Creating the Historical Record in Literary and Personal Archives

by Krista McCracken

Part of the Brian Vallée fonds. Photograph taken by author.

Part of the Brian Vallée fonds. Photograph by author.

Archives document people, organizations, and communities from almost all walks of life and are most commonly referred to for their historical value and viewed as repositories of things of intrinsic and lasting historical value. This is also true in the case of literary archives and the personal archives of creative practitioners, but these archives have the added potential to be records of culture, provide insight into individual creative practices and elicit scholarly debate.

Until recently my exposure to literary archives had been very limited.  I knew they existed but in my case, coming to archives from a history background, literary and artistic archives were always on the periphery but were never the focus of my work.  For me archives were more about historical documentation, snapshots of time, and about telling community histories.  So, how do literary and artistic archives fit within the larger archival frameworks and how can these archives be useful to historians?

I’ve recently had the opportunity to work with the Brian Vallée fonds held at the Algoma University Archives.  Born in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, Vallée (1940-2011) was an award-winning journalist, documentary film producer, author, and vocal advocate for victims of domestic violence.  He worked for numerous newspapers in Canada and abroad, was a producer/director for CBC’s ‘fifth estate’ and worked on numerous CBC documentaries.  Algoma University is home to Vallée’s literary archives which document his work on numerous books and documentaries.

Vallée’s research notes for "Life With Billy". Photograph by author.

Vallée’s research notes for “Life With Billy”. Photograph by author.

His fonds is filled with drafts, screenplays, research notes, correspondence, media clippings and a range of other material, all of which provides insight into his creative process, Canada’s social and legal response to domestic violence, and his development as an author. I was surprised by how much local and national history was captured in Vallée’s fonds and how much insight his correspondence provided into societal opinions about domestic violence in the 1990s.

My experience working with Vallée’s fonds has highlighted the range of possibilities that exist within literary archival holdings and some of the challenges regarding privacy and preservation that they present.  Material found in archives is inevitability shaped by the donor of the material and by archival staff.  This is not a unique facet of literary archives but is part of the larger framework that dictates what is saved by archival repositories. Historians and other scholars need to question what appears in an archive, consider what isn’t included, and be cognizant of the fact that an archival fond rarely provides an exact reflection of its creator.

Prior to an archival fond being made accessible to the public it goes through a lot of hands, and in the case of author’s fonds the materials included may be greatly impacted by friends, family, literary agents, editors, estate executors and the author themselves. Additionally, authors may edit themselves and limit the material that is deposited in archives.  A well-known example is Canadian author L.M. Montgomery’s detailed curating and editing of her journals, her destruction of numerous records prior to death, and her very specific instructions to her son around the management of her literary records. Given that authors constantly edit their work as part of their creative process should we be surprised that this editing hand often finds its way into management of their personal historical record?

The management of image and management of memory can also been seen in the concern held by authors about the publications of material from their fonds.  One of the most lauded abilities of literary archives is their strength in highlighting creative process and creative growth through examination of drafts, publication struggles, and the wide range of roles played by writers.  But it is very common for there to be concerns around the publication from literary fonds – who wants their failures or very early bad drafts in the spotlight?  These concerns may be in part what sparks the heavily edited and heavily controlled presentation of archival fonds by authors.  Often these concerns can be mediated by time based access restrictions and conversations between archivists and writers.  Ideally archivists are approaching authors as part of their outreach and acquisition strategy to have these conversations about access and preservation.

One challenge, as we look to the literary archives of the future, is the increasingly born digital nature of the writing process.  The ephemeral nature of digital correspondence, digital editing, drafts, and notes, which many authors engage in, mean that the shape of traditional literary archives is changing.  Archives need to work with authors, historians, and IT professionals if they desire to capture the intricacies that make literary archives so intriguing.

Unprocessed archival donation.

Unprocessed archival donation.

In 2011 David Becker and Collier Nogues undertook a study of the personal archiving practices of 110 authors.  They noted that most authors’ personal digital archives “consists of poorly managed, highly distributed, and unsystematically labeled files.”  This statement is probably true for most personal or organizational digital archives that do not have a formal records management program or archival oversight.  Similarly, I’ve seen a heck of a lot of physical archives that are in disarray before they are processed.  Challenges of file organization isn’t a purely digital problem.

However digital archives do require a different mindset when approaching preservation and organization.  In Canada the management of born digital archives is something we’re still struggling to comprehend as an archival profession.  The Canadian Rules for Archival Description contain scant guidelines for describing electronic records, and archivists are still working out the best ways to arrange and make digital archives accessible.  Looking at innovative ways to document the changing nature of writing and having open conversations with authors and historians about how creative processes and items of cultural value are captured is crucial for the changing landscape of literary archives.

The way in which literary archives are processed can serve as important insight for historians into how personal archives are maintained and organized. Users of archives need to be aware of how and why material is kept and open dialogues with potential donors are imperative to creating archives which are representative of the circumstances in which they were created.  Though often used by scholars outside of the historical profession, literary archives can be important records of culture, social history, and community history that are worth considering in historical study.

Krista McCracken is an Archives Supervisor at Algoma Unviersity’s Arthur A. Wishart Library and Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. She is a co-editor at

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