Meet the archives: Best practises in a post-corona world
MEET THE ARCHIVES
“Tell us about your experiences or best practices in a post-corona world in five short stories.” Member-archives of the Section of Local, Municipal and Territorial Archivists network, share stories about their work at their archives in a changing world.The stories are centered on five themes: “Community archives and representing communities”, “childhood records”, “Outreach activities”, “local identity” and “the future”. The themes are inspired by the shifting responsibilities of the archives as we once knew them.
By Andrew Chernevych, The Galt Museum and Archives:
Community archives and First Nations
Lately, in Canada the relationship with Indigenous communities has dominated media coverage, academic discourses and political debates. The recent discoveries of unmarked graves in Kamloops and other localities provided yet another emotional reminder of the multi-generational trauma associated with residential school system.
The Association of Canadian Archivists decided to address the issue by developing a set of guidelines -- the called Reconciliation Framework for Archives. The document offered advice on supporting Indigenous rights, countering the colonial legacy and building long-term trust and partnership. The Galt Museum & Archives was among the first institutions in Canada to act on the recommendations.
Southern Alberta is the ancestral territory of the Blackfoot confederacy – Kainai, Siksika and Piikani Nations. In 2020 the Galt Archives honoured this history by removing all fees for individuals of Indigenous heritage. This meant that a photograph of one’s ancestor could be ordered at no charge. Removing financial barriers had a practical goal but it also served as a powerful symbolic act.
Other steps included consultations in support of the Red Crow Community College’s archival program, providing advice a digitization project and a book exchange initiative. The archives also started a discussion on shared control and possible repatriation of records. The journey of building trust and collaboration will take years, but it starts with small steps and good will.
Childhood records – Growing Up in Southern Alberta a Century Ago
Listening to grandparents’ stories about their childhood, one has to wonder how different that world seems compared to what children experience today. The children of the old days seemed to have little supervision, exploring around the neighbourhoods or countryside, and engaging in rather risky, Tom Sauer style, adventures. Local memoirs, oral histories and newspapers found at the Galt Archives offer plenty of evidence of just how free-wheeling and self-reliant the childhood experience used to be.
Henry Rollingson remembers receiving his first gun at the age of nine. As a young teenager he trapped beavers, hunted lynx and explored the Old Crowsnest railway track, gathering cast iron and buffalo bones for money. Growing up in the 1950s, Rosella Bjornson (future aviator) was allowed to fly a one-motor plane, by herself, as a teenager. While flying was not commonplace, driving vehicles, operating farming equipment and helping with mechanical repairs certainly was.
My favorite example comes from the pages of The Lethbridge Herald from 1920. Two children of Ben T. Whitney’s of Grassy Lake, a seven-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl, “mounted a couple of ponies and went out coyote hunting with dogs while the family was away.” The kids managed to get a kill and were quite proud of their experience. It is interesting that the story did not make the headlines – it was buried in the community news section. Just another day in Southern Alberta.
Outreach activity – A Discovery Space in Archives
Visitors hesitantly enter through the glass door. "Archives." Is there anything to see here? The adults uncertainly look around; the teenager barely lifts her head from an iPhone... This is the "first contact." These accidental visitors can be engaged, educated, and perhaps even converted into a
rchives users. What it takes is an opportunity that would provoke their interest.
At the Galt Archives, we have one such attraction—the show table. This is where we place interesting archival items for people to shuffle through. All the items—photographs, maps, newspaper prints, etc.—are either duplicates or reproductions. (So, it is not a tragedy if something gets damaged.) A sign encourages people to handle the items.
The show table is our simple participatory project. It works particularly well with local old-timers who love to engage with historical Lethbridge scenes, names, and notions. For example, one can try to guess the year of the large aerial photo of downtown. Children are challenged to find a puppy on
a long group photo of WW1 soldiers.
The show table gives visitors an idea what an archive has—the range of media, types and subjects—and it serves as an exploration ground. Cartographic materials implicitly encourage people to try to locate popular landmarks, public places, and old family homes. These maps challenge us to make sense of the confusing urban topography of the past. A city directory, placed nearby, can spark the urge to search for the family name… The possibilities are endless!
Local identity and Responsible Citizenship
Archives’ users are often surprised how much personal information is in the records. Do you want to know who lived in your house eighty years ago? How did they do for living? You can find this information through the Henderson’s Directories on the shelf. At the age of privacy concerns such a brazen disclosure seems disquieting.
I must explain that even today’s privacy legislation has limitations – any record that is over seventy years old is open to the public. Additionally, social attitudes towards disclosure used to be different. If one participated in public affairs, business or social scene, one had no expectations of anonymity. For example, in the early 20th century, the Lethbridge Herald had an opinion column. The format was very similar to today’s Roast & Toast column, but with one notable difference – the writers had to provide their real name and street address.
At one instance in 1920, when the identity of a contributor turned out to be false, the editorial board wrote a strongly worded condemnation. It stressed that idea behind the requirement “is to establish the responsibility of the correspondent, with the view held that no person who wish to express their opinions publicly would be ashamed to identify these opinions with themselves.”
Nowadays, in the whirlpool of unverified information, the principles of attribution and transparency are becoming increasingly important. Not just for verification purposes but also for re-affirming the integrity of civil dialogue, responsible citizenship and sense of community. Local archives can play a role here.
Future! Archival Retrofuturism ’72
Eight archivists walk into a bar... and start talking future, technology and the brave new world of the archives in thirty years. The year was 1972. The purpose was to “look forward over the next thirty years and try to project future archival developments from the present state of the art.” The details of the discussion, which “unfolded in a lively fashion over two and a half hours and several beers,” were spelled out in "Archives 2002," a prognosticating piece published in the journal Canadian Archivist (later Archivaria.) The group included the legendary Hugh Taylor.
Below are some of the bold predictions for the early 2000s.
“There may not be such a professional as an archivist in thirty years' time… The preservation will be assured by a sound records management programme, itself a thoroughly automated process.”
“it will be economically feasible to preserve all material of the past through miniaturization and automation. Space will not be a problem.”
“Audiences will be able to make videotape recordings of any of a vast range of programmes beamed via satellites and these could include material in archives and libraries.”
“The archivist could become a man of incredible power through his command of source data… Through his control of the requirements of reports and forms, [archivist] could ensure the keeping of a good record at the point of creation, with its retention period built int
o an automated programme.”
“In the area of sound archives, telephone recordings are likely to become very prevalent. Many agreements may never reach paper… More people will keep tape-recorded diaries.”
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