Stronger Together: The Potential Collaborative Agency of Historians and Archivists

Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken

Over the past few years, the historical community in Canada has been rocked by a few scandals. No, we are not talking about the endless discussions around monuments. Rather, we are referring to the numerous public disputes between historians and archivists relating either to the discovery of or access to archival material. For example, you’ve liked seen various historians announcing that they had “discovered” a long-lost historical document by looking in a seemingly forgotten corner of the archive. To which archivists often reply, we knew it was there the whole time. Sometimes we also see these conflicts erupt into larger disputes, as has been the case with respect to the recent announcement that the BC Archives would be closed until 2021 to ensure that proper procedures were in place to protect staff and visitors from COVID-19.

The chairs of several major university history departments in BC published an Open Letter denouncing the closure. This, unsurprisingly, resulted in a major push back from archivists who derided the authors’ undue concern about their deadlines as opposed to, among other things, staff safety.

Archives are an essential part of historical scholarship. Historians continue to be one of the main user groups of archives. So why do archivists and historians fail to form meaningful, long-term partnerships that can, potentially, benefit both fields? We operate in silos with our own professional associations, scholarly journals, and methodologies. But archivists and historians often want the same things. We both want access to more archival material, archives with increased hours, and efficient reference service. 

All of us are impacted by the chronic underfunding of archives. The BC Archives are a part of the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM). This is unlike most provincial archives. Consequently, the BC government has had numerous disputes with the Museum around the cost of maintaining their historical records, with thousands of boxes of records sitting in storage for years without being transferred to the Archives. At one point, over 33,000 boxes of government records were in warehouses instead of being transferred to the archives because of arguments over the cost of archival work. That specific dispute was resolved in 2015, but decades of underfunding and staffing cuts have had lasting impacts on the BC Archives and problems persist to this day.

This is only one example. The pandemic is also having a major impact on the history and heritage sector. The UN predicts that one in eight museums worldwide will close permanently as a result of the pandemic, and one in three American museums may never reopen. This impact is going to be felt most strongly by museums focusing on the lives of Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour, many of who were underfunded prior to covid. The exact impact for archives in Canada is still unknown, but is likely to be just as severe. And those archives that continue to operate will be working in difficult circumstances, with reduced budgets, lay-offs, and remote working conditions. When combined with decades of underfunding, there is a huge potential for catastrophe. But, through it all, archivists continue to work, to provide services to the public and to maintain their collections as best they can, while also trying to document the impact of COVID-19

Historians are also working in difficult circumstances. There have been massive budget cuts to institutions in Alberta and Manitoba in the last few weeks. Lay-off notices have already begun at colleges and universities across the country, impacting staff, precarious academics, and tenure track/tenured faculty alike. What’s more, many universities have recently announced that they will be mostly moving to online programming in the fall, forcing thousands of professors to transition to online education with little to no training or support.

We also seem to be losing sight of the fact that the pandemic is far from over. Restrictions may be easing for the time being, but the danger is still very real. We still don’t know the impact of asymptomatic carriers or about reinfection rates. Easing restrictions have been associated with COVID-19 infection rates spiking in numerous locations. Experts are expecting a second, more deadly, wave of the pandemic in the fall. And the toll of the pandemic on our mental health is still unknown. Many of us are grieving, not only for our lost loved ones, but for the lives we had before the pandemic started. Likewise, many of us are working to confront racial inequality and violence in our workplaces, professions, and communities. 

We are all struggling, but we can find so much common ground. Co-operative advocacy has a much better chance of success. Shouldn’t we be advocating across disciplinary lines? Historians need archivists because they make historical research possible. Archives need the support of historians and academic associations to advocate for funding and staffing. And, especially during times like these, we should be raising each other up, not tearing each other down. 

We can do great things together and there are a lot of ways historians and archivists can collaborate. Let’s attend each other’s conferences and read works written by one another. We can collaborate on grants for projects that interest us both, do research together, and co-publish the results. 

Now more than ever, historians and archivists are facing times of scarcity and change. We need each other and we can benefit from strengthening relationships across discipline lines. Advocating for each other and working together can create meaningful change and help us all produce better work. We really are stronger together. 

Andrea Eidinger is a historian of gender and ethnicity in postwar Canada. She lives and works in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal.

Krista McCracken is a Researcher/Curator at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre in Baawating/Sault Ste. Marie. They are an editor at Active History.

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