National Archives Blues

Is a precious Canadian asset being digitized to death?

Like many writers, I have spent a good part of my life in the archives. There have been periods when I virtually lived in the reading halls of the National Archives in Ottawa. And in 2002 I spent the entire summer in the provincial archives in Victoria, long enough to chart the fate of the brood of mallard ducklings being reared in the shallow pond in front of the building. I have come to associate particular projects and key moments in my life with these institutions—which may sound pathetic to some. Archives are, after all, overtly dull places. Never mind the swanky marble entrances; they actually consist of a bunch of nondescript rooms with big tables, straight-backed chairs and large windows, and very little going on other than an attendant or two dispensing information at the reference desk and a few people sifting through papers. And this is the exciting part.

When I started frequenting the National Archives in the 1970s, the reading rooms were open all year round, over holidays and weekends. If the search took off in an unexpected direction and the job ballooned, you could burn the midnight oil, or work over Christmas. Many did. It did not take long to discover the great truth about archival work, which is, appearances to the contrary, that it is utterly absorbing. In the first place, it is unpredictable: you never know what you will find, even when an archive has been worked over by generations of historians, writers and relatives. Despite the sense of order and rational purpose implied by the tidy boxes and numbered files, archives do not follow rules and are not reducible to a system like the Dewey decimal as books are. You cannot put in a search for a missing memo as you can for a missing book. Moreover, be they institutional or the papers of individuals, archives are never complete or comprehensive. What floats up from the past is largely a matter of serendipity, which means that archival research is pretty much a crapshoot.

Naturally, the element of chance turns drudgery into a game. The possibility of stumbling onto a document that rewrites history, of finding the smoking memo or the tell-all private diary, is irresistible. Researchers are prospectors: ever hopeful, ever on the lookout for clues, ever willing to take detours. Do it long enough and you come to appreciate that the only approach is the innocent one: open and undemanding. Indeed the activity has a philosophic dimension to it, and, although it obviously pays to be prepared, ultimately it is better to go in on a fishing trip than a mission. The work has a psychological dimension, too, for it takes you into a realm where it is easy to lose yourself. Looking at the clock after an hour or so, you may discover four or five hours have in fact fled. You might even be momentarily surprised to discover it is summer and 2010, not winter and 1959 where you just spent the entire morning. The only comparable experience for sheer intensity and addictiveness is the internet. (And the web can similarly be characterized as a vast morass of un-programmed material.)

My first foray into the National Archives was in 1977 when I was researching a CBC documentary on the Avro Arrow. Right off the top, I encountered the all-important corollary to the truth about the irrationality of archives—that the real treasures are the archivists, the clue givers. The people who know the terrain and the context in which a given archive exists. The more complex your project, the further off the beaten track you stray, the more likely it is that you will depend on them. With collections that are not used enough to merit the expense of developing finding aids, they can be your only hope. And often they do much more than just make the guesswork informed—they make significant contributions.

This was the case when I was researching the life of labour leader Grace Hartman in the mid 1990s. David Fraser was the labour specialist at the time and to my astonishment he tracked me down by phone—to a friend’s house in Montreal, before I had even reached Ottawa—to suggest a number of possibilities I had not mentioned in my note, offering to order up the boxes so they would be there when I arrived. This was the beginning of a collaboration that included his unearthing a key document he remembered seeing in the files of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers detailing Grace’s early radical days working for C.S. Jackson, running the UE office while he was interned by the RCMP for anti-war activities in 1941.

I am sure there are scores of stories to match mine, instances when an archivist made a project possible. Sometimes it is a very simple thing. After the first few days reading Emily Carr’s journals on microfilm at the Victoria archives, I realized my task was going to be physically impossible. (Bad enough that I was sitting in a darkened room trying to read handwriting in pencil on a vertical screen while making notes horizontally in the penumbra, there was also a new rule limiting the use of these machines if others—mainly genealogists constructing family trees—wanted to use them. When anyone did, I had to stop, rewind the spool and wait until another machine became available.) In desperation I left the archivist, Kathryn Bridge, a plaintive note asking if there was anything she could do. She responded by issuing me white cotton gloves and giving me the original notebooks to work with. My eyes quickly recovered, and I ended up transcribing about 40 percent of the expurgated texts. Once my book on Carr was completed, moreover, I returned to the duck pond to transcribe the rest of Carr’s unpublished writings for publication. It only seemed fair to make my transcript available to others, particularly as the journals are fragile. My luck was having Bridge on hand at this stage, too; she knew Carr’s handwriting better than I, and was able to tease meaning from those last pesky words I could not decipher.

What I am describing here is a partnership rather like that of violin maker and violinist, both métiers depending on hours and hours of highly skilled labour and a devotion to the non-monetary rewards implicit in their art. Although they may never meet, artisan and artist are inextricably connected—the accomplishment of one depending on the craftsmanship of the other. Similarly, the work of archivists and writers (academics, government researchers, students, independent scholars and creators) operates interdependently and on an intellectual level, and insofar as the resulting creation—book, film, policy, painting, lyric or theory—reaches other minds, it feeds into the stream of ideas and knowledge that constitutes living culture.

On my return to the National Archives in early 2010 it was to Libraries and Archives Canada, which had amalgamated in 2004, and a building on Wellington Street rattling with ghosts. When I was last there in 1994, the archivists had already been moved to a building across the street; now they are a 40-minute bus trip away in Gatineau, along with the administration and a strikingly futuristic, new warehouse. Senior officials have a second office on the Ottawa side of the river, but otherwise the only remaining occupants are general reference staff and the genealogy department1. The pressure of numbers is evident everywhere. It is there in the swelling ranks of genealogists: fully 39 percent of the 54,300 individuals who walked in the door of LAC last year were doing family history. Sixty percent visit once and never return but 10 percent are frequent users, and a quarter of them genealogists. The presence of the genealogy experts on site and the longer hours for its reading room reflect these changes. (So do rules directed to amateur researchers that go so far as to tell you how to keep notes.)

The biggest pressure, however, comes from the digital revolution, which has transformed the world of documentary production—and with it the work of archivists—while irrevocably changing public expectations. Digital access is now seen as a quasi right and digitization as a means of mass democratization. So it is no surprise that this has become the central preoccupation of LAC and has apparently led to a radical reassessment of its purpose. In a speech to the Association of Canadian Archivists last June the new chief archivist Daniel Caron—the first chief archivist not to have a degree in history, but rather has a PhD in economics—spoke of the “public memory monopoly once exercised by archives,” bemoaning the fact that the “documentary moment” in the analogue world is hopelessly long. Archivists are lost “within an anachronistic time and space,” he contends, noting that in the age of self-documentation, information needs to be ubiquitous, instant and unmediated.

In late 2009, Caron also released a set of “Modernization Papers” addressing the challenge of digitization within LAC. These are strategic planning documents, largely concerned with “management process” and written in a style that eschews description and the active voice. As a result, there is no sense of the archives as a living institution and participant in the intellectual life of the country. Strangely, there also is no acknowledgement of partnerships that already exist, although much is made of the need for new ones. In other words, the documents are written as if staff and the archive-going public do not exist, as if senior management, in its headlong rush to find favour with a new generation of users—and masters?—has become disconnected. This divide is palpable on the ground. Staff are demoralized and the constant shuffling of people in senior management positions—the last in mid November—is no help2. Nor is the fact that they, too, were left out of the process that produced the Modernization Papers, which were presented as a fait accompli. Staff continue to show an unparalleled commitment to the job of helping users do theirs. That has not changed. But I am not sure management knows much about it.

On a broader, more philosophic level, the notion of digitization as an agent of equality needs a bit of scrutiny. Contrary to the rhetoric, it is not really value-free. Databases are like maps; they are representations of reality and similarly model a set of relationships, for example between author and title and language (or land and water and altitude), which means that selection is always involved. Even with the conversion of paper records, someone has to make editorial decisions about what material will be given priority, which is why you hear genealogists complain that LAC is resisting digitizing newspapers3. Nor can digitization guarantee accuracy. Scanning does not necessarily capture all the information on a paper page, and with handwritten records, one entry misread and your entire family can disappear. In which case your only choice is to go to Ottawa and consult the census on microfilm. Meanwhile, scholars and genealogists worry that acquisitions are suffering. Indeed, the budget for purchasing archives is effectively zero. (The current acquisition budget is $400,000, following a year-long freeze, and is for “published heritage.” A small portion of it, $33,000, is for the purchase of archives.) And even before the recent freeze there was a marked decline in acquisitions from private sources—that is, individuals, communities, societies and private companies. Between 2006/07 and 2008/09 these decreased 43 percent while acquisitions from public sources increased 35 percent. The fear is that LAC is being reduced to collecting government papers and not much else.

Digitization is no guarantee of access, either. Far from being more accessible I experienced LAC as having disappeared behind its website and into a fog of MBA speak. The site is not for neophytes; it assumes you know what a fonds is, and what a MIKAN number is for, and that the accession number is likely to be the search key, which is fair enough. But where are the glossary and FAQs for those who do not know? I can’t imagine the site passing a usability test, but am told that 88 percent of those who completed a recent web survey expressed satisfaction with the service. Staff readily offer help locating information—admitting they too have trouble. But their assistance does not save the site from being more of a maze than a portal. However, with any kind of specialized research the barriers tend to be systematic more than web-related. All inquiries are channelled to generalists working the reference desks in shifts; these people are informative and communicative to a fault, but they could not tell me that the photograph collection I was consulting included 30 or so large boxes of prints—so I would not have to rely on negatives and contact sheets alone as I had assumed. By the time I reached the archivists and discovered this, I had bypassed the designated route so many times I was sure I was in violation of the rules. In the breach, I did not care. I needed to consult the experts, and when I did, they delivered. But the idea that this was asking for special treatment is troubling4.

Labour historian Craig Heron was president of the Canadian Historical Association in 2007 when LAC cut back to bankers hours without warning. He was thus part of a coalition of librarians, writers, genealogists, aboriginal researchers, graduate students, academics and community historians whose protests led to the establishment of the Service Advisory Board, which met for two years before being disbanded in 2009 (there are plans to replace it with three single-purpose advisory councils). Heron, who participated in the ensuing discussions, found scant appreciation among LAC officials for the nature of historical research, or the role of archivists in delivering access. “The implication seemed to be that people doing long-term research are elitist and marginal,” he told me. It is hard not to hear in this an echo of the anti-intellectual sentiment abroad in Ottawa politics today. Who needs the mandatory long-form census, anyway? Who needs experts? Yet, to see what is happening simply as elite bashing is to miss the point about LAC’s narrowing focus and the approach to digitization that seems to assume one size can be made to fit all. As Canada’s historians see it, LAC is abandoning its leadership in the preservation of a full and diverse historical record—“a serious violation of its legislated mandate,” according to a statement on the website of the Canadian Historical Association.

What you really want to hear Caron talking about are his plans for drawing out voices usually absent from history, his vision of how to situate LAC on the levelled playing field of cyberspace and, most important, the hopes he has for the archives as a cultural institution. If I have the blues, it is for the absence of this kind of conversation, and for an intellectual tradition under siege because of the undervalued work of the archives in general and archivists in particular. But it is also a lament for an institution caught in the backdraft of digitization and losing its way.


  1. Program and service staff include security, the document delivery service, reference staff and the remnants of the Portrait Gallery of Canada. 

  2. The fourth assistant deputy minister for services in two years is due to take over shortly. I spoke with three different heads of media relations in six weeks during the preparation of this essay. 

  3. In an interview, genealogy expert John D. Reid noted the history of private databases archiving newspapers as a factor. In his opinion, digitization is not happening quickly enough, and he notes that the depletion of staff has been accompanied by an attrition of expertise, which is strategic in areas such as dealing with newspapers. 

  4. The economics behind the reduced service on site means a good portion of the costs of researchers’ archival work has been transferred from LAC to the individuals. I was told more than once that people wanting to consult an archive are advised to make a preliminary trip to Ottawa.