Landing : Athabascau University

Literary Review of Canada | Susan Crean: "National Archives Blues: Is a precious Canadian asset being digitized to death?"

A reflection on earlier LAC cuts, which includes a beautiful description of archival research and it's "philosophical" and "psychological" dimensions. We'll see if the same plays out for me, but after my trip to the CLGA, I remarked to someone by email that I didn't understand how archival researchers don't walk around in a constant state of wonder, over the content and even the fact of its collection and storage. I stopped short of weeping as I gushed, but an archive is still an intensely cool thing. And I have already spoken of my fondness (and gratefulness) for "my" librarian in this project. 

My excerpt is only of the parts immediately relevant to my project, but the whole article is a lovely, complicated, refreshing, and enlightening read.

When I started frequenting the National Archives in the 1970s, the reading rooms were open all year round, over holidays and weekends. If the search took off in an unexpected direction and the job ballooned, you could burn the midnight oil, or work over Christmas. Many did. It did not take long to discover the great truth about archival work, which is, appearances to the contrary, that it is utterly absorbing. In the first place, it is unpredictable: you never know what you will find, even when an archive has been worked over by generations of historians, writers and relatives. Despite the sense of order and rational purpose implied by the tidy boxes and numbered files, archives do not follow rules and are not reducible to a system like the Dewey decimal as books are. You cannot put in a search for a missing memo as you can for a missing book. Moreover, be they institutional or the papers of individuals, archives are never complete or comprehensive. What floats up from the past is largely a matter of serendipity, which means that archival research is pretty much a crapshoot.

Naturally, the element of chance turns drudgery into a game. The possibility of stumbling onto a document that rewrites history, of finding the smoking memo or the tell-all private diary, is irresistible. Researchers are prospectors: ever hopeful, ever on the lookout for clues, ever willing to take detours. Do it long enough and you come to appreciate that the only approach is the innocent one: open and undemanding. Indeed the activity has a philosophic dimension to it, and, although it obviously pays to be prepared, ultimately it is better to go in on a fishing trip than a mission. The work has a psychological dimension, too, for it takes you into a realm where it is easy to lose yourself. Looking at the clock after an hour or so, you may discover four or five hours have in fact fled. You might even be momentarily surprised to discover it is summer and 2010, not winter and 1959 where you just spent the entire morning. The only comparable experience for sheer intensity and addictiveness is the internet. (And the web can similarly be characterized as a vast morass of un-programmed material.

My first foray into the National Archives was in 1977 when I was researching a CBC documentary on the Avro Arrow. Right off the top, I encountered the all-important corollary to the truth about the irrationality of archives—that the real treasures are the archivists, the clue givers. The people who know the terrain and the context in which a given archive exists. The more complex your project, the further off the beaten track you stray, the more likely it is that you will depend on them. With collections that are not used enough to merit the expense of developing finding aids, they can be your only hope. And often they do much more than just make the guesswork informed—they make significant contributions.


What I am describing here is a partnership rather like that of violin maker and violinist, both métiers depending on hours and hours of highly skilled labour and a devotion to the non-monetary rewards implicit in their art. Although they may never meet, artisan and artist are inextricably connected—the accomplishment of one depending on the craftsmanship of the other. Similarly, the work of archivists and writers (academics, government researchers, students, independent scholars and creators) operates interdependently and on an intellectual level, and insofar as the resulting creation—book, film, policy, painting, lyric or theory—reaches other minds, it feeds into the stream of ideas and knowledge that constitutes living culture.


The biggest pressure, however, comes from the digital revolution, which has transformed the world of documentary production—and with it the work of archivists—while irrevocably changing public expectations. Digital access is now seen as a quasi right and digitization as a means of mass democratization. So it is no surprise that this has become the central preoccupation of LAC and has apparently led to a radical reassessment of its purpose. In a speech to the Association of Canadian Archivists last June the new chief archivist Daniel Caron—the first chief archivist not to have a degree in history, but rather a PhD in economics—spoke of the “public memory monopoly once exercised by archives,” bemoaning the fact that the “documentary moment” in the analogue world is hopelessly long. Archivists are lost “within an anachronistic time and space,” he contends, noting that in the age of self-documentation, information needs to be ubiquitous, instant and unmediated.


On a broader, more philosophic level, the notion of digitization as an agent of equality needs a bit of scrutiny. Contrary to the rhetoric, it is not really value-free. Databases are like maps; they are ­representations of reality and similarly model a set of relationships, for example between author and title and language (or land and water and altitude), which means that selection is always involved. Even with the conversion of paper records, someone has to make editorial decisions about what material will be given priority, which is why you hear genealogists complain that LAC is resisting digitizing newspapers.3 Nor can digitization guarantee accuracy. Scanning does not necessarily capture all the information on a paper page, and with handwritten records, one entry misread and your entire family can disappear. In which case your only choice is to go to Ottawa and consult the census on microfilm. Meanwhile, scholars and genealogists worry that acquisitions are suffering. Indeed, the budget for purchasing archives is effectively zero. (The current acquisition budget is $400,000, following a year-long freeze, and is for “published heritage.” A small portion of it, $33,000, is for the purchase of archives.) And even before the recent freeze there was a marked decline in acquisitions from private sources—that is, individuals, communities, societies and private companies. Between 2006/07 and 2008/09 these decreased 43 percent while acquisitions from public sources increased 35 percent. The fear is that LAC is being reduced to collecting government papers and not much else.

Digitization is no guarantee of access, either. Far from being more accessible I experienced LAC as having disappeared behind its website and into a fog of MBA speak. The site is not for neophytes; it assumes you know what a fonds is, and what a MIKAN number is for, and that the accession number is likely to be the search key, which is fair enough. But where are the glossary and FAQs for those who do not know? I can’t imagine the site passing a usability test, but am told that 88 percent of those who completed a recent web survey expressed satisfaction with the service. Staff readily offer help locating information—admitting they too have trouble. But their assistance does not save the site from being more of a maze than a portal. However, with any kind of specialized research the barriers tend to be systematic more than web-related. All inquiries are channelled to generalists working the reference desks in shifts; these people are informative and communicative to a fault, but they could not tell me that the photograph collection I was consulting included 30 or so large boxes of prints—so I would not have to rely on negatives and contact sheets alone as I had assumed. By the time I reached the archivists and discovered this, I had bypassed the designated route so many times I was sure I was in violation of the rules. In the breach, I did not care. I needed to consult the experts, and when I did, they delivered. But the idea that this was asking for special treatment is ­troubling.


[One researcher who was on an advisory board for the Archives] found scant appreciation among LAC officials for the nature of historical research, or the role of archivists in delivering access. “The implication seemed to be that people doing long-term research are elitist and marginal,” he told me. It is hard not to hear in this an echo of the anti-intellectual sentiment abroad in Ottawa politics today. Who needs the mandatory long-form census, anyway? Who needs experts? Yet, to see what is happening simply as elite bashing is to miss the point about LAC’s narrowing focus and the approach to digitization that seems to assume one size can be made to fit all.


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