Archives, Constructed and Incomplete

      3 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

At some point, someone must make the decision to donate the records to an archives. They recognize the value of the records, but also no longer want to be responsible for their keeping. Often these donations coincide with the selling of a home, or after someone has passed away. But there is another necessary condition that the records not be sent off to recycling or the landfill: the donor recognizes their value, and is aware of archives (or museums, libraries, or historical societies) that will also value them.

Archivists can’t take for granted that people who have custody of these records will appreciate their potential impact on others, their potential value for research and understanding the past. We also can’t take for granted that potential donors will be aware of the archives in their communities, or trust that those institutions will be interested in their histories.

Why might some people or organizations choose to donate records to an archives?

  • They want to have their story, their family member’s story, or their group’s story told and remembered.
  • They feel honoured to have their records accepted into the archives.
  • They want their work or research to be useful to others.

The pride that people have in their own history is amplified by the process of donation, of seeing the records accepted and described, and seeing them be used by others.

Others might make a conscious choice to not donate:

  • Archives are often associated with institutional power, government, and the colonial enterprise. People from marginalized groups may believe their records are safer outside of such institutions.
  • Archives are often associated with famous figures and major events. People who see their lives and records as much more “ordinary” may not feel they deserve a place in the same repository.

It’s a self-reinforcing pattern. Many archives have over the years collected records of primarily white, and primarily male, and primarily well-off people, which contributes to the impression that those are the only type of people whose histories are valued by that institution.

Some donors may be glad to fill in those gaps, seeing it as an opportunity to contribute to, for example, local women’s history, or local LGBTQ+ history. Others may instead read the signs that their records would be better taken care of elsewhere. (Records may be brought to a better suited institution, or kept in private hands.)

When archives collect only passively: taking in the collections that are offered to them, and nothing more, they further reinforce these inequalities. The types of records offered will continue to represent only a subset of the real population, and tell only a small part of the history. This limits the types of research that can be done.

Passive collecting may result from practical limitations: when there is so much to do and so little funding available, archival workers may focus on more pressing tasks such as description, and enabling current research. Space and facility issues also affect how the work of collecting and acquisition is done: it would be irresponsible to solicit new donations if the archives can’t house or care for them. But passive collecting may also be the result of uncertainty or plain inertia.

Many people working in archives are now taking on the challenge of collecting more proactively. It’s a long, challenging process, identifying the gaps and silences in our collections, questioning past priorities and decisions, building relationships with people and communities, raising public awareness of archival and historical issues, acknowledging past and present inadequacies and failures.

The archival collections that result from proactive collecting have the potential to be broader, more diverse, more representative, and allow for better research. They still will not be “complete,” will not represent more than a slightly larger sample of people’s lives and work.

The archives that we have are a result of innumerable small decisions made at different times, for different intentions, by individual people. This article hasn’t even broached the subject of how archivists appraise records, and determine which will be considered valuable or not. This topic is much larger and more complex, with no single clear consensus but thousands of pages of scholarship.

Further reading on donation, acquisition, and appraisal:

  • Wexler & Long: “Lifetimes and Legacies: Mortality, Immortality, and the Needs of Aging and Dying Donors”, The American Archivist, Vol. 72 (Fall/Winter 2009) : 478–495
  • Fisher, Rob: “Donors and Donor Agency: Implications for Private Archives Theory and Practice,” Archivaria, Vol 79 (Spring 2015): 91-119
  • Eastwood, Terry: “Reflections on the Goal of Archival Appraisal in Democratic Societies,” Archivaria, Vol 54 (Fall 2002): 59-71
  • Couture, Carol: “Archival Appraisal: A Status Report,” Archivaria, Vol 59 (Spring 2005): 83-107

Sara Janes is University Archivist for Lakehead University. Her work includes making up for decades of passive acquisition, as well as teaching about archives, digital records initiatives, and a little bit of everything else.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

Please note: encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.