In the Field: The ACA Blog
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.
Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre (SRSC) has launched the results of the “Healing and Education Through Digital Access” project funded by the National Heritage Digitization Strategy (NHDS). Rooted in community archival practices, this project received $86,890 in funding to digitize and make available unique archival records which document the early years of the Shingwauk and Wawanosh Indian Residential Schools.
We see this project as meeting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's calls to action directed at archives and post-secondary institutions. By preserving and providing community access to these records the SRSC seeks to enhance Canada’s understanding of Residential Schools and reconciliation. The project made a great deal of information about Residential Schools as accessible as possible to the wider public, with an emphasis on centering Survivors and intergenerational Survivors who may not be able to travel to Sault Ste. Marie to view the documents in person. The involvement of Survivors in archival work is essential to any reconciliation work connected to Residential Schools. Likewise, the realization of Indigenous ownership, control, access, and possession of documents which discuss Indigenous communities played a key role in this initiative.
This project was driven by Indigenous community needs and priorities. The Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association (CSAA), a group of Survivors and intergenerational Survivors who govern the SRSC along with Algoma University, were very involved with the project from the beginning. Their needs and priorities were taken into account when choosing what to digitize, how to digitize, and how to make the documents available to the public. The NHDS included in the budget money to bring CSAA members to Algoma in order to discuss the digitization and description process.
This initiative was focused on making accessible three Anishinaabemowin and Cree language books and ten letter books from the early history of the Shingwauk and Wawanosh Indian Residential Schools. The letter books range in date from 1876 to 1904 and include letters from the first principal Edward F. Wilson and the fourth principal George L. King to various recipients including government officials, church representatives, white and Indigenous community members, former students, and more. The letters are of particular relevance for understanding the social, political and intellectual network in which Residential Schools operated.
2013-112-003_001_0737: This letter describes the clothing students would have worn in 1887 and includes sketches of the student uniforms designed by the first principal of the school Edward F. Wilson. Clothing was usually donated second hand or made and donated by Ladies Sewing Societies. Being Western style, they illustrate the assimilationist agenda of the schools.
These documents in particular were selected for multiple different reasons; much of the information the public has learned about Residential Schools relates to the later years of the system based on Survivor testimonies. These letter books cover the early history which is not as well known and allows people to see how the system developed and where Shingwauk and Wawanosh specifically fit into the system. Their age also makes them very fragile and so preservation was a high priority in selecting these items for digitization.
2013-112-004_001_0173: This letter from September 1888 discusses specifics for an issue of Our Forest Children, a magazine which covered Anglican missionary work among Canadian Indigenous People and information about the Shingwauk Residential School. Magazines like this were used as fundraising tools for the school, spreading information as a way to encourage donations and monetary support. The header of the magazine included on this page was designed by Principal Edward F. Wilson.
2014-017-002_001_0062: This image is the first page of one of the monthly Principal's Reports that Principal George Ley King was required to send to the Department of Indian Affairs as a condition of the government funding the school received. These reports included information on student health, school admissions and discharges, student activities, staffing, and much more. It illustrates the kinds of information the Government was collecting on Residential Schools in addition to being a great source for information on daily life at the school.
The letters books and their descriptions are now available on the Algoma Archives Website, as well as on the Internet Archive. The information in these letter books is invaluable to researchers, Survivors and their families, and the wider public.
Jenna Lemay is the Digital Archives Technician at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. With a background in history and information studies, Jenna has been working in the archival field for 3 years. She is interested in the history of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit, particularly in Ontario, with a focus on individuals, as she is also a Genealogist.
It is with great pleasure that the Association of Canadian Archivists launches In the Field: The ACA Blog. The field of archives engages contemporary archivists in a multiplicity of environments. Whether through their work environment; through initiatives in the digital realm; through their involvement with communities to document, preserve, and provide access to their records; and through other outreach endeavours, archivists are involved in a variety of spaces. In the Field seeks to become a place where discussions about the scope of archives, archival education, and archival interventions happens.
In line with the ACA's Strategic Plan and Progress toward A Diversity & Inclusion Action Plan, the ACA blog focuses on publishing posts that explore “frameworks, strategies, initiatives, programs and actions” undertaken across the archival realm to “address issues of inclusion, access, diversity, multiculturalism, and regional, national, global and intercultural engagement.”
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Blog posts should be between 500 and 2,000 words and be submitted accompanied by an author bio of 40-50 words. We use APA citation style. We encourage the use of links, if necessary, and photographs to accompany your submissions. Please make sure that you have the authorization to use the images. Images should be accompanied by proper citations and links, if necessary.
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