LAC’s Vision: What Future for the Past

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By Allan Greer

Libraries might be considered repositories of information, but archives are something else.  They collect and preserve documents – unpublished, one-of-a-kind texts such as letters, court records and business accounts – as well as images, maps and sound recordings.  It is all very raw material, and it tends to be biased, partial and incomplete; somewhat like archaeological artifacts, these sources provide scholars with clues about past events, which is not exactly the same as information.

Historians need to know what they are looking at, where it comes from and how it is situated in relation to other material.  The “archival turn” that swept the profession in recent decades amounted to a call for greater attentiveness to archival collections as constructed artifacts that need to be examined in their integrity and not simply treated as a mine from which to extract tidbits of information.[1]

Every collection has its peculiar structure and logic; each was assembled with a particular purpose; and researchers can easily be led astray if they read the contents naively, without regard to its context, its purposes and its biases.  But just as we have been sensitized to such methodological considerations, Library and Archives Canada have been making it harder and harder to examine collections in their integrity and to discern their nature and structure.

And it looks as if they intend to go further in the wrong direction.  “Vision 2030” was released in 2022 as a comprehensive plan for the institution’s future and it makes depressing reading for anyone concerned about keeping the architecture of the collections visible and navigable.

Specialized portals such as the Métis scrip collection (not to mention a New France portal that has not been maintained and that is gradually becoming unusable) are among the best features of online LAC, but it doesn’t appear that there will be more of these.  Instead, Vision 2030 calls for consolidation.

“LAC’s website should be simpler to use, with search and navigation features that are intuitive and natural, making content easier to find. The search experience will be vastly improved through better integration of the site, a simplified approach to navigating the collections, and consolidating dozens of databases into a centralized search, with the option to search on a specific topic or theme.”[2]

Making things “easier to use” certainly sounds like a good idea, but it’s an aspiration that has not been realized.  The main LAC search engine is clunky in the extreme, largely, it seems, because it combines so many disparate elements.  The collections on Loyalist Nova Scotia, the fur trade, World War II armaments and Jamaican immigrant organizations are so different and so differently organized that it only compounds the confusion when they are all mixed together in a single vat.

Couldn’t we instead have better and more accessible finding aids and guides to navigating particular collections?

Vision 2030 makes this revealing observation:

“People are used to working with search engines and social media, and they expect to find information quickly, easily and intuitively, no matter where it is located.”[3]

Oh dear!  The model here seems to be Google: enter a keyword and up pops “information,” raw material from which “knowledge” will magically emerge.

If any “people” think this way about archives, it is surely not historians: however much we may be addicted to social media, we don’t expect our research to be as easy as a thumb-swipe. Trained in a discipline that focuses on the challenges inherent in creating a story about the past on the basis of imperfect and fragmented source materials, we need to know more about archival documents than can be learned from a quick, intuitive keyword search. Instead of encouraging and facilitating rigorous scholarship, LAC seems determined to mush together disparate elements to make it easier to launch random probes to extract decontextualized snippets from a huge mass of undifferentiated materials.

The outward facing elements of the LAC website, including Vision 2030, display a very poor grasp of the nature of historical scholarship.  They hardly mention historians except in faintly dismissive terms, as though we formed an old-fashioned privileged elite whose monopoly needs to be challenged.

“In addition to traditional users like researchers and historians, memory institutions are expanding their outreach to new audiences, such as young people, and to those who have been under-represented in the past…. LAC will encourage young users to connect with their history and culture.”[4]

“Memory institutions” include museums, which are designed to educate the public, but are archives really well equipped to show “young users” how to understand “history and culture”?

According to its mandate, the core mission of LAC is “to preserve the documentary heritage of Canada for the benefit of present and future generations.”  Surely this implies a need to organize that documentary heritage so that its contents are readily navigable.

Academic historians need such infrastructure to do their job – and so too will new users once they go beyond casual probes and begin to consider larger historical issues and confront the real challenges of constructing a reliable account of the past based on primary sources.

Vision 2030 expresses eagerness to attract more uninitiated users, but it has little to say about how they will “connect with their history and culture.”  It is as though archival materials were unproblematic and transparent and as though they automatically yielded knowledge and enlightenment to the most casual investigator.  There is a strong whiff of what we might call “archival populism” in this rhetoric, and like all forms of populism, it is tinged with anti-intellectualism and dismissive of expertise.

We have MA and PhD programmes in History precisely because it is not easy to understand the past.  Students master the literature of their field, substantive and methodological, they learn to subject established concepts and narrative tropes to critical scrutiny, and they acquire a sense of the pitfalls of a naive reading of sources.  Such training may not be necessary to genealogists, who have their own rigorous, though more narrowly focused, methods for locating and assembling information on individuals and lineages.  Moreover, many fine historians have developed sophisticated approaches to research without the benefit of a graduate education in History, though they do depend to one degree or another on the academic literature and they share the credentialed historian’s need for proper archival infrastructure.

One way or the other, there is no substitute for the accumulated learning about history, historiography and the use of sources required to tackle the important issues relating to Canada’s past.  Key-word searches might be useful in tracing long-lost ancestors, but they will not take us far in the examination of major historical processes like colonialism, industrialization, the women’s movement and the growth of democracy.

Yes, LAC has a responsibility to a wide range of users and potential users, including legal researchers, government employees, Indigenous organizations and family historians, to name only a few.  And yes, anyone and everyone should have access to this public repository financed by our taxes.  That said, there is no justification for sidelining the requirements of historical scholarship in the rush to expand the archives’ clientele.

In fairness to LAC, I recognize that their problems are rooted in chronic underfunding.  That and a succession of governments measuring their success with inappropriate metrics.  While wishing that management had made different choices under the pressure of inadequate financing, I also wish they were not forced to choose between outreach and basic archival services.

Allan Greer is a professor emeritus of history at McGill University. He thanks Gerry Friesen, Max Hamon, Nathan Ince, Laura Madokoro, Tom Peace and Bill Russell.

[1] See, for example, Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972); Arlette Farge, Le goût de l’archive (Paris: Seuil, 1989); Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[2] Vision 2030: A Strategic Plan to 2030 (Ottawa: Library and Archives Canada, 2022), 8.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid.

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