Archives as Laboratories

by Contributor on May 14, 2013

By Merle Massie

Over the past two years, I lurked in the halls and wandered wide-eyed through the conferences of my social and natural science colleagues. An interdisciplinary institutional postdoctoral fellowship, funded by MISTRA (The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research) and routed through the University of Saskatchewan, ensured my place at the lunch table and at the front of the classroom.

So, I’ve spent two years trying to explain how I, as a humanist, conduct my research. More importantly, I’ve noticed, the question is not so much how, but where does that research take place?

Since most of my professional work has focused on the 20th and 21st century, I do (on occasion) conduct interviews and focus groups with living people. I even have a working knowledge of qualitative methods, rigour, and the point of statistical analysis. I parlayed this penchant into the postdoc, with good results. But I remain, at heart, a document hunter/gatherer.

Working with social and natural scientists, I soon learned that research is about data generation. Set up the research parameters/test/study/measurement/focus group/survey/experiment, in order to generate data. Few, if any, ever work with someone else’s data set. The core concern is to generate something new.

That was my first hurdle: what I always thought of as ‘sources,’ now had to become ‘data.’ It’s a bump in the sidewalk that I trip over, every time.

No matter. I forge ahead, explaining gently that although I do sometimes generate new data (using oral interview techniques, statistical analysis, or focus groups), I usually work with sources that already exist. It becomes my job to find those sources, hunt and gather, thinking laterally and strategically, sometimes hitting brick walls or large empty chasms where my ‘data’ (sources) should be but are not. Or I am showered in luck, serendipity, and happenstance and find a treasure trove, an untapped new source waiting for me to harvest, like a new bed of sweet grass, or a docile pod of mule deer.

But, but, where do these sources exist? Are you talking about libraries? Confusion reigns, for libraries, of course, contain outdated data. If it’s in a book, it’s too old. Anything more than five years old is virtually unusable. (Of course, we all recognize the deliberately obtuse generalization here – many social scientists regularly work with similar sources and data sets. Natural scientists, though, perhaps not so much).

No. My data/sources are to be found in archives. Archives? What, exactly, are archives and what kinds of information do you find there?

And that’s how I twigged onto a new way of explaining where I conduct research.

An archive, I now explain, is much like a lab: laboratory space along the lines of the Canadian Light Source Synchrotron at Saskatoon or one of the Toxicology labs or a soil science lab or….  A lab has certain physical requirements that are conducive to research: it requires physical space with heating, light, and custodial services; equipment (shelves, tables, chairs, finding aids and guides, archival quality storage boxes and containers, microfilm readers, lightboxes, cotton gloves, and pencils instead of thermal analyzers or microcalorimeters or…); it needs trained staff (archivists); and it houses raw materials (archival documents, which range from photographs to text to sound recordings, collected over time).

The questions that I, as a researcher, bring to the archive are what guide me through my research process, in the same way that another researcher might ask questions and conduct experiments using the materials/equipment found in a lab. Different researchers posing different questions use different equipment and materials. Each archive is slightly different in its materials and equipment, just like no two labs are exactly the same.

Presto pow! Lights on, understanding, and we’re back on equal footing. (There remain big questions surrounding how I do research and if it is objective, verifiable, and replicate-able, but those are larger questions that might never be solved, as they stand at the dividing line between humanities and natural science research).

Why is this important? I call on all of my fellow humanists and social science researchers who use archives to co-opt this terminology switch, and broadcast it freely. Because I believe that this terminology switch might help save our archives from folding under the collective weight of government and institutional non-support. At a time when investment in science-based laboratory and experimental research is growing (witness the Global Institute for Water Security, and the new Global Institute for Food Security at the U of S), archives funding is cut. We can stop this.

Archives (which collects a record of anthro-centric activity reaching back through time) is the laboratory with which to build research that changes the way our world works and thinks about itself. In fact, I charge you to find another lab that has supported an equal range of research depth and breadth and temporal scope. Where would we be in our knowledge about residential schools, lesbian and gay rights, health geography and poverty, First Nations land claims, war activities, medicare, social protest, and climate change without archives? Accessed by researchers not only in history but in archaeology and anthropology, art, literature, science, technology, sociology, linguistics, education, law, commerce and business, industrial development, mining, resource management, First Nations and Metis studies, institutional foundations, governance and government, medicine and nursing, engineering and agriculture, archives reflect how we as humans make decisions, and what the consequences of those decisions have been.

So let’s make one easy switch: the next time you visit an archive, think of it – and talk about it to interdisciplinary colleagues, institutional leadership, and your MLA and MP – as a laboratory. Co-opt the language that is already implicitly understood – and funded.

Merle Massie is a writer and historian, and a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Ottawa. Find her blog at:

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Alexander Freund May 28, 2013 at 7:36 pm

I disagree with the conceptualization of “source” in this argument. Sources are not data. They are the remnants of the past; they are what happens to be “here” (for reasons that always need to be investigated) in the same way that certain rock formations, plants, animals, and people happen to be here at a certain moment and place (nature therefore is the world’s largest archive). Whether you have an archived piece of paper, a plant, or a human being, they are not data. They are potential sources that can generate data if the researcher asks questions. In the same way that a biologist examines blood cells under her microscope and generates data through asking certain questions and from this data generates evidence for her thesis, historians turn archival documents into sources of data and evidence once they begin to ask questions and make inferences.
There is also very little evidence provided here that the archives as a Western institution are under attack. Yes, there is the Harper government’s attack on the LAC, but is there any evidence that this is happening in other Western democracies? The national repositories in Germany, France, USA, Britain, Australia etc all seem to be doing well.
So rather than trying to come up with confusing terminology switches (tried and failed in the 19th century), let’s investigate why the Canadian government seems to be unique in the West in being bent on destroying archival sources. That should give us a much securer footing for attacking the government’s parochial understanding of history. Such a response also fits better into the scholarly model — whether humanity, social science or natural science: research rather than rhetoric.

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