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.
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