New Directions in Active History, London, 2-4 October 2015

The majority of attendees of this conference are researchers and academics from history departments across Canada, but there were also a handful of archivists and I would encourage other archivists to attend in the future if you get a chance. It’s fascinating to catch up with trends in historical research and in work on the engagement of the public with history.

This post is a quick summary of some of the things that jumped out at me as interesting in the past two days of discussions. I always think that conferences with parallel sessions are a bit like a ‘Choose your own Adventure’ game: we are all at the same conference, but we pick our own path through it and all end up with a slightly different experience at the end.

In the plenary at the beginning of the conference Keith Carlson talked about the Historical Thinking concepts which I have not come across before (I feel somewhat ashamed about this!). There’s a whole website dedicated to it, and an archivist it’s great to see primary sources featured so prominently.

The historical thinking project

Keith noted that although God cannot change history, historians can, depending on their interpretations of past events. Stories, Keith said, are the essence of good history. In the same panel was Wendy Rowney of the Black Creek Pioneer Village, who had undertaken a study of what makes successful museums so successful. Interactions with guides were important, but having connections to real historical figures that visitors can relate to was also key: Wendy described a museum in a house where adult visitors were elbowing each other out of the way to read a census record listing the original inhabitants of the building.

The first session I attended on the Saturday was the Memories of the First World War Roundtable, which started with a discussion by two University of Western Ontario historians about presenting alternative narratives to the accepted national myths about the war, and the pushback they have received over their article on the white poppy. Monuments like the proposed Mother Canada statue and Monument to the Victims of Communism were discussed in this context. This was followed by a description of the Great War Centenary Association’s collaboration and their ‘Doing Our Bit‘ website. High school teacher Meghan Cameron gave an interesting talk about teaching Grade 10 students about the war by connecting them to local landmarks and local soldiers. She only has two and a half weeks to teach the topic and generally the children have no prior knowledge about the war. The topic of national myths came up again: Peter Farrugia of Wilfrid Laurier University talked about Stephen Harper’s speech on the anniversary of the beginning of the war, which included the following lines:

No longer can they tell their stories of courage and honour and duty.

But every time we take a stand to defend the values for which they fought and for which so many died, we remember their stories in the only way that really matters.

To Canada’s prime minister, the only way that we can really remember these men is by going to war again. As Peter asked: where does that leave the work of historians?

One of the audience members noted that high school teachers are very concerned about presenting points of view to their students that might conflict with the accepted national narrative. Meghan mentioned that the school board for her area had prohibited any discussion of politics in advance of the Federal election on October 19th.

The second session of the day was on the topic of community engagement: Sarah Story and I represented the archivist contingent, alongside Anne Janhunen, an environmental historian who talked about her work with First Nations communities and Peter Anderson, who discussed his work on raising awareness of the history of the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa and his experience of writing opinion pieces (he referenced the Op-Ed Project as a useful resource). There were some great questions after our presentations. I hope I opened people’s eyes to the way that archivists can help get history out into our communities: it doesn’t all need to fall on the shoulders of the historians!

Quaker Oats explosion in PeterboroughIn the afternoon, I went to an interesting session on storytelling using non-traditional means, such as film, graphic novels and performances. Matthew Hayes from Trent University described projects using ephemeral items placed around the town of Peterborough, including some posters with historical-sounding facts (which may or may not have been true). This was designed as an antidote to the more traditional, authoritative street-furniture approach to history found in small towns. A similar theme to this was picked up later in the day by Andrea Legg of Lakehead University, who was looking at the type of history portrayed in historic house museums: the authority and authenticity of objects in those houses and how they can be subverted by art installations.

Jennifer Chutter of Simon Fraser University looked at the issue of heritage designation and the way that certain types of property (usually those owned by the wealthy and white) are privileged in the designation process, while older houses which have been divided up into affordable apartments are more likely to be taken down in the name of progress. She focused on Vancouver in her presentation, where ‘old-stock’ homes from the 1930s are being demolished and replaced by ‘monster houses’ built by newer immigrants trying to maximise their investment in the land. (The ‘old-stock’ issue came up repeatedly over the course of the conference!)

Today was more about reflecting on what the Active History website is and should be. We had some fascinating small group discussions on this topic. One thing that really surprised me was learning (anecdotally) that having a good profile in traditional and social media circles isn’t necessarily helpful in advancing in an academic career in Canada. It doesn’t count as ‘scholarship’, it seems (!). This contrasts quite dramatically with the situation in the UK, where these days it’s all about Impact, and the more you can prove you’ve been quoted in the media or in online interactions, the better. I think this will change as the old guard of academic departments gets replaced by more media-savvy newcomers, but it seems a shame that people are actually being penalized for getting their research out to a general

The whole event has been stimulating and has certainly made me think about public engagement, government policy and issues around historical authority in a new way.

Build your own lifeboat: online communities for archives

In a time of limited resources for cultural heritage organizations, it is important to harness the good will and support of all our user communities. It is impossible to do that without first building relationships with those communities; establishing an effective online presence is an essential part of that process.

The archives service of the town of Deseronto, Ontario has been conducting an experiment in broadening access to its collections for the past seven years. The archives is only open to the public for six hours a week, but by sharing as much of its collection as possible online and by building online communities with social media services, the town’s history has been made available to a wide audience. More importantly, awareness of the work of the archives has been raised among people who might otherwise never have reason to visit the archives in person. When the archives was perceived to be at risk after the removal of Canada’s National Archival Development Program, these people rallied round to offer support.

In 2010, Maria Popova wrote that

…access is the first tile in a domino effect of awareness, empathy and action. The power of the social web lies in the sequence of its three capacities: To inform, to inspire and to incite.

By building a presence in a person’s online social network, cultural heritage institutions can embed themselves as part of that person’s social world and form a connection with them that is equivalent to that of a casual acquaintance (a ‘weak tie’, in sociological terms). Creating an equivalent relationship is impossible for a bricks-and-mortar institution to achieve, however good the rapport between individual staff and visitors may be.

To connect with potential audiences, we need to be where people are. In today’s world, this means the main social media platforms. By the end of 2014 Deseronto Archives had 425 Twitter followers and 282 Facebook fans. Reference requests now come into to the archives from both Facebook and Twitter and also through the archives’ blog, demonstrating the importance of these new methods for connecting with users.

An analysis of the Facebook pages of Canada’s provincial and territorial archives undertaken in September 2014 showed that few of them were taking advantage of this channel as a means of communication. The table below shows the situation in September and updates it with today’s figures. Currently, only the Provincial Archives of Alberta and Nova Scotia Archives have established Facebook pages which are dedicated to the archives service (the combination of archives with galleries, libraries and museums in some of the other provinces makes comparisons difficult). The Archives of Ontario now has two unofficial pages, one populated automatically with information from Wikipedia, and the other an unofficial creation.

officially generated Facebook commentThe interesting thing here is that people will like a page even if it is not officially maintained: these individuals represent an untapped audience for the archives services concerned. Once the page is adopted and managed, as has happened in the case of the Provincial Archives of Alberta in recent months, the audience for it increases significantly.

Province or Territory Facebook page likes in September 2014 Likes in May 2015
Alberta No official page (47 likes on automatically-generated page) New official page: 360
British Columbia 14,400 (Royal BC Museum page) 17,000
Manitoba No official page (35 likes on automatically-generated page) Unofficial page: 33
New Brunswick No official page (44 likes on automatically-generated page) Unofficial page: 49
Newfoundland and Labrador 3,421 (The Rooms page) 4,349
Northwest Territories 1,414 (Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre) 1,534
Nova Scotia 5,344 6,049
Nunavut No page  No page
Ontario No official page (154 likes on automatically-generated page) Two unofficial pages: 184 and 25
Prince Edward Island No page  No page
Quebec 15,053 (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec page) 16,000 (and two unofficial pages: 518 and 4)
Saskatchewan No official page (18 likes on automatically-generated page) Unofficial page: 19
Yukon No page  No page

Research conducted in the UK in 2002-2004 by Bob Usherwood, Kerry Wilson and Jared Bryson (interviewing over 1,000 people) ascertained that the general public has a high level of trust in cultural heritage institutions, but a low level of use of them, particularly in the case of archives. An extract from the data collected by this project is presented in the charts below:

Trust and use of resources by UK public

Percentage of respondents who trust resource Percentage of respondents who use resource
TV 42 94
Radio 55 85
Public libraries 73 38
Museums 59 22
Archives 53 11

The same report noted that:

The archive service had the most negative response in terms of a lack of understanding about the services on offer and a definitive description of their role and value

Using tools such as blogs, Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr and Twitter allows archives and other heritage services to demystify their work and demonstrate their worth. For many people today there is no division these days between their online and offline lives. Cultural heritage organizations can now become a part of individuals’ identities and build new relationships with interested people in a way that has not been possible in the past. As a consequence, the institutions themselves become more accessible and less forbidding. It increases their audience and helps their communities understand more about what they actually do. We already know members of the public trust archives and are ready to engage with them – now we can turn them into users of archives, too.

Establishing relationships in any milieu takes time and social media is no exception. Building connections needs sustained effort which can only be undertaken with reliable funding, institutional support and a degree of determination. It is also important to maintain statistics of use of these services over time to establish points of reference and comparison. Remote users of heritage organizations are often overlooked in statistical reports in favour of in-person visitors, but these people are still using our services, even if they never walk through the door.

The experience in Deseronto over the last seven years has shown that engaging with an online audience is a fundamental part of today’s cultural heritage work, not an optional frippery. It also creates a pool of readily-accessible support to call upon if an institution’s future is in danger. You never know when that lifeboat will come in handy…

This blog post summarizes the findings of an article in Archivaria 79 by Greg Bak and Amanda Hill (2015) ‘Deseronto Dreams: Archives, Social Networking Services and Place

Digitized First World War materials: an assessment

Over the last two years I’ve been conducting a research project on men and women who served in the First World War and who had some connection with the town of Deseronto, Ontario. There are about 300 people in total and I’ve been making heavy use of online archival resources to do this research. In the process I’ve developed some strong opinions about the ways archives have been sharing their materials online. This post is a sort of report-card on some of the resources I’ve been making most use of.

LAC Service Files

Most of the people covered by this project served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Those people have been a delight to research, as their attestation papers are all online and their service files are in the process of being digitized by hard-working people at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). As I write, all the files of people whose surnames start with A or B have been made available online, free of charge, and so have some of the ‘C’s. There are over 600,000 files to convert into electronic form, so it will take a while for them all to be done. The score in the table below assumes that the work has been completed.

Criterion Assessment Score out of 10
Discoverability Fair, once you find the right place to search on the LAC site – the metadata is not visible to search engines 7
Shareability Very good, easy to link to 10
Quality Very good 10
Price Free 10
Overall score   92.5%

Ancestry-accessible materials

LAC and the Archives of Ontario have made census, military, and civil birth, death and marriage records available through the commercial Ancestry site, so those are also fairly readily available (thanks to the subscription paid by Ontario libraries). A personal subscription to Canadian records on Ancestry costs $119 per year.

Criterion Assessment Score out of 10
Discoverability Fair, through Ancestry’s website and partially through search engines (but quality of transcription sometimes is poor) 7
Shareability Poor, almost impossible to link directly to records (except by email) 2
Quality Variable, not usually high resolution images or colour 5
Price Subscription service 3
Overall score   42.5%

LAC’s census records prior to 1921

Some census materials are also available through LAC’s own site. The following assessment applies to all but the 1921 census, which is only available through Ancestry.

Criterion Assessment Score out of 10
Discoverability Fair, but each census must be searched separately 6
Shareability Very good, easy to link to individual pages 10
Quality Fair 7
Price Free 10
Overall score   80%

The Deseronto-connected-people-project includes a number of men who died in Deseronto and surrounding areas while serving in the Royal Flying Corps. Records relating to these people are generally held in the UK and getting access to those has proved more tricky than getting access to Canadian records.

UK National Archives materials

Service records of Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force officers are held at the UK National Archives. These have all been digitized and are free to search online. If you happen to live in Kew, you can call in at the National Archives and view them on their computers for free. Sadly, I am a bit far away from Kew these days, so downloading them from the National Archives’ website at £3.30 a go was my only option for a while. Not too bad if you only have one ancestor in the RFC, but quickly rather expensive if you have 50-odd people to research. However, last year the National Archives sold a licence for this set of records to findmypast, which provides a monthly subscription for British records at £9.95 which was a bit more affordable. It would have been nice if they had also sold a licence to Ancestry, but you can’t have everything. Apparently.

Criterion Assessment Score out of 10
Discoverability Fair, once you know where to search (individual reference numbers e.g. AIR 76/79/173 aren’t findable via search engines) 5
Shareability Poor – can only link to metadata page, not record 3
Quality Fair 6
Price Pay-per-record or findmypast subscription 5
Overall score   47.5%

Royal Air Force Museum materials

Other useful records for this particular type of research are the casualty reports of the Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force which have been digitized and made available online by the Royal Air Force Museum.

Criterion Assessment Score out of 10
Discoverability Fair, once you know where to search, but only names are searchable, not places/units 4
Shareability Fair – can link to metadata page with low-resolution image 5
Quality Fair 5
Price Free for low-resolution record, £3.00 for high-resolution 7
Overall score   52.5%

The thing about this last set of records is that when I started using them in 2014 the high-resolution images were free to access. It’s only been recently that they have decided to introduce a charge. As I am only halfway through my research, this is more than a little frustrating: I’d been using screenshots of these records to illustrate my blog posts, which I can no longer do. If you make materials available online, be clear and consistent about how people can use them. And preferably err on the side of generosity. Please.

In summary then, as a user of archives, there are huge differences in how easy online archival resources are to find, use and share. From my perspective, Library and Archives Canada have done the best job of making First World War-related materials available for research from a distance. I like the way they have generally made files freely available on their own site and licensed them to Ancestry. This makes materials easy to link to, but also convenient for users of Ancestry. The exception to this is the 1921 census, which is only available through Ancestry.

I’m sure licensing decisions are complex things, but now there are two major genealogy sites competing for content it gets frustrating when archives only license their content to one or the other, forcing researchers to buy subscriptions to both. I think there’s also an assumption that genealogists are the market for these records; this is certainly suggested by the RAF Museum only providing searching by personal names. If you’ve only got one or two relatives who served in the RFC/RAF, £3.00 might be a reasonable fee to pay for access. But for a more general historical research project like mine, it quickly becomes prohibitively expensive to research records like this. I also find it hugely frustrating that these records are generally invisible to search engines and that I can’t link directly to so many of the materials I find in these paywalled systems.

I think History is the loser.


A meaningful archival career

The Association for Manitoba Archives and the Association of Canadian Archivists are jointly organizing an event called “Building Cohesion and Community across the Generations: An Evening of Conversation for Archivists and Allied Professionals” on January 15th, 2015 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. They will be discussing “the changes to employment in archives, the challenges and barriers new archivists face in a rapidly changing profession, and how to build meaningful archival careers in the 21st century”. As part of the event, I’ve been asked to answer the following set of questions:

Amanda HillWhat is your current job title? What does the job entail?

I’m an archival consultant: this involves running my own business and taking on work from a range of clients. This includes organising training courses, administering online services, giving records and information management advice and operating a small local archives.

Why did you decide to become an archivist?

My first degree was in linguistics and as part of a History of English course we spent some time at the Borthwick Institute in York, reading fifteenth century registers of wills (and back then, the Borthwick Institute was housed in a fifteenth century building, appropriately enough). I was awed to be reading something that had been written five hundred years earlier. Some time later I was browsing the shelves of the Careers Service at the university (desperately searching for inspiration) and saw a binder called ‘Heraldry and Archives’. I had always been interested in heraldry, so I picked it up. It soon became obvious that basically it was impossible to get a job in heraldry, but I continued reading the binder and realised that archive work was exactly what I wanted to do.

You can get paid for looking after fifteenth century wills? Count me in!

What are the major challenges and benefits of your job?

AAO ArcheionAdministering a business is challenging when you’ve spent most of your career being employed by large organizations. All that tax and pension stuff that Human Resources used to do has to be done by you, if you are self-employed. And as a consultant levels of work (and therefore income) can vary: sometimes you may be very busy, other times you can be worrying over whether you will have enough work. I’m fortunate in having two regular contracts (with Deseronto Archives and Archeion) which fill two days of every week.
Deseronto Archives logo

One of the great benefits of consultancy work is flexibility: I mainly work from home, which means that I can combine archival work with running a hobby farm and pursuing other interests. At the moment, for example, I’m undertaking a research project on the 300 Deseronto people who served in the First World War. There’s no way I’d have time to do that if I was doing a regular full-time job.

Consultancy work can also be very varied: you never know exactly what you’ll be asked to work on next. I guess that’s both a challenge and a benefit!

Are there any specific skill sets that are vital to the archival profession today that were not as important when you first started your career? Any career challenges that new archivists face today that you did not when you started to build your career?

Information technology for archives was in its infancy when I started work (early 1990s). My first job was at Canterbury Cathedral Archives, where we were using computers for cataloguing (unusual at the time) and this was a valuable experience: I learnt a lot about the importance of standards and about backing up work. But in my next job I was cataloguing with pencil and paper and had to wait for one of three typists to convert my words into printed finding aids. With the ruthless advance of technology, the typists could see that they weren’t going to be needed much longer, so they weren’t in any hurry to type up the archivists’ work: they saw the backlog as a form of job security. Consequently, although I was there for two years, I never saw a single one of my finding aids made available to the public.

I think the frustration of that experience is one of the reasons why I’m so keen to help archivists get their materials online today! A willingness to learn and experiment with technology is vital now – and the challenges of preserving born-digital materials are very much part of what today’s archivists need to be able to address.

I went into archives with the idea that it was a backroom type of job where you wouldn’t have much contact with the public. With twenty years of hindsight I now have a very different perspective and I would say that interpersonal skills are one of the most important things a new archivist must have. This is definitely not a career where you can just lock yourself away with the records.

What career advice would you give new archivists today?

It’s a crowded field for new archivists, so you need to stand out. Your communication skills need to be outstanding: get comfortable with public speaking, read extensively to keep up with developments in the field, and develop your writing so that you can share the stories that you find in the archives. Network, join professional organizations,  and, above all, be flexible: it’s unusual to get a job for life these days, so you need to be comfortable with developing a ‘portfolio career’.

Please tell us about an archivist, archival organization, project, or idea that inspires you and why.

…if we are not helping people understand the world they live in, and if this is not what archives is all about, then I do not know what it is we are doing that is all that important.1

I think this quotation from F. Gerald Ham would fall into the ‘idea that inspires you’ category. I fell into conversation with an Ontario government lawyer on a train a while ago and he said something very similar which I scribbled down (much to his surprise, I’m sure!).

"The purpose of archives is to help people understand things"

I found it interesting that this lawyer should pick on almost exactly the same words as Ham used in 1975 and I feel sure that they are both right. Archives answer the question “How did we get here?”: without archives and without people to share the stories they tell, we lose that understanding. I find that inspiring.

1 Ham, F. Gerald, ‘The Archival Edge’, American Archivist, January 1975, p.13

Some thoughts on ‘A Tightrope without a Net(work)’ session at ACA2014

Tightrope walker at Niagara Falls

Glass negative from MS. Coll. 407 Girdwood (Gilbert Prout) Collection of Glass Lantern Slides at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

Various archives advisors from the provincial and territorial archives councils and associations across Canada came together at the Association of Canadian Archivists‘ (ACA) conference last week to promote discussion of the future of their role. The session was titled A Tightrope Without a Net(work): Where next for Canada’s Archival Advisors?. This post sums up my musings on the subject.

[Disclaimer: I was involved in this session because the Archives Association of Ontario employs me as its Archeion Coordinator. However, these notes are my own views, not those of the AAO (which is run by lovely, lovely people, for whom I have nothing but respect).]

After talking to colleagues from other parts of Canada I feel I gained a new understanding (at least a partial one) of the disparities across the various regions of the country, both in terms of the levels of membership in the regional archives councils and associations and in the amount of financial support they receive for their work. In many cases external funding comes from provincial/territorial government contributions or in the form of direct funding support from provincial/territorial archives. Some regions have limited funding apart from their membership fees.

The situation in British Columbia seems to be particularly bad, as there is no funding from the provincial archives or from the government of BC. As a consequence, smaller archives with no professional staff are not being supported by the Archives Association of British Columbia: the organization cannot afford for the Archives Advisor to do site visits and this has proportionally more of an impact on volunteer-run institutions than it does on archives with professionally-trained staff. Records are likely to be at risk of poor management as a result.

Membership fees are obviously directly related to the size of a region’s archival population: the Archives Association of Ontario has more than 70 institutional members currently, for example, and over 140 individual members. With membership rates at $95 for individuals and starting at $172 for institutions, this level of enrolment by members represents a considerable share (around one third) of the AAO’s income. This is simply not available to provinces or territories with a smaller pool of potential members.

What I’m getting at here is a concern that funding at the provincial or territorial level for supporting the care of records held outside of big institutions is not working well in Canada. There are ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ provinces and territories, depending on the level of outside support and the size of the potential membership pool, resulting in records being more at risk in some areas than in others. This should be of concern to all archivists and all Canadians. The care of Canada’s documentary heritage is something that is the responsibility of all of us, not just those in particular geographic areas.

So what?

Well, more national co-ordination would seem to be required, for one thing. It was clear from this session that the regional advisors are needed and are highly valued for their role as a support for both members and non-members of the associations and councils. But perhaps the provincial and territorial organizations themselves are not so important. Could the regional councils and associations be replaced by a centralized body for Canada that oversees the various advisors and could thereby provide a more consistent and equitable service across the whole country? This would simplify financial administration and membership costs and obviate the need for each province or territory to run office functions. (Note that Laura Millar wrote an excellent ‘Counterpoint’ article called ‘Coming up with Plan B: Considering the Future of Canadian Archives’ in the Spring 2014 issue of Archivaria which suggests mergers at the national level – I’m suggesting this integration could extend to the regions, too.)

Having just one body representing archives would also avoid the dilution of volunteer efforts which currently takes place between the national organizations (ACA and the Association des archivistes du Québec (AAQ – which counts as national because it has francophone members outside of Quebec)) and the regional ones. If a single bilingual national organization replaced the current patchwork of regional and national groups, there would only be one membership fee for institutions and individuals to pay (it would have to be higher than the current ACA/AAQ fee but would not need to be as high as the combined current ACA/AAQ and regional organization fees) and there would only be one organization seeking volunteer effort for board and committee members (in an environment where individuals have less and less time to spare for such activities), and one central office rather than multiple ones. With the loss of federal funding, the Canadian Council of Archives (CCA) is now also seeking funding support from regional associations, which is another drain on the collective finances of archives across the nation.

Two concerns that came up from the Advisors’ session in particular would be addressed by rethinking the current model. One was training: for the Archives Association of British Columbia, training activities bring in a large proportion of the organization’s funding. With the CCA, the ACA and other associations and councils starting to offer online courses, there is a risk that the AABC’s income might be reduced and an overall risk of overlap and inconsistencies in what is offered by the different groups. Co-ordination in this area was a clearly-articulated requirement from the session.

The other was the issue of out-of-province queries. Two of the advisors mentioned the problem of geographic boundaries affecting their work. Should an advisor for a particular province offer help to an archives in an adjoining one? It’s difficult to justify doing so if funding is tied to the home province, but a cross-regional organization would be able to cover requests like this in a more pragmatic manner.

It’s possible that by feeding existing provincial/territorial financial support into a national organization, pressure could be placed on non-contributing provinces or territories to play their part. On the other hand, there could be a risk of existing regional funding being withdrawn from a new national organization, but with a single strong voice for professional advocacy, this might be mitigated.

Those are just some reflections on the main points I took from the advisors’ session. I’m relatively new to the Canadian archives scene, so I might have misrepresented the current situation or be taking a view for the future that is far too simplistic (very likely!). Please do comment if you want to set me straight, or if you have opinions of your own on where we go from here in trying to ensure that the key work of the advisors is given more reliable support in years to come.