02 July 2015

Two Steps forward, two steps back

The following are the speaking notes for a talk by Ottawa City Archivist Paul Henry to the Friends of the City of Ottawa Archives, reproduced here with permission.

Two Steps forward, two steps back
FCOA Event 30 April 2015

Good evening. My talk this evening is entitled “Two steps forward, two steps back”. Over the course of the next few minutes, I’d like to walk you through a bit of City Archives history, review some of the challenges as I see them, and review how I see “station keeping” as an appropriate strategy to mitigate against these challenges.

City Archives Background
The Archives program was first discussed by Council in 1965, as a centenary project. The first few persons to hold responsibility for the Archives were not archivists at all but secretaries at the time, what we would call executive assistants today, and collections management was non-existent. The only records of significance transferred to the Archives at the time were the obvious ones, Council minutes, by-laws, etc., and included what we now refer to as the Mayor’s Gift collection.

While the City lacked a formal archives program, the City Clerk maintained his records through staff responsible for this function, and the City ensured the preservation of significant records and artifacts from the broader community by transferring these items to the Historical Society of Ottawa, located at the Bytown Museum. It would not be until 2003 when this legacy of Ottawa’s past began to return to the Archives.

The first opportunity to hire a professional archivist was in 1975, when Edwin Welsh was hired. So critical to Ottawa’s future vision was this, that Mayor Lorry Greenberg announced Welsh’s appointment as part of his Inaugural Address.

The year 1976 saw the first building built for the archives purposes, at 174 Stanley Ave. The Archives would move two more times: in 1997 to 111 Sussex, then City Hall, and in 2011 to 100 Tallwood, where we are today.

While Welsh foresaw the requirement for records management in his report of July 26th 1976, including a records centre and training for City staff, the first records manager, Claire Lee, was not hired until 1980. The Archives never had the space at its Stanley facility to properly manage the official corporate records, which remained at the Clark records centre, and later commercial off-site storage. A full transfer of all archivally significant City records did not occur until 2014.

Welsh also foresaw the requirement for a reference service, and that function remains a core feature of the program today. The entire third floor of the east wing, right above us, is dedicated to this function.

The Central Archives plays a key role within the Corporation of the City of Ottawa by acquiring, preserving, and providing public access, as required under the Ontario Municipal Act, to municipal records that document the City’s business functions and transactions to encourage effective governance, transparency and accountability.

The City Archives Program also plays a key role in preserving community memory by acquiring community records, which would otherwise be lost to the City for lack of a venue to preserve and make them accessible.

The current Archives’ collection is one of Ottawa’s oldest and most valuable holdings of information on the development and evolution of municipal government and the community of Ottawa. This bank of information is irreplaceable. The City has a legislated and fiduciary responsibility to provide proper stewardship of this collection on behalf of today’s residents and future generations. 

As a source of enduring knowledge accessible to all, the City Archives contains one of Ottawa’s oldest and most valuable archival collections related to the City of Ottawa and its historical predecessor municipalities. The stewardship responsibility of the Archives is a City-wide function.

The Archives Program is accountable for identifying and preserving the City’s corporate memory, and for documenting the City’s history and the enduring legacy of its Citizens. It is responsible for acquiring, preserving and providing access, as required under various acts, statutes, and regulations, to those records that document the rights and obligations of the City, its employees, and its Citizens, records that best reflect Ottawa society and document significant interactions between Citizens and the City.

The Division, through its core functions of Acquisition, Preservation, and Access:

       Contributes to the City’s records management framework by ensuring that municipal records of enduring value are identified in the file plan and in the records retention by-law
       Ensures historical information which supports the continuing and historical business functions of the corporation are available and accessible to decision makers and researchers
       Proactively identifies and acquires community-generated records which would otherwise be lost to the City for lack of a venue to preserve and make them accessible
       Protects the records under its care through a state-of-the-art facility, by adopting best practices, and by developing and supporting its professional staff
       Sets policy and standards for the preservation of records of long-term value in collaboration with records creators and custodians
       Protects and safeguards the records under its care from inadvertent disclosure as required by law
       Manages 350+ collections (City and community), in all media, including nearly 60,000 li. ft of records of enduring value, 3 million photographs, documentary art, electronic records, maps, plans, artifacts, and memorabilia
       Preserves and provides access out of 3 branches (Central, Rideau  and Gloucester)
       Supports 5 resident partner research organizations that assist Archives staff with reference requests
       Showcases its treasures through a vibrant education, exhibition, and outreach program
       Embraces new technology through its state-of-the-art collections management system, virtual exhibitions, and on-line databases
       Responds to 6,000+ requests for information per year
       115 volunteers contributed 12,000+ hours
       Serves as a source of reliable professional advice to the Archival Community

In the interest of brevity, I have restricted my comments to three broad areas that I see as particularly vexing both for the Archival community writ-large, and for us at the City Archives.

Electronic records in an age of abundance
At first blush, electronic records shouldn’t be particularly difficult to manage. After all, we’ve had computers on desktops for almost 20 years, and our present youthful generation has known nothing but. Records in electronic format are abundant, not just at the City, but in the broader Ottawa community. We see them now arriving as the primary accrual medium for significant community groups and organizations, that had previously brought us only ledgers and paper documents. While our facility has the capacity to deal with the environmental needs of such materials, we admittedly struggle to ensure that archivists working at the City have or are in the process of developing electronic records competencies.

But there is hope:
-         our appraisal methodologies continue to serve us well; what works for paper or other media should work for electronic records
-         the City’s Business Information Management System (BIMS) strategy which now manages disposition of official records, does so for electronic and paper records within the same records context

We are currently taking steps to address these issues:
-         in 2012, staff at the Archives and Information Management developed an electronic records strategy for the preservation of textual records in electronic form  through ensuring the readability of all records in digital repositories comply with appropriate standards for preservation, including the adoption of portable formats, such as PDF and PDF/A
-         in 2009, as a result of implementation of BIMS, the Archives, in partnership with Information Management undertook a project to set the end state for all official business records, including those having archival value
-         completed in 2014, this General Disposition Authority, issued by the City Archivist, is now being rolled out to all City departments -- our disposition roadshow -- and provides all City staff with guidance on the eventual fate of all of their records
-         more importantly, the Archives is now connected to records creators in ways that we never have been, and are now intrinsically part of the discussion when records are created, and classifications established

Of course, all of this learning on the City’s part will make its way to the broader community of archives and other memory organizations in Ottawa and the region over the coming years.

Providing access to archival records in the age of Google
Key to our future as memory institutions is cooperation. First envisioned in 1980 by Ian Wilson’s working group on the future of Archives, a cooperative framework of archives focused on the management of historical records on the basis of national, provincial, and local significance was formally established in 1984.

Despite setbacks, particularly in funding, this network continues today and serves as a model for cooperation between archival institutions to ensure the right record finds its way to the right person, at the right time. The City Archives routinely transfers records, based in appraisal of value and significance to our partners, Library and Archives Canada, and the Archives of Ontario. And indirectly, the Archives will redirect potential donors to local museums and community archives when the donation most appropriately belongs there.

Through our locality documentation program, the Archives continues to identify archivally significant records in the community to ensure both their preservation, and through partnership, availability to researchers.

And through our new Ottawa Museums & Archives Collections online database, we unite the records of community archives, museums, with City Archives and Museums in one union catalogue, accessible from everywhere 24/7.

Staying authentic and reliable in an age of Citizen-first
What is the value of the Archives and Information Management, when budget consultations are announced not through a press-release, but on Twitter?

Reacting to this, the Archives commissioned a review of the impact of social media in 2013. The introduction reads, in part,

“Most notable [in fulfilling its mandate] is the identification, appraisal, acquisition and preservation of records created by the Ottawa City Council. With eighty-seven percent of the Ottawa City Council using publicly accessible Twitter accounts and forty-five percent using publicly accessible Facebook accounts to communicate with citizens on both personal and professional matters, the performance of this activity has become increasingly difficult. To add to this challenge, the municipal government does not have a policy on the use of social media by Ottawa City Council.”

Challenging indeed. And of course, this raises the question of the role of the Archives in serving as the authentic voice of the City, a component of the City Archivist’s job description, in an age where citation, respect for copyright, and most importantly for archivists: context, context, context are questioned for their relevance to modern means of information dissemination?

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