of concept project with lots of work outstanding. Peter believes this really is the future of automated digital preservation but questions around data mapping, intellectual entities and complex business processes need to be identified and addressed.
Krista Jamieson: Archival transcription or Work from home “job jar” project
At McMaster, they are digitizing a lot of material and this project – while not super techy – is still solid digital work, and it’s lo-fi and accessible to many. Transcription of digitized records, especially with staff working from home due to covid-19, is work that can be done easily, with just a computer and an internet connection, from home. An example of a document, with a completed description, can be found here: https://digitalarchive.mcmaster.ca/islandora/object/macrepo%3A73929#page/4/mode/2up
Grant Hurley: Dataverse-Archivematica integration
Grant talked about this work on the preservation of research data and using Dataverse (an open-source platform to discover research data) and Archivematica (a tool for processing digital objects for preservation and access). There has been a growing interest in research data preservation internationally and the aim of this project was to investigate how Dataverse datasets could be processed into AIPs. Grant provided a demo of this first attempt to get the two systems to talk to each other. There is more work to be done and improvements can be made but there is obvious interest in something like this, as evidenced by OCUL’s sponsorship of the work.
Jeremy Heil gave an update on NAAB and the monetary appraisal of electronic records. As these were lightning talks and Jeremy was a bonus speaker, I am going to direct you to his slides because I have very few notes of my own!
AtoM roadmap committee
Kelly Babcock led a discussion and encouraged input from the community on what features people are interested in seeing in an AtoM 3.0. Discussion ideas included:
- Recap of AtoM 3 Roadmap Committee activities since March 2020.
- What can we do to prepare our AtoM 2 data for migration?
- Can we make improvements to our data now to improve interoperability between our repositories?
- AtoM 3 features - brainstorming on what TAATU considers the “essential” features
Following these sessions, TAATU participants then discussed becoming actively anti-racist in our work. The conversation was wide ranging and I will note here just some of the high-level topics that were examined:
- RAD: will it be revised? How could this be moved forward?
- How can archives revise their own policies without waiting for association or other guidelines? Examples were shared from Waterloo (language in descriptions), Archives of Ontario (description policy), and the University of Saskatchewan (Indigenous titles and guidelines).
- ACA Communications is working on a list of resources; these were published on the ACA blog on June 11
- Decolonizing archives
- Recruiting and retaining BIPOC archivists
- Need for white archivists to confront white supremacy in themselves
This year’s TAATU ended with a No dumb questions session, inspired by last year’s BitCurator Users Forum. Given the online nature of this year’s event, a document was set up and people asked and answered various questions. You can see that document here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1FElQvBJLkZPcrFm2tRzFljvadv0N47ua59gfadI1RKo/edit
Remember to open the link in Incognito/Private mode so as to remain anonymous. This session was a great way to retain the original TAATU spirit of inclusivity with no minimum IT experience required to participate.
Jenn Roberts has a wide range of work experience and has plied the archival trade in Canada, the USA and Switzerland. She currently calls Whitehorse, Yukon home and is part of Artefactual Systems' remote workforce.
Emily Lonie, Program Team Chair ACA 2020
As one of my final acts as Chair of the 2020 Program Team, I have been asked to reflect on the 45th annual conference of the Association of Canadian Archivists. Wow—where to start? How do you sum up such an incredible and historic experience?
I couldn’t have foreseen it, but as it turned out, our theme for this year’s ACA conference: 20/20 Vision: Seeing Archives Differently, could not have been more appropriate. 2020 has forced us all to see things differently.
To read the full blog post, go here.
As written in the ACA Board Statement issued 3 June 2020, we, as archivists, condemn racism, injustice, and violence against Black people. However, as the recent deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, D’Andre Campbell, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery (among far too many others), racialized violence and injustice remain a part of our systems in Canada and North America. In a profession historically dominated by White people, we acknowledge our responsibility to engage with the effects of White supremacy on archives and archival practice. While the Association of Canadian Archivists recently launched an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Task Force to prioritize actions that the ACA may undertake to make our profession more equitable, inclusive, and diverse, we believe that there are initiatives and learnings we can all undertake as individuals to further this work.
We have compiled a list of resources and readings relevant to anti-racism, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and archives and archivists in Canada, and the United States. This list (available here) is not exhaustive, and it is our hope that it will continue to grow while inspiring conversation and action in the archival profession. Please email email@example.com to add to or edit this list.
Claire Williams and the ACA Communications Committee
The ACA McGill Student Chapter hosted its 13th Annual Colloquium on Tuesday, March 10th, 2020 at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. The theme of this year’s Colloquium was “Archiving the Personal” and speakers offered a vast range of perspectives on how personal experiences and personal information shape archival practice.
After a brief introduction by current ACA McGill Coordinator Nicholas Decarie, we heard from our first speaker, Marcel Caya—the Quebec regional director of the National Archival Appraisal Board. Caya gave an informative talk on the “Monetary Appraisal of Personal Archives: a Tool for Acquisition.” Following his presentation, audience members were brimming with questions about the appraisal of digital archival material and on the increasing appraisal of digital groups of private papers.
Marcel Caya (Photograph by Katherine Sorrell Kirkpatrick)
François Dansereau—Senior Archivist at the Archive of the Jesuits in Canada—followed Caya with his presentation on “The ‘Personal’ in Institutional Archives: Or How Personal Photo Albums Open Up Narratives.” Using a case study from the McGill University Health Centre Archives and Special Collections, Dansereau demonstrated how personal archives can be used to complement institutional records in order to share lesser-known historical narratives.
François Dansereau (Photograph by Katherine Sorrell Kirkpatrick)
Following the presentation from Dansereau, we heard from Jonathan Dorey—a Research Officer for a Quebec University consortium composed of the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, École nationale d’administration publique, in Montréal. Dorey gave a presentation entitled “From Personal Papers to Research Data: Archival Theory in Context,” where he compared and contrasted perspectives from his own experiences working for the Quebec Gay Archives and working in research data management. He discussed the difficulty in applying archival theories such as appraisal, selection, original order, and description in the highly personal and complex contexts he has worked in.
ACA McGill’s Coordinator Nicholas Decarie gave the final presentation before our lunch break. The graduating McGill Master of Information Studies candidate presented on “The Decarie Family Archives: Building a Cloud-Based Archive.” He described his own and his family members’ efforts to archive their family history. Decarie’s efforts have focused on digitizing photographs, videos, and textual records to be preserved in his own digital repository, currently hosted on a Google Drive platform. He discussed some pros and cons of a cloud storage approach and challenges he has faced.
Following a lunch break, first-year Master of Information Studies candidate and ACA McGill’s First-Year Representative, Sean Sallis-Lyon, gave a presentation entitled “Quality Archives on a Budget.” Sallis-Lyon discussed his experience in information technology (IT) consulting and his preferred digital storage strategy for his budding family archive. The question period was an opportunity for constructive feedback about file formats and related challenges in digital archiving.
Lori Podolsky—a Sessional Lecturer at the McGill School of Information Studies and PhD student—offered a compelling presentation on “The Emotive Archives: the Personal Within.” Her presentation involved personal anecdotes from her experiences as a volunteer, a researcher, an archivist, and her family’s historian. Podolsky spoke about challenges and considerations archivists must face when handling sensitive, personal archival material.
McGill School of Information Studies Sessional Lecturer, Gordon Burr, gave his talk on “Archiving the Emotional and the Personal: The Case of Fred Wigle” to finish off the day. Burr revealed how personal narratives can become submerged by the scope of records found in the archives, and how the archivist must be willing to confront these emotional materials while remaining aware of how their own experiences shape their interactions with such records.
Gordon Burr (Photograph by Katherine Sorrell Kirkpatrick)
We are grateful to the Association of Canadian Archivists for offering funds to support this event, as well as to all of our guest speakers and ACA McGill volunteers. This event could not have been the success that it was without the tremendous amount of support we received. Thank you to everyone who attended: we look forward to welcoming new and returning guests to our event next year!
Jazmine Aldrich recently completed her first year in the Master of Information Studies program at McGill University. She served as an Assistant Coordinator for the ACA McGill Student Chapter in the 2019-2020 school year, and will share the role of Coordinator with her colleague Katherine Sorrell Kirkpatrick in the upcoming 2020-2021 school year.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has forced many archivists to change how they work, and the staff at Concordia University Records Management and Archives (RMA) are no different. RMA is embracing new approaches to their archival projects and the challenges that come with working from home. Toward the documentation of this demanding time, RMA has launched a web archiving initiative, led by Records Management Assistant Olivier Bisaillon-Lemay, to capture sites, blogs, and articles linked to Concordia’s reaction and response to the pandemic. The inspiration for this project was derived from similar on-going web archiving projects taking place at the National Archives of the UK and the International Internet Preservation Consortium. In addition to these projects, web archiving has recently been featured in a New York Times article highlighting the work of the Library of Congress. The goal of Concordia’s COVID-19 web archiving project is to preserve these often-ephemeral sites for their long-term informational value as well as their look and feel, which often provides additional contextual value. These sites have been brought together and centralized in a COVID-19 web collection for those currently interested, and for future researchers potentially focusing on Concordia’s digital footprint during this unprecedented time.
Figure 1: Concordia University COVID-19 Web Collection
A secondary goal of the project is to open it to the wider Concordia community and incorporate a crowdsourcing element. Each week, through RMA’s social media channels, the department is encouraging faculty, staff, and students to send along COVID-19 sites with a Concordia connection. Web archiving at Concordia Although web archiving at RMA is not entirely new, the reality of archives staff now working from home has placed renewed focus on the RMA web archiving program. As of summer 2018, RMA has used the Archive-It platform to archive university sites – an effort linked to RMA’s mandate to preserve and make accessible the history of the University. Over the last two years, RMA has archived over one million documents and 177GB of content related to Concordia University. This content is broken down into the following five collections housed on Archive-It: Institutional Web Collection, University Publications, Student Associations and Groups, Sir George Williams Affair – 50th Anniversary, and the COVID-19 Collection.
Figure 2: Concordia University Records Management and Archives (RMA) Data Archived
Archiving, and making these sites accessible through Internet Archives and Wayback Machine, has already facilitated the work of archival researchers tracking information from inoperative sites.
A foundational aspect of the project from its inception was to seek participation from the Concordia community toward documenting the diversity of perspectives represented within the University during the COVID-19 pandemic. Promotion of the project currently includes a weekly social media campaign that highlights the collection of material and takes advantage of the #WebArchivingWednesday hashtag on Twitter. RMA has also launched a page advertising the project that encourages members of the community to get in touch with site URLS for the collection.
Between mid-March and early-April, 2020, RMA captured 538MB and over 21,000 documents from the official University website and student publications The Link and The Concordian.
Browse the Concordia COVID-19 web collection at: https://archive-it.org/collections/13662
John Richan is the Digital Archivist in Records Management and Archives at Concordia University, Montreal, where his primary responsibilities are tied to digital preservation activities. John holds a MLIS from McGill University with a specialization in Archives. His professional interests include working open source applications and systems into digital preservation workflows.
COVID-19 has transformed the ways in which archival organizations operate and, at the same time, is an object of study for current and future researchers, as well as various health care communities. The ACA Blog In the Field is looking for contributions from archivists and archival institutions regarding their initiatives, strategies, and methods to either document responses to COVID-19 or with regards to their organizational functioning.
How does the pandemic affect archival labour, from an organizational perspective or from archivists’ points of view? What are your organization’s policies and procedures regarding archivists’ safety and the preservation of holdings during a complete shutdown? What is the impact of the current situation on archival organizations’ crisis management and planning? What are the initiatives of your organization regarding the collection of records on COVID-19? How the collection and dissemination of data on the pandemic mobilizes your institution to reach out to various communities? How can archival records be involved in future planning and responses to global pandemics?
These are only some of the questions that interest us.
We want to read your thoughts, strategies, perspectives, and initiatives.
Please complete this form to submit your proposed blog post.
We are looking forward to reading your contribution!
François Dansereau, The ACA Blog Editor
What do you get when you combine 150 years of backlogged archives with a dedicated group of Anglican parishioners and an archival funding opportunity? In the case of St. Peter’s Cathedral Church in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, you get a semi-trailer truck’s worth of official reports, financial records, legal documents, meeting minutes, photographs, and personal letters and diaries – arranged, described, and available for public access.
In this blog post I share some of the story of St. Peter’s archival journey. Many archivists reading this piece, especially those in community settings or other low-resource environments, may feel a sense of déjà vu – working in archives, large or small, inevitably demands cooperation, commitment, and compromise. The path from start to finish was long, and as all archivists know the job of managing archival collections is never done. But St. Peter’s has achieved a great deal, in part by looking creatively at how to balance archival theory with the practical realities of developing and sustaining an archival service on the shoulders of a small – but determined – team of volunteers.
In 2016, St. Peter’s volunteer archives committee decided they could no longer manage the task of organizing the church’s archives themselves. They had been working diligently for several years to make sense of a disordered backlog, much of which had been stored in loose boxes and plastic bags in the church’s bell tower for years before being lowered down ladders and staircases to a dedicated archives room in the church basement, constructed by volunteers in 2007.
To take the church’s archival programme to the next level, the volunteers applied to Library and Archives Canada for a Documentary Heritage Communities Programme (DHCP) grant to develop a strategic plan. They engaged me as their consultant to help construct the plan, which was then used to support an application to Library and Archives Canada for funding for archival arrangement, description, and digitization.
In this second application, the volunteers highlighted the fact that St.Peter’s 150th anniversary was coming up in 2019, and they explained the research benefits of creating a safe, organized, and accessible collection of archives. They also argued that because St. Peter’s had been such a pivotal institution in Charlottetown for so long, organizing its archives would make available documentary evidence not just of church life but also of people and events central to the story of the city and the province since Confederation. As well, they articulated a strong vision of sustainability: from the construction of a high-quality archives room in 2007, to their commitment to implement standards-based archival practices, to their vision of long-term capacity through extensive volunteer participation in the archives.
The church’s application was approved in 2018, providing two years of funds to support a range of archival activities. The volunteers asked me to serve as Archives Advisor on the project, working mostly from my home in British Columbia with periodic trips east. Their goal was to ensure the project operated on a sound archival footing, while spreading resources as widely as possible and ensuring church volunteers played a central role. My challenge was to develop a range of activities that resulted in a strong, sustainable archival programme while ensuring the bulk of the work would be carried out by volunteers, students, or interns.
To succeed, I had to tuck archival theory into my back pocket, dig out my winter boots for less expensive off-peak travel, and think creatively about how to build an effective and capable local team while ensuring a high-quality outcome. Throughout our two-year project, which ends in March 2020, I watched as theory and practice ran into each other more than once. Sometimes theory came out a bit worse for wear, which I am inclined to think might have been a good thing.
Bev White and Cindy MacLean reviewing archival documents, 2019.
Technology is the answer?
Over the years, St. Peter’s archival volunteers had developed a series of paper-based processes, including the use of handwritten accession records and description forms. Prince Edward Island’s Provincial Archivist had helped them set up a database to capture archival descriptions, but the volunteers found working in paper more effective, as they met weekly to sit around the large conference table and describe photographs or accession documents. They captured information on printed forms and often worked in pairs to share information and correct each other’s memory of people or events. Before long, the computer and the database were essentially obsolete, as a stack of paper accession records built up.
I believed that computerization was essential to supporting broad public access to the archives. But I recognized that the current cohort of volunteers did not want to walk away from their involvement. And with only one computer and one keyboard in the archives, spreading the workload meant thinking creatively. The church agreed to acquire a top-quality scanner and computer, and to purchase a license for Access to Memory or AtoM. We also agreed that Artefactual Systems Inc. would provide server storage and backups, that the church would commit funds to continue the license after the project ended, and that we would establish a mechanism for exporting data out of AtoM should that be necessary in future.
Even though the computer took pride of place on the desk, however, we maintained some paper-based processes, particularly to support the description of photographs. I worked with the volunteers to refine existing forms, templates, and procedures. As a result, volunteers can continue with familiar description tasks, but it is now easier to transfer handwritten records into digital form in AtoM. By training some volunteers on the use of AtoM, we also caught the interest of some new participants who did not feel comfortable describing older church photographs but who were excited to help with data entry and quality control. Some of them even chose to bring in their own laptops or work remotely from home. By combining analogue and digital approaches, and providing training and support, we now have a larger pool of volunteers adding to the AtoM database.
Bev White packing up office files for the archives, 2019.
Always work from the general to the specific?
Very early in my work with St. Peter’s, I realized that attempting to organize all the archives at a general level before moving to more specific arrangement and description would be counterproductive. Even though a large portion of the archives had been in the basement archives room since 2007, new materials were popping up all the time. A snoop through basement cupboards or a cup of tea with a parishioner might yield new treasures. And engaging volunteers in arrangement and description meant compartmentalizing tasks, so everyone could work on different parts of the collection without bashing into each other, archivally or physically. For example, I organized the personal archives of the early priest incumbents into series and files, then I asked the volunteers to complete further arrangement and description by sorting documents into date order, transcribing selected letters, or writing file lists. Meanwhile, some people described photographs, while others provided historical background to church events. By dividing work into distinct “chunks,” we saw the archives as pieces of a puzzle, which came together over the course of the project.
Textual archives sorted by incumbent priest.
Context is king?
When St. Peter’s volunteers began organizing the archives years ago, original order was already more or less gone. The volunteers ended up focusing their attention on medium and content, for example by sorting documents by the era of the incumbent priest and moving photographs into an entirely separate collection. Attempting to reconstruct original order, or to confirm ownership or copyright for backlogged materials, was virtually impossible. Better to start fresh and establish new processes going forward.
Because the volunteers enjoy working with photographs, and because many of them know very well the events depicted in the images, we decided to maintain the photographs as a discrete collection and refine the workflow to incorporate stronger archival controls, as I explained earlier. I concentrated my actual archival input on organizing the backlog of textual records, looking for functions and activities whenever possible. Once I had a rough order in place, I would then ask for volunteers, students, or interns to help with more detailed arrangement and description. We also established better processes for capturing donor information and documenting copyright conditions for new accessions, and we set up a process for ensuring that new donations would no longer be anonymous – a significant problem for any community institution, where enthusiasm for the archives can make us all forget to document the “who, what, where, and when” of each new accession.
Sorting archives can be a messy business.
A full-time archivist is essential?
While the DHCP project funds could have supported several months of full-time employment for one person, that approach would not help the church build capacity to sustain the archival collection or provide archival services in the long term. St. Peter’s volunteers wanted to be involved, and they wanted to be left with a collection they could manage effectively themselves, with occasional professional support. Anything more, while desirable in theory, was highly unlikely in practice, and the church did not want to set itself up to fail.
The church did not hesitate, however, to seek funding for students and interns, and we were able to hire two summer students, one in 2018 and one in 2019. In 2018, Josh Smith, a graduate student in history at Trent University who was home in Charlottetown for the summer, worked with volunteers to provide initial listings of backlogged archives, allowing me to do some initial appraisal from British Columbia. He also conducted research to support planning for 150th anniversary displays and exhibits. In 2019, Andrea Corder, a graduate student in music at the University of Regina, also home in Charlottetown for the summer, helped us describe photographs, sort newspaper clippings, and scan annual reports so we could upload them to AtoM for online access.
Also in 2019, we were able to use Young Canada Works funds to hire Meghan Kirkland, a graduate of Western University’s Master of Library & Information Science programme, to work on a pivotal archival project, to review and list over 1.5 metres of the church’s administrative records from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. The files had been created and managed in strict alphabetical order, with often cryptic file titles. Retaining original order meant analyzing every single file to clarify its contents, and Meghan tackled the Herculean task of producing a detailed file list along with a RAD-compliant description.
In keeping with the philosophy that “all good things come to those who wait,” St. Peter’s struck gold in late 2018, when Bev White, a recent retiree with a background in education and a strong understanding of computer systems, volunteered to help with our project. We ended up agreeing a paid contract with Bev, who serves as our Charlottetown-based Archival Coordinator. Bev has scanned hundreds of photographs and uploaded dozens of images to AtoM. She also coordinates volunteer work sessions and oversees quality control checks for photographs and descriptions. Bev has also organized and participated in several anniversary activities, and she oversees archival “work parties” – often as part of a coffee hour after Sunday services – to display copies of photographs and ask parishioners to help identify people, places, and events. In keeping with the mantra of “many hands make light work” we have been able to achieve the church’s vision for a highly integrated and interactive project – focusing as much on the process and the players as on the final product.
SPCA Archives Intern Meghan Kirkland and Summer Student Andrea Corder, 2019.
Planning for the future
Someday, I hope, St. Peter’s will find the resources to engage a part-time archivist. In reality, the church will likely continue to rely on volunteers, students, and part-time contractors for the foreseeable future. But as the DHCP-funded project comes to an end, we are focused on establishing sustainable processes, so that volunteers can carry out more and more of the work themselves in future. And of course there is still much to do; archival work is never finished. The volunteers at St. Peter’s know that – they knew it when they started on this journey, and they understand it better now.
Clamshell boxes hold archives by era.
We are all grateful for the great benefits that came with the DHCP funds, which allowed St. Peter’s to organize 150 years of archives and to establish processes for maintaining a stronger archival programme in the future. I am proud of what we have accomplished. But my greatest joy has been working with a vibrant group of volunteers, who remind me regularly that practical approaches – respectful of but not inextricably bound to archival theory – can often result in tremendous results.
Laura Millar is a records, archives and information management consultant who works with governments, universities, non-profit organizations, and other agencies around the world. Since 2016, she has advised St. Peter’s Cathedral Church in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, including helping the church coordinate its 2018-2020 LAC-funded archival management project.
The Okanagan Valley is situated approximately 400 km inland from B.C.'s South Coast. At the centre of the north-south trajectory of the Valley is Kelowna, which is home to the second campus of the University of British Columbia (after the first, in Vancouver). This strategic location, in combination with the human and digital infrastructure resources provided by the UBC Okanagan Library and generous donor funding have made the Digitized Okanagan History project possible.
For three years the authors have coordinated an effort based at the UBC Okanagan Library to assist memory institutions located in communities throughout the Okanagan region to realize their own goals of digitization, systematic metadata development, and provision of access to selected portions of their archival holdings. Digitized Okanagan History (D.O.H.) now includes over 100,000 digital objects drawn from 29 partners located in a catchment area extending from Sicamous in the north to Osoyoos in the south and Princeton in the west to Grand Forks in the east.
Curling on the Kettle River, ca. 1930.
Image courtesy of Kettle River Museum.
Recognizing that limited financial and technical resources prevented many community repositories from using evolving web-based tools to promote access to their unique historical resources, D.O.H.’s primary goal has been to build, customize, and sustain a complement of technical infrastructure and supporting procedures and workflows to allow a broad cross-section of regional partners to participate in a multi-institutional collaboration. This ensures that their relatively unknown or under-utilized primary historical records are made more broadly accessible in support of all levels of research through a single, integrated online portal.
Preliminary discussions with prospective project partners began in 2016. Immediately, the considerable breadth and depth of candidates for digitization became apparent. In step with this reported abundance, a counterpoint emerged equally as quickly: most community repositories faced significant operational challenges mostly relating to lack of money and staff. In fact, many of the organizations rely exclusively or primarily on a dedicated but unpredictable volunteer workforce to keep their doors open. This made it imperative that the bar to D.O.H. participation be kept as low as possible. When the project began implementation in 2017 a team of students travelled to participating repositories and spent three days scanning analogue material and collecting copies of existing digitized material at each repository. As stronger relationships developed with project partners and trust has grown, D.O.H. has adopted a model where almost all material is transported to the UBCO campus for digitization, or, for post-digitization processing. This approach is much more efficient and allows for greater productivity. Early D.O.H. efforts focussed on digitizing photographic material but, based on the priorities of the project partners, the scope has expanded to archival documents, maps, and audio recordings, as well as and newspapers and other publications.
Group of School Children on Joe Glaicar's School Bus, ca 1922.
Image courtesy of Armstrong Spallumcheen Museum and Arts Society.
D.O.H. selected Arca, the B.C. Electronic Library Network’s repository platform to host the new regional digital resources. Built on Islandora's open-source content management software, Arca allows both for the ability to steward and maintain descriptive information and facilitate searches limited to specific repositories, and universal searches across all participating repositories. This is important for allowing project partners to see the distinctiveness of their repository and their collections as a subset of the portal, discoverable through the browse function, while at the same time providing comprehensive access to all available records for those doing systematic research. Just as Arca allows for aggregation of our many project partners via the D.O.H. ‘subaggregator’ hub, D.O.H. itself is one of many institutional partners in Arca and benefits from the support of an active community of practice with knowledge exchange and reciprocal sharing of tools and strategies.
In charting D.O.H.’s future we are currently planning a transition from a mediated model of digitization to a more distributed model wherein we would provide project partners with training and guidelines for scanning their own material and compiling basic, standardized metadata which can then be sent to the UBCO Library for upload. To augment digital copies of the unique archival holdings from the region and to create a more comprehensive historical research resource we are also adding a newspaper repository to D.O.H. Newspapers are consistently identified by project partners as the single-most important source for documenting local history, and community newspapers provide a treasure trove of information and represent prime candidates for digitization, particularly if they are full- text searchable. Finally, based on the success of D.O.H. we are exploring the creation of a parallel regional collection in the neighbouring Kootenay/Columbia area. This region is defined by its adjacency to the Columbia River Basin; it being contiguous with the Boundary region (which is the eastern most area currently represented in D.O.H.) inclusion of the Kootenays and Columbias has the potential to provide digital coverage to a significant portion of B.C.’s geography, much of which is truly rural and variably, sometimes only seasonally, accessible. This past summer we collected copies of digitized material from seven Kootenay/Columbia repositories and expect that the parallel pilot regional collection will be launched in September 2020.
Group photograph at Women's Institute of the Okanagan District, 1914.
Image courtesy of Summerland Museum and Archives.
Despite significant challenges, community memory institutions have done a commendable job in identifying and preserving the unique records documenting their local histories. D.O.H., through its efforts to enhance public access to archival resources across multiple Okanagan repositories, builds on the work done at the individual community level and will help ensure that the resources are made available for a multitude of historical uses. Our hope is that D.O.H. has laid a broad and deep foundation not only for the creation of a network of digitized archival material but also to support further collaborative activity in the future so that the challenges of preserving local historical resources can be approached in a more holistic, coordinated manner.
Chris Hives & Paige Hohmann
Chris Hives is UBC University Archivist, Emeritus and for over three years now he, along with Paige Hohmann, has co-ordinated Digitized Okanagan History. He is very much looking forward to expanding the original Okanagan-based collaborative digitization project to include partners in a new parallel collection in the neighbouring Kootenay/Columbia region.
Paige Hohmann is Archivist at UBC Okanagan where she manages various primary source and special information resources with focus on digitized and born-digital media. She has coordinated the Digitized Okanagan History project with Chris Hives since 2016.
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