Archives, Constructed and Incomplete

      2 Comments on Archives, Constructed and Incomplete

Sara Janes

Archival collections are put together through many individual actions and decisions made by many individual people, and those people, sometimes without knowing it, have a massive impact on how we understand the past.

Records (documents such as papers, correspondence, photographs, maps, recordings, and more) need to get into the archives before they can be available for researchers.

Records come to the archives in one of three ways:

  1. Internal transfers or records management processes. This is what’s going on with government records: they’re created, then kept as inactive records by the department for some period of time, then eventually transferred to the archives to be made available to the public. As Danielle Robichaud brought up earlier this week, this process doesn’t always go as quickly or as smoothly as researchers might like. Access to these records requires that the creator organization prioritizes records management.
  2. Donation. Records are offered to the archives as a donation, often in exchange for a tax receipt. Records might be donated by the person who created or accumulated them, or a family member or friend of their creator; by an organization or one of its representatives. People’s motives for donating records to archives are varied, but often include the desire to be remembered or to have their story be part of the historical record.
  3. Purchase. In some cases, a record or set of records might be judged so valuable that people or institutions are willing to pay to acquire them. This is not uncommon with rare books, maps, or literary papers. Still, many archives across the country will never have the funds to purchase records, and will rely entirely on donations.

None of these processes happen “naturally.” They all depend on human intervention.

Unprocessed records

An unprocessed donation of records to Lakehead University Archives. These papers were kept in a home basement for decades until the house was being sold; they needed some care once they arrived.

It’s useful to make a distinction between “institutional archives,” which primarily preserve the records of a parent organization, and “collecting archives,” which preserve the records of people and organizations in their communities. The line is rarely strictly drawn: for example, Lakehead University Archives, like many other university archives, acquires the institutional records of the University itself, and also collects records of people and organizations across Northwestern Ontario. Government and business archives are often primarily institutional archives; community archives and those embedded in libraries and museums are often primarily collecting archives.

Most archives will have an acquisition policy or a collections mandate. This policy document will set out what types of records the archives is interested in acquiring. In many cases this will be set out in broad strokes, but provides a basis to choose to acquire records or turn them away. It is also very common for archives to cooperate with each other: each builds an area of strength while deliberately not competing for donations or purchases.

Some collecting archives will be much more proactive about identifying and acquiring records; others are much more passive. The approach that the institution (and the people doing the work) takes will have a significant, and cumulative, effect on which records they will be able to acquire, and which records will eventually be available for research.


For the rest of this post, I’ll be focusing on collecting archives, and “private records”, i.e., the records of people, families, or organizations, which have been donated to an archives.

First, the records need to exist. Someone needs to have created each document. Records creation may appear straightforward, but is dependent on so many factors:

  • Necessary technologies (computers, cameras, duplicating machines, typewriters?)
  • Affordability (consider studio portraits versus snapshots, as cameras become a consumer item, and the proliferation of digital photography today; also consider the costs of paper and ink and postage)
  • Literacy (literacy rates in Canada have increased considerably over the decades; literacy may have been less available to women, people of colour, and working class people; not all languages have written forms)
  • Social norms (which people correspond by mail? Who keeps a written diary? Which aspects of life are written about, and which are kept private?)

Already, only a subset of people have created documents about their lives or work. The rest are silent, or only represented through the words and images of others.

Then, the records must be kept, intentionally, for years, decades, even centuries. Often there is a kind of “benign neglect”: documents are stored away in a quiet dark place, and forgotten about. At least as often, papers will be thrown away, or destroyed.

Labour demonstration in Port Arthur, 1914

Labour demonstration in Port Arthur, 1914. The Finnish immigrant community played an important role in labour and socialist politics; records were kept within the community for decades before being gathered as an archival collection in the 1970s. MG8-D-4-57-H-I477

Continue reading

What makes for an archives? A look at the core archival functions

Archives storage

Photo credit Archives. Licensed under CC0 Public Domain

Roger Gillis

Archives is a term that can have many different connotations. In the loosest sense of the word it can be taken to mean a collection of historical records, and what counts as “historical” varies from one setting to the next.  As institutions, archives tend to adhere to several core principles: acquisition, appraisal, arrangement & description, preservation, and access. These core archival functions are, in and of themselves, the subject of much study by archivists and archival scholars (see Archivaria; American Archivist).

Acquisition –  the process through which archives obtain archival collections takes several different forms. Archives might obtain records through formal records management processes in their organizations (if established) that ensure that records designated as having archival value are transferred to the archives.  Or, they might obtain records through a private donation, transfer from another institution, or by other means. This process of acquisition is explored further in some of the other featured blog posts this week.

Appraisal is the process through which archival professionals assess what records hold intrinsic value and suitable to long term preservation through archives. Archives do not have the capacity to keep everything.  They must make decisions for what is appropriate to keep and decide what they have the capacity to preserve and make accessible over the long term. Moreover, archival appraisal is often employed in determining priorities for arranging and describing archival collections and sometimes determining monetary values of collections.

Archives and Archivists, as the keepers of the  “raw materials of history” put considerable work into not only preserving the records to ensure that they can be accessed by researchers, but also into arrangement and description. By being made accessible to researchers, archival records undergo efforts designed to preserve them, understand their origins, and make them accessible. Continue reading

Missed connections: looking for everything in the archives

Danielle Robichaud

Archivists are commonly asked by researchers to produce everything available about a particular topic. While understandable from a researcher standpoint, fulfilling the request is a challenge. Unlike library holdings, archival material is rarely described to the item-level. This makes it difficult for archivists to do more than point researchers to where everything about a particular topic could be. The result is a persistent disconnect between researcher expectations and archival practice. It’s also an underlying cause of the increasingly prevalent, though by no means new, “lost in the archives” narrative in which archival material is deemed lost because it was not readily described in desired terms or, perhaps more accurately, widely recognized to exist.

In actuality, most records that are deemed to be “found”, or “discovered,” have been available for use by way of archival finding aids and lost thanks only to the failure of anyone to read them. A recent example is media coverage regarding the “discovery” of an unproduced Edith Wharton play that, as pointed out by Eric Colleary, Curator of Theatre & Performing Arts at the Ransom Center where the work was housed, had been listed in print finding aids since the 1980s and in electronic finding aids since 2006.

Edith Wharton Photograph

Photograph of writer Edith Wharton, taken by E. F. Cooper, at Newport, Rhode Island. Cabinet photograph. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Public Domain.

The disconnect between researcher expectations and archival practice was also evident in Dennis Molinaro’s piece regarding the discovery of Canada’s Secret Archives. Molinaro rightly draws attention to the substantial number of government records that have yet to be transferred to Library and Archives Canada for use and access by the Canadian public. I argued that this issue is symptomatic of decades of chronic underfunding and non-existent political will, rather than a concerted effort to suppress the public record. After unsuccessfully requesting files pertaining to wiretapping during the Cold War or obtaining finding aids for untransferred records, Molinaro concluded that the Canadian government is maintaining a secret archives where  “no one in the general public is permitted to know the contents, and there’s a separate system that has been developed for storing and sorting this information.”

While Molinaro’s framing of the Canadian government’s legacy of undervaluing and failing to prioritize recordkeeping as a secret archives is one that merits further consideration, it will serve here as an entry point for examining what researchers expect and what archivists can provide. Specifically, why it isn’t possible to ever obtain everything about X held in an archives or, more importantly, to bypass the sometimes daunting and unglamourous work of archival research. Continue reading

Archives Theme Week: Creating Dialogue Between Archivists and Historians

Krista McCracken

On May 25, 2017 numerous national media outlets covered Dennis Molinaro’s experience researching the PICNIC wiretapping program and his search for archival records related to wiretapping during the Cold War. To coincide with the media coverage Active History shared a post written by Molinaro which explored an in depth account of his experience attempting to access the wiretap records.

The media framed this experience as “Canada’s secret archive” and as an intentional attempt to hide these records from Canadians. In his Active History article Molinaro wrote:

…if it isn’t a secret archive, where’s the “finding aid,” i.e. the list of what’s in there? When historical documents are kept outside of the public archives, archivists are working outside the public archives, no one in the general public is permitted to know the contents, and there’s a separate system that has been developed for storing and sorting this information, what else can it be called other than a secret archive or archives?

Immediately after Molinaro’s experience hit the news cycle archivist twitter exploded with comments on archival labour, chronic underfunding of records management and archival programs by the federal government, and the complexity of making material accessible to the public.

Many of the tweets, written by archivists in response to the secret archives story, focused on the context behind archival records being made accessible, the records management system of the federal government, and the relationship of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) to federal departments. The tweets highlighted some of the archival nuance that was missing from the media’s secret archive narrative.

A lot of people had strong feelings and thoughts about the news coverage, the archival community response, and the clear divide between the historical and archival profession that was highlighted in the ensuing discussion.

Making records accessible to the public takes a tremendous amount of work.  It takes time, money and professional expertise. In the case of the records of federal departments this work is also directly tied to the funding of LAC, records management programs, MOUs, and numerous pieces of legislation. The work of professional archivists, which goes into making records accessible, is something that is often misunderstood, underrepresented, or marginalized.

This theme week has been designed as a way to encourage a conversation between archivists and historians. Historians and archivists often have overlapping and similar concerns.  However they are two distinct professions which would be well served by communicating openly about their work.

All of the week’s posts are written by archivists. The week highlights current archival realities and concerns within the archival profession. The contributing archivists tackle issues of archival labour, how private records end up in archives, the legacy of colonial collecting practices, collaboration within archives, and archival outreach.

This week is designed to spark dialogue and deepen discussions between archivists and historians.  As such, throughout this theme week I encourage Active History readers to engage and further the conversation in the comments section and on Twitter.

Krista McCracken is an Archives Supervisor at Algoma University’s Arthur A. Wishart Library and Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  She is an editor at Active History.  Krista lives and works in Robinson-Huron Treaty territory on the traditional lands of the Anishinaabe and Métis people.

Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, “Architect” of Residential Schools?

The Langevin Block, Ottawa. Wikimedia Commons.

Matthew Hayday

On June 21, 2017, National Aboriginal Day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his government would be changing the name of the day to National Indigenous Peoples Day. He also announced that his government would change the name of the Langevin Block, which houses the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office. The name change had been requested by Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations and a group of Indigenous MPs, including Romeo Saganash, Hunter Tootoo, Robert-Falcon Ouellette and Don Rusnak, among others. A few months earlier, the Langevin Bridge in Calgary was renamed the Reconciliation Bridge.

Shortly after the name change was announced, a series of predictable parties, including Conservative MP Paul Calandra, decried the name change as an attempt to “whitewash history”. Calandra and others like him engaged in this debate by arguing that Sir Hector-Louis Langevin had a mixed legacy, and that he also played many important positive roles in Canadian history, particularly as a Father of Confederation and as a senior Quebec Bleu MP, a Cabinet minister, and Sir John A. Macdonald’s Quebec lieutenant, who argued for clemency for Louis Riel.

There is certainly a debate that can be had – and which we historians are having – about issues related to renaming of statues, buildings, and the like. But that is not what this post is about. Rather, I want to engage with some questions related to the renaming of the Langevin Block that I posed to Twitter earlier this week. Continue reading

A Focus on Family: Creating an Exhibit about 19th-Century Archival Photographs

Jay Young with Alison Little

Group at Table Rock, Niagara Falls, [ca. 1857]. Archives of Ontario, I0011269. Part of the Family Focus exhibit.

Family Focus: Early Portrait Photography at the Archives of Ontario is a free photography exhibit on display at the John B. Aird Gallery in Toronto, from June 27 to July 21.

The exhibit, part of the Archives of Ontario’s Ontario150 programming, features 15 original and 45 reproduction photos from the late 19th century that depict a diverse array of portraits of Ontario families in various social settings.

I sat down with the exhibit’s curator, Alison Little, to discuss the process of creating the concept, selecting the photos, and why cute photos of pets have been with us for decades.

Jay Young (JY): First off, can you discuss the thinking behind the exhibit’s concept?

Alison Little (AL): I wanted to develop an exhibit that would connect a few different threads: family memory, historical photography, and the lives of Ontarians at the time of Confederation in Canada. This connects to a larger conversation about diverse experiences of the past, which the Archives of Ontario featured in our current major exhibition, Family Ties: Ontario Turns 150. The Family Focus exhibit examines the early days of photographic technology in Ontario as seen through contemporary family portraits. It’s an opportunity for audiences to see real people during a period of incredible change – families who would have experienced the late 19th century in very different ways.

JY: Can you tell me a bit about your educational training and how it helped with your work on the exhibit?

AL: My education has definitely informed my work at the Archives of Ontario. I hold a Bachelor of Arts, Honours in Art History and Studio Art degree from the University of Guelph, and a Master of Museum Studies degree from the University of Toronto. I basically spent six years of my life and a lot of money analyzing different ways of seeing. Practicing photography at Guelph gave me experience with modern development processes. Having spent hours in the darkroom, I have a slight window into the work of early photographers. The University of Toronto’s Museum Studies programme then gave me the tools to become a storyteller: exhibit planning, audience testing, working with artifacts, developing panels, creating labels, and project management. Each of these experiences helped me take on the roles of curator and project manager for Family Focus.

JY: How did you go about selecting which photographs to include in Family Focus?

AL: There were a few requirements which helped narrow the field. I knew that I wanted to work with photographs from the Confederation Era , so the 1860s. However, given the rarity of photographic records from different photographers across Ontario during that decade in our collections, I broadened my search to between 1850 and 1905. Another parameter was that the exhibit feature family portraits, meaning I could only choose photos where some type of family relationship was represented. And finally, I looked for photographs which represented intersecting histories, and the diversity of experiences in Ontario during the late 19th century. So these factors led me to a few specific photographers represented in our collections, and from there, I tried to select pictures that would show the evolution of portraiture during that 55-year period.

JY: Do any photos really stand out to you as particularly memorable?

AL: I’m pretty partial to the portrait of the kids with their pet pug dog, taken by the Bartle Brothers – his face is adorable!

Three seated girls, three standing boys, and a dog, [1895-1910]. Archives of Ontario, I0053545. Part of the Family Focus exhibit.

I also love the ambrotype family portrait at Niagara Falls from 1857 – it’s one of the largest examples of this rare photographic format our preservation team had ever seen, and it’s absolutely beautiful. The image itself has so many connective threads: Victorian society, fashion, tourism, and environmental histories, as well as ongoing conversations about land use and national landmarks in Canada.

JY: The exhibit takes the visitor through the evolution of photography in Ontario in the second half of the 19th century with a number of different sections, from Early Studio Portraits to Outdoor Portraits. What influenced the exhibit layout?

AL: During the research phase of developing this exhibition, it became clear that I needed to adopt a framing device which would clearly illustrate to visitors how portraiture changed as a result of photography. The exhibit begins with studio portraits – this was how many Ontarians first encountered photography. In these spaces, our ancestors learned to pose for the camera, so we see a certain formality in these earlier portraits. The next section – Portraits at Home – demonstrate how changes in technology made cameras more accessible to non-professional photographers, and growing familiarity with photography resulted in more informal, intimate portraits taken in and around the family home. The exhibit’s last section – Outdoor Portraits – shows that the camera became much more common amongst Ontario families by the end of the 19th century. By this time, lightweight camera equipment, simpler development processes, and people’s common expectation that photographs might be taken at family gatherings yield fantastic portraits of Ontarians outdoors, posing confidently for the camera.

Alexander family, [ca. 1890]. Archives of Ontario, I0053551. Part of the Family Focus exhibit

JY: As you conducted your research on family portraits at the Archives of Ontario, did anything surprise you?

AL: I was definitely surprised by the sheer number of photographs produced by some early photographers in our collections; in particular, those of the Bartle Brothers from Eastern Ontario. Simon Peter Bartle (1875-1956) and Herman Arthur Bartle (1877-1958) were professional travelling photographers in Glengarry and Stormont Counties, and their fonds contains 1,880 photographs. These are primarily glass-plate negatives, and most are portraits – of individuals, groups, families, colleagues, friends, and communities. It was amazing to look through thousands of faces from the past and see so many similarities to portraits and selfies taken today. For example, the desire to include your pets in a family photo has been with us since the beginning of photography!

JY: What was the biggest challenge of curating the exhibit?

AL: It was difficult to limit the amount of information provided on exhibit panels and labels. As someone with a background in museum education, I wanted to provide the audience with as much context as possible. Sticking to a word count limit is a perennial challenge in exhibit development, but this show sits at the intersection of incredibly complex thematic material: technology, media, representation, family, memory, immigration, settlement, race, gender, and class. In addition, due to a lack of provenance information, we don’t know many of the names or histories of families and individuals featured in the exhibit. So I had too much information at some points, and too little at others!

JY: As someone working with archival collections, what do you hope this exhibit achieves?

AL: My hope is that the exhibit text provokes audiences to learn more about different experiences within Ontario’s past, and also to seek out the original records and their fonds at the Archives of Ontario to try and learn more about the people featured in Family Focus.

JY: Are there any special events related to the exhibit’s run? Why?

AL: We are thrilled to welcome Mark Osterman, an artist and instructor from the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, who will give a special presentation on early photographic processes on Thursday July 6, 2017 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. in the St. Lawrence Lounge, adjacent to the John B. Aird Gallery in the Macdonald Block at 900 Bay St., Toronto. Mark is an expert photographic historian and artist who is an internationally-recognized authority on early photographic technologies. Mark’s audience will learn a lot about the technical processes behind the photos in Family Focus and hear from a real expert on the subject!

There will also be an opportunity to tour the exhibit with me as curator – I’ll be leading a guided visit of Family Focus on Thursday July 13 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. in the John B. Aird Gallery in the Macdonald Block at 900 Bay St., Toronto. Visitors will have a chance to hear more about the larger historical themes tying all the images together, and ask questions about the Archives of Ontario’s photographic collections.

JY: What’s your biggest takeaway from curating this exhibit?

AL: Apart from practical lessons (always write down the container number of any image which catches your eye during research), curating this exhibit has made clear the importance of seeking out multiple narratives from the past. It’s not enough to create an exhibit which features the history of a single individual or family. By featuring many different experiences, which speak to a plurality of identities and communities, a curator can create an inclusive space where audiences can choose how they want to engage with the past.

Family Focus: Early Portrait Photography at the Archives of Ontario is on display at the John B. Aird Gallery from June 27 to July 21. To find out more about the exhibit, please visit the Archives’ website.

Remember I Resist I Redraw #06: Pride Has Always Been Political

In January, the Graphic History Collective (GHC) launched Remember | Resist | Redraw: A Radical History Poster Project to intervene in the Canada 150 conversation.

Earlier this month we released Poster #06 by Kara Sievewright and Gary Kinsman, which examines LGBTQ2 resistance and the political history of Pride in Canada.

We hope that Remember | Resist | Redraw encourages people to critically examine history in ways that can fuel our radical imaginations and support struggles for radical change in 2017 and beyond. Learn more about how you can support the project on our website, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


Pride Has Always Been Political

Poster by Kara Sievewright

Introduction by Gary Kinsman

I am delighted to introduce Kara Sievewright’s wonderful poster, “Pride Has Always Been Political,” that vividly captures our movements in history. For those unfamiliar with Pride, it started off as the celebration of the rebellious origins of the queer and trans liberation movements in resistance to police repression in the later 1960s—ranging from the Compton’s cafeteria riot in San Francisco in 1966 to the more celebrated Stonewall riots in June 1969. The police have been a major vehicle for enforcing heterosexual hegemony and the two-gender binary system. Continue reading

Decolonize 1867 at the CHA: Part 2: Keep the Conversation Going

By Stacy Nation-Knapper and Kathryn Magee Labelle

On 28 May 2017 participants gathered at the Canadian Historical Association’s annual conference to join a conversation about the Confederation of Canada. Specifically, we asked attendees to consider ways that we might decolonize not only the events of 150 years ago, but simultaneously the society we live in today.

This blog post is meant to re-cap the event for those who could not attend and to encourage us to continue to think critically about 1867, the implications of Confederation for Indigenous people, and the Canadian community as a whole. Continue reading

“In Defense of … “: Historical Thinking and Cultural Appropriation

By Andrew Nurse

This is the second essay in a three part series on historical thinking and cultural appropriation. For the first part in the series, click here.

One of the key characteristics of the commentaries that defend cultural appropriation is that they come in the guise of history. A friend sent me one today that referred back to Elvis and so looks, on its surface, almost history-like. The problem, of course, is that references to the past don’t constitute either history or historical thinking. Instead, in this case, it involved more a conscription of the past into the service of an argument about the present. The author concluded that Elvis’ popularity demonstrates that cultural appropriation is good.

Historians, of course, don’t ever make such arguments and we spend a great deal of time warning our students, the general public, and just about anyone who will listen, against this type of thinking. As anyone who has taken History 101 knows, the historical question is not “is Elvis a good singer?” but why did Elvis become popular? What does his popularity tell us about the development of modern music and culture? What led people to think he was good in, say, comparison to other musicians who were playing the same type of music?

This was one of the points I tried to make in my previous post about historical thinking and cultural appropriation. In it, I tried to argue that the tools of historical thinking are not some sort of golden key that solves all problems and resolves all controversy. Instead, I tried to show that historical thinking provided a series of tools that allowed us to deepen our understanding of the debate surrounding – and the issue of — cultural appropriation and, ideally, to redirect the discussion.

This post is the second in a series on this same issue and in it I will pick up on the argument I made in the last one. Here I will ask: how would an historian approach the issue of cultural appropriation? Different historians will develop different perspectives, but if we were to take historical thinking seriously and use its tools to explore and analyze this issue, what would that exploration/analysis look like?  Continue reading

Immigration and White Supremacy: Past and Present

The Gatekeepers, circa 1907. Saturday Sunset (Vancouver), 24 August 1907.

David Atkinson

Nativism continues to hide in plain sight in Canada. Martin Collacott’s recent editorial on immigration in the Vancouver Sun resuscitates the same xenophobic ideas that animated white supremacists in British Columbia a century ago. While he conceals the source of his anxiety with terms like “visible minorities” and “newcomers,” his arguments represent a thinly veiled invocation of “Yellow Peril” rhetoric that was commonplace in the province during the early twentieth century. Like many contemporary critics of immigration in both North America and Europe, Collacott tries to disguise these antiquated racial ideas with euphemisms and expressions of socio-economic anxiety, but the fact remains; this is old wine in an old bottle.

Previous advocates of a “White Canada” regularly deployed the same arguments in their efforts to restrict Asian and other non-white immigration. For example, Collacott’s core contention that Canada will become the first country to “voluntarily allow its population to be largely replaced by people from elsewhere” was a constant refrain of the anti-Asian exclusion movement in British Columbia (and elsewhere) during the early twentieth century.

Prominent lawyer Charles Wilson K.C. expressed the same idea when testifying before the Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration on behalf of the province in 1902. Decrying the supposed flood of Asian immigrants to B.C., Wilson implored the commissioners to “preserve one of the fairest portions of the earth’s surface for the Canadian people, and not allow it to be wrested from them, not by conquest, but simply by engulfing us in the rising tide of oriental immigration.”

This widespread fear of impending white elimination was driven partly by apprehensions about the province’s geographical proximity to Asia, and partly by its isolation from other Canadian population centres. However, it was the irrational fear of an overwhelming Asian influx that truly chilled the blood of provincial exclusionists. As Vancouver City M.P. Herbert Henry Stevens warned during a public demonstration against the disembarkation of South Asian passengers from the Komagata Maru in June 1914, “at our doors there are 800 millions of Asiatics….the very least tremor from that source would unquestionably swamp us by weight of numbers.”

As Collacott’s editorial suggests, this fear of racial replacement is not simply a historical curiosity. Contemporary white supremacists are especially enamored of this notion of white “erasure”—or “white genocide.” Continue reading