Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Scandal of the Archives at Active History


Story of the week, for serious archives rats, at least, has to be Allan Greer's essay for Active History.

Recently I had occasion to visit Library and Archives Canada. Marching up Wellington Street, I noticed my heart beating a little faster as the historical juices began flowing through my researcher’s veins. Even at the time, I recognized this pulse of excitement as a throw-back, a residual thrill from a time long ago when I was an eager graduate student discovering the wonders of dusty manuscripts; more recent visits to the federal archives had been anything but thrilling.

Okay, you know that feeling or you don't, but I guess a fair few of the readers here know exactly what Allan Greer is talking about: "Thrilling" and archival research together in a paragraph, know what I mean? Yes.

But...  As Greer's last sentence signals, it's not a story about the warm fuzzy side of historical research. The story is called "The Scandal of the Archives." 

Archives don’t simply store and conserve documents, they structure and organize them, carefully recording the provenance of government records, collections of private papers, films, recordings, images, etc. LAC has always been very good at this and generations of archivists built up an infrastructure of guides and finding aids, but instead of using these resources to curate their online collections, the archives seem determined to hide the results of their past efforts from the eyes of researchers.

The last time or two I was at Library and Archives Canada, I thought it must be my fault. I just didn't seem to know how the system worked anymore. But Allan's account is authoritative and persuasive: it's not you. It's not even digitization. It's that the whole archiving system there doesn't work well any more. Read it and weep. 

Thanks, Active History. I hope LAC will respond and that this investigation will continue.  

Update, April 3 I must follow "historians' Twitter" because I saw quite a bit of commentary about this essay: Thomas Peace, Shirley Tillotson, JDM Stewart Stephanie Pettigrew....

Shirley Tillotson thought it was about failed digitizing, and Pettigrew argues it's just underfunding. But I thought Greer's point was larger than either of those. Big problems with digitization, yes, and money, too, no doubt. But I thought he was telling us those are mostly symptoms of an archives increasingly run by managers driven by the pursuit of popular attention and numbers counts and ever-rising statistics to report. 

An archives is about storing documents and making them available (sure, to genealogists and journalists and civil servants and lots of others besides historians).  But still making sure the documents are preserved and made available. If an archives cannot provide the record of, say, microfilm numbers that makes the document findable, that's not making available -- whether the searcher is in the building or in British Columbia, whether they are a tenured prof or someone searching their grandmother.

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