Faythe Lou is a settler on Katzie, Semiahmoo, and Kwantlen lands. She holds a Master of Archival Studies from the University of British Columbia and works for the City of Richmond. She is passionate about local history and currently volunteers as a member of the Surrey Heritage Advisory Commission.
From June 15 through 18th, I attended my first Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) conference. This year, it was hosted at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in a hybrid format. I attended primarily in-person. UBC is on the unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) First Nation, and I felt privileged to be welcomed into the space by the Musqueam people who generously shared their elements of their culture with us to open and close the conference. For those who haven’t attended an ACA conference, I highly recommend it! I graduated in the spring of 2020, and as you can imagine, my first two years in the field have been non-traditional, unprecedented, even. While my coworkers have been extremely welcoming and supportive, to be honest, working in half-empty offices and from home, alone, has been a bit isolating. Being immersed in the theory and surrounded by other archivists again brought me back to being in grad school in the best way. Now, with a couple of years of experience under my belt, I also felt like I could engage more deeply with the material and think more fully about the practical applications to my work.
Attending the ACA Conference, I really felt like a professional archivist! However, being a professional is strange. It comes with connotations of snobbery, gatekeeping, racism, and classism. In a way, feeling like a professional means that I’ve absorbed all the theory, complete with the colonial, racist, sexist, and heteronormative assumptions that come with it. Maybe being a professional archivist also means being a little bit of a know-it-all.
A couple of presenters with backgrounds in history remarked off-handedly in the beginning of their presentations that they felt intimidated to present at an archivists’ conference - after all, what could they tell archivists about archives? The theme of this year’s conference, Unsettled: Redefining Archival Power challenged us to be unsettled: to transform the way we view ourselves as professionals and our role in our community. Dominique Luster’s invitation to squeeze our top and bottom lips together and listen was a call that hit the room hard. She further advised to be more “interested than interesting.” To unsettle ourselves, we may need to get comfortable with not being the experts in the room. In fitting with the theme, various presentations discussed how traditional archival theory and practices have been actively harmful to people, communities, and records. Francis Garaba, in his presentation about decolonizing archives, called for a new start. He noted that decolonizing is really the act of re-humanizing the world. It is now widely accepted that archives reflect the inequitable power structures that existed and persist to today, which shapes which people and communities can access their past.
For many historically marginalized people, especially non-English speaking women, and other historically marginalized people, this means invisibility in the archives. In Laura Ishiguro’s animated and enthralling plenary, she discussed her own research journeys - adventures in finding and often not finding things while doing archival research. She took us through her research into the 1868 Barkerville fire, noting what records were in the archives but also all the evidence that was absent. She discussed how she’s coming to reconceptualize those absences as abundance. Archives are often the archives of those in power. Therefore, to analyze what isn’t there can tell stories about the lives of these marginalized people as they navigated the complex power structures of their times. During the session’s question period, one participant bemoaned the push towards digitization, often encouraged and demanded by historians, as causing archivists to focus their output on creating more content - sometimes at the expense of context. Ishiguro pointed out that academic historians too are pressured to produce more and more, forcing historians into a structure of work that punishes browsing, which can often lead to deeper understandings of the records.
For other historically marginalized communities, they are over-documented in government archives. One of the sessions I found the most interesting was “Lost and Found: Reconsidering Chinese Immigration records at 100 years since the Chinese Exclusion Act.” The speakers, June Chow, Catherine Clement, Henry Yu, and Emilie Létourneau discussed the types of records that document this history of Chinese immigration to Canada and the challenges with accessing and preserving them. I enjoyed how the speakers discussed how they’ve grappled with key archival concepts, like the significance of the creation of the records. Through decades of the Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923, Chinese Canadians were over-documented by the government. Government officials insisted on documenting heights, weights, and even moles of each person. Clement discussed the Paper Trail to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act Project, which seeks to identify these records and build a digital collection. Most of these records are still in private family records, not in governmental repositories. June Chow discussed how the digital archive will use reparative description for the project. For example, the records will be arranged and described in one big series, rather than using the arbitrary division and numbering used by the government when issuing certificates, which traditionally would have resulted in multiple series. In this way, June explained, families which were separated by unjust policies will be reunited in this archival setting. The way the speakers grappled with archival theory in their work and adapted practices to do right by the people in their records is a great example of how archival practices can be used to uphold unjust power structures, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
In Ted Lee’s presentation, he discussed a series of articles and letters published in Archivaria in the 1980s, triggered by George Bolotenko’s 1984 article “Of Ends and Means: In Defence of the Archival Ideal.” Lee pointed out that within the many heated exchanges, the only person who wrote in to Archivaria to denounce the whole exchange was not a seasoned professional, but a student. When you’re a student or a recent graduate, you often feel like your main purpose in the workplace is to absorb and learn. While that’s true, you often lose sight of what you can offer - new insights and perspectives. As a UBC grad, an added bonus of an in-town conference was the opportunity to connect with classmates that I hadn’t seen since we all went home and stayed home in March 2020. During the breaks, it was great to discuss our journeys since graduating. We talked about the stress associated with precarious employment. Of course, the personal implications of precarity include financial instability, the inability to make big life decisions, and the lack of mental and physical health support. However, we also discussed the professional repercussions for the field as a whole. In a conversation with another new grad who found a permanent position around the same time as me, they confessed that it feels like they can engage in the ideas at the conference more fully now. You hold your breath when you’re precarious - you’re afraid to admit you’ve ever made a mistake at work - even if it’s just that you would maybe describe an item differently if you did it now. The conference theme called for us to be unsettled, but when you are precarious, your whole life is unsettled. We have to push for our field to support stable positions that enable archivists to engage in this challenging work.
There were many other projects that I found very interesting. In the Poster Lightning Round, Kim Stathers and David Pettitt from the University of Northern British Columbia shared their Rules of Archival Description (RAD) Physical Description Builder tool - a public and open-source tool that allows those who aren’t familiar with the descriptive standard to answer a series of questions in order to build a RAD compliant physical description. It’s public - I highly recommend checking it out! I also enjoyed hearing about Concordia University’s work to establish an Acquisitions Advisory Committee, first internally, and now beginning to branch out to the external community as well. Alexandra Mills talked about how acquisition is often an opaque and mysterious process to those outside the institution. By seeking out sustained external engagement, Concordia will be able to better reflect and serve its community. Alexandra noted that depositing records in an archival repository can cause a psychological distance between the community and its records. By involving the community in all aspects of archival functions, from acquisition to arrangement and description, Alexandra noted this distance could be bridged. I look forward to following the progress of Concordia’s Acquisitions Advisory Committee, as this could be a model that other institutional archives can look to implement. These are both examples of practicing archivists daring to imagine doing things differently. By sharing these projects with the conference attendees, their ingenuity will reach out further in the archival realm.
Overall, I had a great experience at my first ACA conference. I was lucky that it took place so close to home for me, as I could attend in-person, but the hybrid format allowed participants to attend from anywhere in the world. Additionally, many sessions were recorded and will be available to attendees for three months following the conference. As there were so many interesting concurrent sessions, it’s a huge benefit to be able to view the recordings afterwards. After a long day at the conference, when I couldn’t find anything to watch on Netflix, I even thought, “Maybe I should watch one of those sessions I missed..?” I didn’t, but I look forward to doing so over the next few months.
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