Anyone who has been conducting historical research (or attempting to do so) over the past two years, has likely faced challenges ranging from closed facilities to limited hours due to COVID-19. Archives, museums, historical societies, libraries and all manner of cultural heritage institutions have felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as the fog lifts and some semblance of the “before times” returns, many cultural heritage institutions are still struggling to recover and many are reevaluating their priorities. Not only in terms of resource allocation and services: Many institutions are also reevaluating their collections mandates, thinking about how to highlight marginalized voices, addressing deliberate silences within their collections, and considering whether some records would be better stewarded by the communities they represent. The past two years have been challenging and reflective, both within the archives and beyond.
One major theme in the archival world during the pandemic has been a push towards digital access. Many archives were already providing some kind of digital access prior to pandemic shutdowns, but health crisis closures transformed digital access, for many institutions, from a rosy future to a rushed present. Suddenly, in-person visits to heritage institutions were forbidden, and digital access to collections holdings became more important than ever.
At the May 2022 virtual conference of the Archives Association of Ontario (AAO), representatives of Ontario’s cultural heritage institutions were heard swapping tales of hasty shutdowns, partial re-openings (often followed by “re-closings”), and timid returns to pre-pandemic services. Many wondered whether other institutions were allowing walk-in researchers or maintaining services by appointment only, and asked about the impact of institutions’ upper management in setting priorities for heritage management units (sometimes, without a solid grasp of what should be prioritized). The topic that echoed throughout many conference Chapter and Special Interest Group meetings, and in various conference sessions, was digital access — namely, is this the future of archives?
In many ways, it is, but that is not to say that we should do away with physical access to collections. On the contrary, digital access could be the factor that propels physical collections access to new heights. As Coordinator of the AAO’s archival information network, Archeion, I have seen the impact that digital collections access can have on an institution.
Archeion is an online database built on the web-based, open source application Access to Memory (AtoM). Archeion provides free access to descriptions of archival resources held by member institutions across Ontario, as well as descriptions of the people and organizations that created those records, and descriptions of the institutions that hold them. Archeion essentially acts as a directory and a discovery portal for those researching Ontario’s history, and more broadly, Canada’s history. It is not only a window for discovering digital resources, but also for discovering and coordinating access to non-digital resources. AAO member institutions contribute to the database in order to improve discovery and access to their collections. The database is freely available to anyone with an internet connection; resources are not restricted behind a paywall or institutional affiliation. Archeion welcomes everyone from professional researchers to hobby historians, and anyone interested in Ontario’s rich and diverse history.
As in all facets of the archival world, the impacts of the pandemic and shifting priorities were felt on Archeion. From the institutional perspective: nearly 15,000 descriptions of archival materials and over 6000 digital objects have been added to Archeion since March 2020, demonstrating member institutions’ efforts to make their collections more accessible during a period of otherwise extremely limited access. From the researcher perspective: over 200,000 users have visited the database since March 2020, totalling over 1.1 million page views. While the vast majority of users visited Archeion from Ontario (over 128,000), more than 34,000 users visited from the nine other Canadian provinces and three Canadian territories.
In a time when researchers could not travel, nearly 26,000 users visited Archeion from countries outside of Canada and the United States — including researchers from every continent except for Antarctica. To put this international traffic in context, when comparing the two-year period from March 2018 to March 2020, to the two-year period from March 2020 to March 2022, we have observed a 29% increase in Archeion visits from Vietnam, a 58% increase in users from Ireland, a 99% increase in visits from China, and over a 600% increase in traffic from Indonesia.
All of this serves to emphasize that cultural heritage institutions are resilient: even during a global pandemic, people have found value in our collective histories. In a tumultuous and divisive time, we have found solace in shared identities and experiences. We should not, however, believe that historical research during the COVID-19 pandemic has been an act of burying our heads in the sand and entrenching ourselves in glorified nationalist narratives: much valuable historical research conducted in the past two years has sought to uncover histories of colonialism, injustice, marginalization, and systemic abuse, in the hopes that we may rebuild a post-pandemic world that is better for everyone. Amidst the outcry for social change, archives and archival practitioners rose to the challenge, seeking out opportunities to reckon with their pasts, confront racialized, colonial present-day realities, and pursue more inclusive futures. Archeion and other digital archival platforms can help democratize access to historical records, in order to support research on a diversity of subjects through a diversity of collections, and bringing forth a diversity of voices.
Jazmine Aldrich is the Coordinator of the Archives Association of Ontario (AAO)’s archival information network, Archeion. She is a settler Canadian archivist holding postsecondary degrees in History and Information Studies. Jazmine is passionate about making archives accessible. If you have any questions about Archeion, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.