ACA Conference Bites : Stevie, Day 3 – New takes on the old lifecycle

By far the most interesting thing about this session was the way it gave three different speakers from three different parts of the country–and three very different institutions–an opportunity to speak about the way records management is handled within their archives. Trudi Wright, who had been a lecturer during my time at McGill, spoke of her work in records management in Ontario ; Dana Turgeon of the City of Regina spoke of some of the trials and tribulations experienced in merging their archives and records management clerical functions; Kate Guay and Karen Pollock of the Northwest Territory Archives discussed their attempts to get a more structured and standardized handle on their records.

Throughout the conference, I was amazed to learn of the range of operational conditions under which archives function, and could not help but compare and contrast with the status of our own unit. I heard perspectives from small archives with a single archivist or “lone arranger”, larger archives with kilometers of backlog running on a skeleton crew of two or three, archives with a staff compliment numbering in the teens or more, and mid-sized archives with a healthy staff of around six. More than anything, listening to all of these perspectives underscored the various nature of the profession–truly, each archive and special collection is as one-of-a-kind as the material it holds. At the same time, however, hearing of institutions much larger or much smaller than our own facing similar challenges brought a sense of unity–a sense that while we may all be floating in different boats, we are at least together as a mismatched armada on the same tossing sea.

Not a mismatched armada, but it looks suitably chaotic

After this session, it began to rain, which of course made it an ideal time for both the traditional East vs. West ballgame, and walking tours!

The ballgame was, I think, called off as a tie due to showers. The walking tours (one of which, ironically, was about the cyclone which ploughed through Regina in 1912) were more successful. I was lucky enough to get in on the Regina Riot walking tour, which was guided by one of my undergraduate history profs, the deeply knowledgeable Bill Brennan.

In June of 1935, Regina became the endpoint of what has been called the “On-to-Ottawa Trek.” Hundreds of disgruntled labourers from the West had boarded boxcars, heading east in the hopes of getting the attention of the federal authorities. They were protesting the dismal conditions of the federal relief camps provided for unemployed single male workers during the Depression, and wanted to make a case for stronger worker’s rights. While the federal and provincial governments dithered over who was to take responsibility for these men, the trek made it across British Columbia, across Alberta, and into the heart of Saskatchewan.

Finally agreeing to speak with some of the trek’s leaders while the men were camped out in Regina, the trek ground to a halt, with the trekkers being kept under the watchful eye of Regina’s large RCMP detachment. The negotiations in Ottawa swiftly fell through, and it just as swiftly became apparent that the trekkers were not going to be allowed to leave the city in any direction but back West.

Police Department “Wanted for Murder” handbill dated 18 October 1935 from the July 1 1935 Regina Riot. JGD/MG01/XVII/JGD 3095

On July 1st, a public meeting was called to update the population of Regina (who had initially supported the trekkers, but who were by this time beginning to feel the strain of supporting the added population) on the state of the movement. Expecting the trek leaders to be out in full force at this meeting, RCMP and City police gathered in secret, eventually rushing the crowd (most of whom were not trekkers at all), and causing all chaos to break loose in the city. Citizens fought back against police batons (actually baseball bats) and tear gas with sticks, stones, and overturned streetcars. Regina’s biggest department store was looted, and other buildings set on fire. One policeman, Charles Millar, was killed in the crush, and one trekker Nick Shaack, would later die of his injuries.

After this, the movement was disbanded quietly, with the help of the provincial government, as men were sent back to camps and homes. However, damage was done both to the reputation of the local law enforcement who instigated the riot, and the Bennett administration itself.

Regina Riot; policeman dragging away person, other men running towards police, throwing objects. JGD/MG01/XVII/JGD 3093

ACA Conference Bites : Stevie, Day 3 – Metamorphosis

Quite possibly the most eclectic session I attended, Metamorphosis: Change and Transformation featured recent U of T grads James Roussain and Emily Sommers talking about the future of archival education; Sara Viinalass-Smith of the LAC speaking on their archives of early maps; and Greg Bak of the U of M whose talk was titled “Playable: Interactive Archive,” and which featured (I’m pretty sure) a 1980’s Transformer toy on the first slide.

Roussain and Sommers’ talk had the most resonance with me as a (sort-of) recent MLIS grad. The notion of (conflict between?) theory and practice in Information Studies is one that seems to recur again and again in my day-to-day work, and was something of which I was keenly aware as a student. The in-class theory taught only revealed a fragment of the nature of the work that goes on in an Archives and Special Collections. I was lucky enough to have a work-study placement, as well as a practicum, but not all students had those opportunities to get elbows-deep in boxes. Untitled

Roussain and Sommers argued for the implementation of a practical approach to teaching in Information Studies, and suggested that all students should be, at the very least, encouraged to seek out practical experience during their period of study. I can see the necessity in this approach if graduates who have a realistic-ish notion of what they are getting into are to be produced. Each archives and special collections has unique holdings, and so faces a unique set of challenges in preserving those holdings, and making them accessible. Because of this, there isn’t and cannot be a tidy textbook of theory which will tell you all you need to know about archival work.  Much of the learning must be done on the fly in an environment of multiple tasks and drastically shifting user needs–and quite frequently, theory goes out the window altogether (along with things like sanity). Stubborn adherence to what is theoretically the best practice while ignoring the specific needs of your collection, of your institution, could prove disastrous.

Sara Viinalass’s talk struck a lighter note in her discussion of the evolution of LAC’s handling of early maps. It was interesting to see early pictures of their map storage and reading rooms — places with very little light, and large tables often used for staff gatherings (with candles for the centerpieces!). What stood out for me, though, was the notion that our audiences want “bite sized history” — along the line of a facebook post or a Pinterest image, not giving the entire history on the subject, but rather presenting a small and intriguing peek into it (as with Viinalass’ sharing of a Toronto bicycle route map– a subject not typically thought of).

Bak’s talk veered off in yet another direction, as he discussed the need to preserve interactivity and playability in archives. He was speaking in relation to electronic records, and the medium that produce them. Here again the notion of “the medium is the message” was introduced, with the medium now being the antiquated hardware and software from which electronic records are born. Bak argued for the need to preserve, or at least closely simulate the functioning (and dysfunctioning) of those systems, right down to the last “bug” (what he called a “feature”). His argument was that the hardware and software–obsolete though it may be– tells a part of the story of the record, as much (if not more) than the contents of the record itself. Certainly, 200 3.5″ floppies containing a novel are bound to say something about the way the author wrote, in the way the floppies are used, reused, and sorted. Transferring all of those files to brand new media and disposing of the original discs would destroy some of that context.

As was hinted at in Allana Mayer’s talk on conference day one, there is a great deal of lag in the proper treatment of electronic records in the archival profession (and, I suppose, any profession). Only recently are electronic records coming to be viewed as real and “reliable” (and lets face it, they’ve been around for fifty years and more), and so, it is only relatively recently that we have begun bending our minds to how to preserve electronic records, and even more abstractly, what original_nintendo_accessories-200x200elements of the electronic record need to be preserved. Interestingly, work on archiving video games tends to stand at the forefront of this debate — the question of how to preserve the playability of a game after its hardware has been vanquished by time is one of increasing importance in the ever-evolving and always nostalgic gaming world. Bak argues that the same degree of careful thought on how to preserve interactivity and playability needs to go in to our handling of other record types as well. Migrating to another format is not enough–something is always lost in that translation. But are the alternatives : emulation, or keeping working hardware and software on site, viable options for most heritage institutions?