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 When historical documents are kept outside of the public archives, archivists are working outside the public archives, no one in the general public is permitted to know the contents,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.

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