Thursday, 18 October 2007

Why Municipal Archives?

On Wednesday evening Brian Beaven, Chair of the Eastern Chapter of the Archives Association of Ontario, presented an award to the Ottawa City Archives, in which several local genealogy societies are partners, to recognized participation in the Doors Open Ottawa event earlier in the year. He used the occasion to talk about the role of municipal archives. With his permission I reproduce part of his presentation, which I found insightful, below.

I am not sure if the people of Ottawa or the members of City Council or even archivists from other institutions fully appreciate the work and fundamental transformation that is going on in City Archival programs to make them more responsive and accessible to citizens and city staff who use archival resources every day.

Increasingly Archives are finding their justification in the Corporate mandate and the role they exercise in efficient and effective government, Freedom of Information and accountability to citizens through the duty to document and to preserve a fulsome record of how decisions were made and why. These roles and responsibilities are an important recognition the central place of Archives in an enhanced standard for Democratic Governance. There is a danger, however, that this important connection between Archives and Democratic Governance will eclipse our appreciation of the equally important and essential role in local heritage stewardship of our local communities and cities. Archives are much more than a crucial element of civic government. They are the life blood in the stewardship of authentic civic heritage, an essential component of our cultural establishment that is all too often taken for granted.

What do archives offer to the local community? They offer unique authentic records that tell otherwise unknowable stories, discoverable by each new generation asking different questions posed by evolving social conditions and shifting intellectual concerns. They help to tell us who we are as communities, who we have been and how we have become what we are. Moreover, archives offer a secure place to protect what is, after all, fragile and perishable documentary heritage. Archives encourage citizens to turn over personal records in all media that might be of tremendous value to the community and which otherwise might be lost through inter-generational indifference and neglect. How many papers of local businesses have simply been thrown out because nobody thought them important any more? How many diaries have moldered in basements until they were unreadable? How many pictures sit in albums displaced from their original creators with no notations to indicate who or what is depicted? Preserving treasures that tell the complex story of a community is a unique role that only a local municipal Archives can sustain. But above all, to quote a colleague who has put it better than I could, archives are "a heritage place in which the community can be proud, a resource whose presence reminds all citizens and visitors of a place rich in history with colourful stories and characters."

At one level, Archives are old papers but they are also about making those old papers accessible to diverse users, acquiring key collections that tell unique chapters in the experience of the community and preserving these priceless records over time, and preserving all of them – not just papers, but pictures and audio tapes and home movies and documentary art and an increasingly digital corporate record of City business. And in the end what is it that these archives tell us about ourselves? They tell us about our diversity of experience and the complexity of the past. We often think of the good old days in the sense of older simpler times, but you know, the longer I study documents and history, the more I realize that there were no good old days in that sense. Human society is always complex – at least for the last eight thousand years or so that we have had a written record.. What one generation represses, another celebrates. What one generation values, another discounts and relegates. What was relegated but 50 years ago takes on new meaning for new constituencies in an expanding democracy.

What Archives are doing though Doors Open celebrations is to let people see and experience the rich documentary heritage we have in Greater Ottawa depicting the complex urban and rural landscapes of the last 200 years.

Often we take archives for granted. After all "99% of what is there will never be of interest to me", we often find ourselves thinking. But in order to have the one document, the one series of correspondence, the one set of minutes of an organization, the one set of records of a local business, the missing image of great-grand mother Smith, the one land record relating to our grandparents' homestead – in order to have those items or specific series preserved, we need a systematic archival function of appraising, acquiring, describing, and making the records of all experiences available. Archives, then, serve as a reflection and confirmation of our diversity as a human society. But ultimately they are more; they amount to an essential measure of ourselves as a civilized people living in distinct local communities.

Archives are the foundation of all other efforts at heritage preservation and cultural celebration of the past, from heritage designation of buildings to museums to local history and genealogy and even the creative imagination of fictional work in literature. Without the authentic and reliable original documents preserved in archives and the integrity of process and function which guarantee the reliability of the information that archives make available as digital or photo copies, we would be so much poorer in the resources necessary to tell our real stories, to verify oral traditions and to imagine accurately how our ancestors lived and how and what they felt.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was in agreement with Brian Beven up to the very last paragraph when he said


Without the authentic and reliable original documents preserved in archives and the integrity of process and function which guarantee the reliability of the information that archives make available as digital or photo copies, we would be so much poorer in the resources necessary to tell our real stories, to verify oral traditions and to imagine accurately how our ancestors lived and how and what they felt.

What happens when an archives places material on the ‘Net in digital form which is not accurate? Mr. Bevan seems to imply that because material is in an archives and it is made available digitally that there is integrity in the process and function which guarantee the reliability of the information. Is this always true? Case in point.

Early in 2006 I visited the LAC and consulted a number of reels of the microfilmed Passenger Lists. One was of particular interest to me, namely, microfilm C 4531; I copied part of this reel onto a CD (SS Moravian, Shipping Line: Montreal Ocean Steamship Company, Departure Port and Date: Liverpool, England - 1881-05-12, Port and Date: Quebec, Que., 1881-05-22, List Number: 16). When the Passenger Lists became available on the LAC Internet site, I consulted the material only to discover that one of the images found on the microfilm I consulted at 395 Wellington was not present on the Internet version (i.e. the 4th image of the microfilm consulted at 395). Though I noticed and care about this image because it directly involves my family, its absence does raise the much more significant and serious issue of the integrity of the historical record provided by the LAC on its website. What confidence does the web user have that they are provided with the complete archival record? A gap of this nature also causes one to wonder about the quality check performed prior to the material being mounted on the web.

While Mr. Bevan is correct in principle about archives and integrity, what about in practice? Archives are only run by humans and we should not place them on a pedestal from which they can easily be toppled.