History evidence preservers meet to discuss the future

(Edmonton) Every time an archivist discovers new historical evidence, fresh clues are offered on what happened in the past, providing a new thread to history.

Margaret Law, librarian, International Relations, University of Alberta Libraries, says the work of the university’s archivists is helping change what’s known about history, while meeting the challenges of the digital era.

To discuss both archivists’ relevancy in the face of increasing technology, as well as other issues facing the group, the International Council on Archives—Section on University and Research Institutions Law came to the U of A campus July 12–16.

It’s the first time that the archivists with the council have come to Western Canada, and it was an opportunity for the U of A to present best examples of archival work, says Law.

“Best Foot Forward: Inreach and Outreach for Archivists,” the topic for the three-day conference, responds to some challenges in the way archivists have documented and preserved the historical evidence that continue to change written history, Law says.

“The role of archivists is changing; they now have to make very clear what their value is, as people get used to getting access to information very quickly, compared to use of archival material, which is not instant. Archivists should continue to speak about the value that they bring to an institution,” she said.

William J. Maher, president of the archivists’ international council, says the conference provided opportunities to share ideas on changes archivists face and for developing strategic plans for the future. He says archivists now have to find ways to make their work more accessible.

“The only reason why archives should exist is for people to come in and discover their heritage, document their lives and background. We need to create tools so that people can search and find what they want,” he said.  

Good examples of that could be seen in the U of A’s Sam Steele collection, believed to be one of the most comprehensive and complete historical documents on Canada encompassing about 50 years. Also, the Peel's Prairie Provinceswebsite provides an example of how, using digitization, the U of A has preserved and provide documents in response to how people now do research.

The growing amount of data is also another challenge by the digital age, says Mary-Jo Romaniuk, acting chief librarian at the U of A, who spoke at the conference. She says archivists have done a fantastic job preserving historical evidence like letters and diaries. But archivists now need new skill sets.

“There needs to be a new way with which archivists go about collecting documents because some of them exist only in digital form and people are not committing things to print,” Romaniuk said. “For example, our website is born in a digital format and does not exist in print. So if someone want to know what the university thought is important 200 years from now, if we don’t archive that, it won’t be there.”

She says that over the centuries archivists have worked out procedures that help them decide what to preserve, but it’s not clear what to capture in the digital era. “It’s not sustainable to keep everything. We need to discern what we keep and what we don’t. And what we keep has to provide that unbiased broad sampling of who we are,” she said.

She says that that should include archiving twitter feeds because “it’s part of our fabric. Somehow we have to show that people had this social culture and the way they interact with each other changed,” she said.

Romaniuk says outreach to communities is good for archivists and the institutions where they work. She highlights a recent example where the university showcased to the local Chinese community The Other Side of Gold Mountain, an archival collection that documents Chinese migration and settlement in the west. She says the exhibition has been well received and was an opportunity for the university to connect more with the Chinese community.

“People like to find out about their ancestors,” she said. “It gave us a chance to hear what they think about the university. People look for such collections, it fits with the stories of their lives and we build huge connection with the communities.”