Collaboration between archivists and historians: finding a middle ground

Anna St.Onge [i]

Let’s begin with a story

One afternoon, a few years ago, one of our student assistants called me up from the back processing area to answer a patron question.

“How can I help you?” I asked.

“I’m looking for a diary written by a woman who emigrated from Hungary to Toronto in 1954.”

I quickly ran through my mental rolodex of the over 600 archival fonds held by the university, not all of which I’m familiar with, trying to drill down to the the most likely source of such a record. I kept drawing a blank. I asked for more details: did the patron have a name for this woman? Had someone suggested the diary was held in this archives? Had they read about the diary in an article, book or film? What citational breadcrumbs had led them to our door?

“Oh! No. No one told me it was here. That’s the primary source that I want to study. I want to read a diary written by a woman who immigrated from Hungary to Toronto in 1954.”

And so began another rich conversation about the nature of archives, the survival of records, and how to use archival discovery tools to track down primary sources.[ii]

This post is about archival pathfinding and cross-pollination across the disciplines of archives and history. It is about finding space to cultivate collaborative opportunities but also how archivists and historians can meet each other halfway as we go about our work.


Working in the archives inevitably means that you (and your holdings) end up disappointing patrons, many of whom are historians by training and inclination. Every archival institution operates slightly differently and what may work in an university archives may not work in an institution like Library Archives Canada, or, a local historical society. Terry Cook and Joan Schwartz have successfully argued that archives and records operate as “dynamic technologies of rule which actually create the histories and social realities they ostensibly only describe.” Archival records shape the institutions that hold and manage them. Archivists as a profession are the result of generational shifts of values, practice and prioritization. It’s the McLuhanesque proverb that we make our tools and then our tools remake us.

Over the years, I’ve learned to see my role with researchers as one of a pathfinder. As we have seen in the posts by Danielle Robichaud and Roger Gillis, the access tools used by archivists (print finding aids, file inventories, records schedules, descriptive databases, aggregators of descriptive data) are not comprehensive in their scope and are a product of the peculiarities of individuals – many of whom are, with increasing frequency, contract archivists under time constraints to process and complete finding aids- or indeed multiple generations of archivists building up strata of interpretations and workarounds over time. And as Sara Janes and Jennifer Weymark have so ably demonstrated, archivists can only lead paths through the collections they have available to them. Our tools are often improvised and not well resourced, and even the most knowledgeable pathfinder is limited by their biases and worldview.

Historians have long played a central role in the way archives have been selected for preservation and made available for research. This is in part due to the fact that throughout much of the mid-to-late twentieth century, the majority of recruits to major archival institutions such as the Public Archives of Canada (PAC) were historians by training.  The fourth Dominion Archivist of Canada, W. Kaye Lamb, emphasized the importance of archivists “keeping the past up to date” through careful and strategic appraisal (and judicious destruction) of government records based on the disciplinary values of history.The primacy of historical knowledge continues within the archival profession, but as Tom Nesmith has playfully discussed, the importance of archivists having a firm understanding of “the production and characteristics of communications” should take precedence in an age of information proliferation.

Our systems have long privileged the worldviews and preoccupations of historians, while in reality, researchers from a much wider range of disciplines draw on our holdings. With shifts in demographics, both within the profession and within our user groups, our tools and methodologies will transform as well. Nevertheless, archivists and historians are enmeshed in a shared genealogy; and not uncommonly archivists are historians and vice versa.

Two cats in basket

Can this merry band of unlikely collaborators succeed? Only time will tell.

Meeting each other halfway: collaboration and reciprocity

Beyond the reference interview, archivists also work in collaboration with other scholars or community organizations to raise awareness of the importance of archival documentation in wider society and to produce their own scholarship. Sometimes this is done under the auspices of the archivist’s institution while in other cases it is work undertaken independently by individuals as a deliberate act of service and contribution to their chosen community. My own experience working with historians on collaborative projects like the Portuguese Canadian History Project and the Greek Canadian History Project, as well as my applied research on capturing and documenting web archives, has been deeply enriching and instructive to my archival practice while also raising my awareness of the challenges facing historians in the current economic, social and academic climate.

Collaboration is neither easy (and some academic disciplines actively discourage it), nor does it necessarily save time, but it can lead to richer understandings of divergent disciplinary and professional practices. Working on a team with four other scholars (three historians and a linguist) has been both fulfilling and challenging experience. It has forced me to negotiate professional boundaries and to decide upon which hills to die (the inevitable ‘what is an archive’ debate, the Foucault fights, the long teleconferences while co-editing articles, the balancing of extroverted and introverted personalities etc.). Each collaborator has to learn how to meet the other halfway.

Image of a cat and a raccoon on top of a chain link fence, with their faces close together. 14 July 1964. Photographer: Don Grant, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC10639. See:

How can we ensure that scholarly encounters in the reading room end well? 

The patron of the opening story knew what they wanted and we were able to negotiate a compromise based on what we had available. Their request did not require that we co-write a grant together or that I get a thank you in any published acknowledgements. Meaningful reciprocal collaboration is not always possible with every historian’s foray into archives, nor should it be the default goal: what an exhausting prospect that would be! That said, and since this is a blog format, here’s a quick summary of suggested approaches of how historians and archivists can meet each other halfway should they wish to.

Be mindful of the challenges and pressures inherent in our respective work

  • Understanding the challenges that archivists face can temper historians’ expectations when in the reading room.
  • Respecting the limited time and resources that historians have to spend in the archives can lead to more thoughtful interactions.
  • Never be generous with someone else’s time and energy

Don’t just talk to each other

  • True interdisciplinarity is elusive. Being aware of the conversations happening in each other’s discipline is key. Our liaison librarian colleagues have this work down pat; as do many of our archival colleagues with a format specialization.
  • I’ve found Twitter very useful in getting a sense of what’s preoccupying scholars and graduate students and engaging in conversations that cannot take place in other forums.
  • Seek out opportunities where your audience will not be weighted in your favour. Co-presenting with colleagues at CHA, and inviting historians to present at ACA often led to useful dialogue and challenges to accepted ideas.
  • Read each other’s research. It helps when our scholarly journals are open access or at least under a short embargo.
  • There are many colleagues both within Canadian archives and beyond who have been writing and speaking about contemporary challenges within the profession: from addressing the evergreen ‘why isn’t it already digitized’ question; to confronting the erasure of archival labour in academic discourse; to challenging archivists to confront our own failures to care for the legacies of marginalized communities and addressing the overwhelming whiteness of the profession. Some choose to leave the profession in order to do this work. Rather than repeat the words of others, I’ll direct readers to check out our Friday post of archivists to read and follow.

Learn about the annual cycles of our professions

  • As someone who works at a university, I’ve learned to be aware of the ebb and flow of scholars time. For example, when researchers disappear for months at a time and the emails suddenly drop off, I assume that they’ll be back for marathon photographing sessions after midterms or during the summer break. A head’s up to the archives never hurts.
  • Communicating times in the year when archivists have to prioritize other tasks (tax receipt season, when annual reports are due, midterms, grant deadlines etc.) can help set reasonable expectations.
  • Checking in with collaborators when you don’t have an ‘ask’ is neighbourly and can reset exchange imbalances.

Do we have a shared understanding of success?

  • In cross-disciplinary partnerships, having a shared sense of what constitutes a success helps ensure equitable share of labour. If one team member needs a peer-reviewed scholarly article to justify the project, while another would accumulate more prestige giving a paper at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, while another needs to ensure that key community members are satisfied with the outcome of a public event, you need to divvy up the work and the energy in a way that allows everyone to succeed. I’ll repeat: collaboration isn’t easy and it doesn’t always save time.

When someone voices a complaint, listen to them (but also bring receipts)

  • No one likes to hear that they’ve messed up, but as April Hathcock has reminded librarians (and by extension, archivists) you’re going to screw up, so prepare yourself to work through the fall out in a responsible way.
  • When scholars voice dissatisfaction with the way they are treated by an institution, their concerns should be acknowledged and addressed. It helps to bring evidence and receipts to such an engagement. This is particularly pressing when those voices have been silenced or marginalized within archival spaces in the past (and the present).

Part of the practice of reciprocal collaboration is acknowledging the work of others. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be emphasized but acknowledging the labour of others (archivists, historians, librarians, curators, developers, community organizers) in your work does not diminish your prestige as a scholar. This principle extends beyond the acknowledgement pages of a thesis or the first footnote of a scholarly article. If your scholarship is only possible because of the labour of another, acknowledge it. This could include treating finding aids and other discovery tools as works of intellectual scholarship. This might entail providing full citations to such things as finding aids, including the names of archivists who created them, if known. This can also be practiced by archivists in how we acknowledge the subject expertise of our researchers, scholars, donors and members of the community who have contributed content to our discovery tools to improve contextual information and to forge new paths for access and interpretation. It seems a simple thing but has incredible potential: sharing is caring, friends, but full citation is an act of reciprocal respect.

Anna St.Onge is an archivist who works at York University Libraries. She is a team member of both the Portuguese Canadian History Project and the Greek Canadian History Project. She tries to practice what she finger wags about but occasionally falls short and pokes herself in the eye.

[i] I’d like to acknowledge and thank Gil Fernandes, Krista McCraken, Ian Milligan, Danielle Robichaud, Nick Ruest, Ruth-Ellen St. Onge and others for providing their suggestions and feedback about this post.

[ii] If I recall correctly, the patron settled for a bundle of letters written between two Finnish women over a period of 36 years, conveniently translated into English. The patron knew what kind of record they wanted to study, and they were flexible enough on some of the demographic and temporal details.

Cat : Owned by Thompson Family on Steeles Ave. Scarboro, 26 June 1961.Photographer: Don Grant. York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC10180. Public Domain. See:

Image of a cat and a raccoon on top of a chain link fence, with their faces close together. 14 July 1964. Photographer: Don Grant, York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC10639. Used with permission. See:

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One thought on “Collaboration between archivists and historians: finding a middle ground

  1. Bennett McCardle

    As a former archivist and former professional researcher both, I’ve always lamented this stereotype.

    As the writer says, many or most great “discoveries” in archives were hiding in plain sight, previously unlooked-for. (What archivist doesn’t have a personal whitelist of great stories in their collections, that researchers *should* have found and told to the world, but haven’t yet bothered to dig up?)

    Of course the stereotype is fed by a deep misunderstanding of the methods of both research and of archiving.

    Research: that records always exist on your given topic, and if you can’t find them you’re just incompetent, or the archivist is malignly hiding them. (This is the bizarre but widespread illusion of the “magic file”, so named by Gabrielle Blais of LAC: that somewhere in an archive is a file that contains all the records a researcher needs to document their topic. If it can’t be found, either researcher or archivist, or both, are incompetent/conspiring to conceal.)

    Archivy: that archivists either a) can and do accession, inventory and describe everything (“if it’s not in our archive, it doesn’t exist”), but then sit on it unhelpfully like a dragon on its hoard.

    Or b) have no idea what’s in their dusty (they’re always dusty) collections beyond a vague notion that “you might find it in there” (waves seeker vaguely into a jumbled room of scrolls. )

    I once spent a demanding hour and a half before a very senior group of legislators, trying to explain the untruth of these stereotypes. We were trying to dissuade them from legislation that would close down archival records, in a way that would make it impossible to do much of the local history research they clearly valued.

    I can guarantee you that even sophisticated intellects, still less ordinary popcorn munchers at the movies, find the principles of archives and research hard to get. The difficulty of finding and interpreting the specific records you need. That they may be scattered across dozens or hundreds of different files, fonds (that jargon there) or repositories, not all in one place. Archives’ lack of resources to accession and make useful finding aids for everything in an archive. The commingling of restricted and non-sensitive records in the same body of documents. The fact that records you want may simply never have existed. Or that apparently sensitive records are in fact anodyne.

    Hence archivists have to explain themselves and their archives clearly, in plain language. I’ve always thought this was one of the greatest weaknesses of the profession, at least in Canada: the archivist’s too-common illusion that people understand archives, and the way archivists present them to their users, and the principles of research.

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