Friday, July 27, 2007

The merits of paper vs electronic; paper lives on, even for "generation digital"

Paper continues to be very important for many organizations, often coexisting with electronic records and sometimes in preference to it. At times, this reaches irrational extremes. Some people I have worked with insist on printing information from computers (e.g. emails, database search results) that simply strike me as a waste of paper (Just read it on the monitor! Save paper!). However, I enjoy writing and sending traditional letters; I like that it takes more effort than email, how it is a physical object that one sends and so forth. As much as I wish more of my friends and family would correspond properly, I can appreciate that this is very much viewed as a dying art.

Normally, in any kind of professional context, I function with a presumption in favour of email. Today's example involves the final project of my History MA. The department requires email and paper copies, fair enough. A friend of mine, however, only wants to submit paper copies. He is worried (indeed, convinced of the fact) that electronic submission may result in some kind of fraud. It is true that it is easier to copy electronic text rather than paper. But this concern strikes me as overrated; while interesting, I don't think anybody would steal my work. But I digress. To argue in favour of this pro-paper view, he vaguely asserted that it was common business practice to still only use paper. The reasoning for this is security - alternations to paper are more difficult than to paper. There may also be certain legal reasons for this - a handwritten signature is generally accorded more weight than an "electronic signature" that is little more than a password.

Aside from letters and other such personal items, I generally think email and electronic documents are the best way to go. I wonder how long this hybrid situation will last though. Is the conservatism of the legal profession really the driving force here? Will archivists succeed in persuading email users to keep files properly? We will see.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


A good part of today was spent working on slides. Specifically, counting and organizing them. Back at SEA, we would sometimes scan slides into a computer but that doesn't seem to be the practice here. I wonder who will ever use these, but the imperative to preserve them anyhow continues.

I was thinking about attending the Society of American Archivists meeting in Chicago this year, but the expense killed the proposal. All told, I very much doubt that I could manage the trip for less than $1500 CAN. I wonder if many people get their Archives to pay to send them to such things?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Archivists and languages

In high school, I studied French and German for several years and found both rewarding (my high school also had Spanish, but I have this irrational prejudice against the language; I would have taken Latin if it had been offered though). I recall, with quite some pleasure now, reading one of the Grimm's fairy tale in the original German in my third year studying that language. In French, I reached the heights of delivering a quite fluent speech on President Charles De Gaulle (assignment: give a 10 minute speech on any aspect of French culture or history) and read that famous novel Le Petit Prince. Admitedly, taking two languages at the same time was stressful and occasionally confusing. Periodically, I would blank for a word in German class and reach for a French word (apparently my English Canadian mind has a space designated "other languages" and sometimes not everything is kept properly distinct).

During my undergrad years, I let all the achievement fall apart. Then in my MA, I was compelled to taking a reading course in French and I was surprised with how much grammar (and basic vocabulary) I had retained. I had forgotten a lot of the nuances - remembering the gender of French and German nouns seems particularly difficult. I remember some like "das Madchen" (the girl), but it seemed counterintuitive (using the neuter "das" with girl, rather than the feminine "die"), but getting all that down is going to be hard. If anybody out there has advice on how to get track of the gendered nature of French and German words (which I regard as an archaic practice, but one must learn the language as it is) as an English user, I would be curious.

As part of my archival studies, I'm planning to resume my study of both French and German. I aspire to do this for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most important is that I feel ever so provincial about only being fluent in a single language; Europeans would no doubt laugh at me if I claimed to "educated" and yet only knew a single language. I find Quebec, France, Germany, Austria to be fascinating places and I would love to be able to interact there like a native. I want to be able to read German and French magazines, novels, scholarly works and so forth. I want to do this for both personal and professional reasons.

Canadian archivists are probably unusually keen to be bilingual (French and English), but I wonder if that is true. As of 2001 (last complete census), something like 18% of Canadians are bilingual in the country's official languages. I wonder how this compares to American, British etc archivists. Is knowing more than one language regarded as useful, is it asked for in job listings?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Web 2.0 for Archives: Archival Wiki and Archives Carnival

I have been thinking lately that archivists (and probably users of archives as well) would benefit a great deal from embracing some of the Internet technologies often classified as "Web 2.0." Web 2.0 is something of a buzzword, but it does point to recent interesting Internet developments such as the rise of social networking websites (Facebook and MySpace; the potential of these remains largely unexplored in my view) and collaborative projects. Probably the best example of Internet collaboration so far is the famous Wikipedia (now has 1.8 million articles in English)

More specifically, I wonder about developing a Wiki for archives and archival uses, that registered users (perhaps limit membership to members of a professional association or have them host it?) could modify and update. In terms of content, this could go a number of ways. Some examples do come to mind. Recently, at SRA, we discovered the meaning of a term (MIP) that was some sort of Latin abbreviation for "woman with no children." As one can imagine, this sort of information is useful when answering family history questions. All kinds of other things could go into an archival wiki; preservation advice, experiments with digitization, and so forth... In fact, there may well be such a Wiki out on the Internet, but I have not been able to find it.

The other idea that I would like to see happen would be an archives carnival. I am most familiar with teaching carnivals and history carnivals, but there is no reason why it could not also be done with archival blogs. If you have are not familiar with this kinds of websites, they are aggregators of blog posts. Often, there is a commentary and a theme linking together a month's blog posts, which I have found to be quite interesting. Compared to university professors though, there are far fewer archival blogs out there, but hopefully this will change with time.

I don't know how many people are reading this, but I certainly invite comments and discussion about how archives might use these technologies. Has anybody out there already experimented with them?

Friday, July 6, 2007

Archival PR, comparing national archives websites

At the SRA, the powers that be decided to make a DVD film promoting all that is good and great about SRA and, by implication, archives generally. The ten minute film includes interviews with archival staff (sadly filmed by before AA started working there), big Religious figures, views of the facility, various old and well cared for materials and an explict plea for Religious people to hand over their material to SRA. This strikes me as an entirely good idea, a good step in the right direction. I am certainly not the first to notice the public's lack of awareness and the consequent need for Archives PR.

In a April 2005 article in the Globe and Mail, author Guy Vanderhaeghe wrote an article called, "'We are what we keep: Canada's archives are in crisis." As he put it: "Yet the archives of this country, which are the underpinnings of this consciousness, are in a perilous position. Canadians have an acquaintance with libraries, museums, art galleries, concert halls, and theatres, either as willing visitors, or because we were once press-ganged into school tours of them as children. But archives remain largely invisible to the public, and the essential work they do passes largely unnoticed. "

Exactly right. More work needs to be done in bringing the work of archives to the public's attention. I think a case could even be made that, in terms of national archives, Canada is lagging far behind Britain and America in terms of Internet presence. This only serves to reinforce notions that archives are archiac places to store paper; it astonishes that a proper and sophisticated Web presence is still thought option. Let us consider the national archives of Canada has a disspiriting cookie-cutter appearance, in a weird effort to make it look like every other federal government website, and it offers little in the way of services or information. Compare the Canadian site to vastly superior American or British national archive websites.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Archival education and professionalism

First, a preamble regarding my future archival education.
In September, I will be starting a two year Master's degree in Information Studies, with Archives as my particular area of focus. As this will be my third university degree (BA, MA in History), I am looking forward to it and feel quite comfortable with doing the program. There are a number of courses that I look forward to taking; some will be clear-cut professional development oriented courses, some required and some out of general interest. Even though most of this entry involves criticism of the present mode of archival education in Canada (it appears to be done on similar lines in the UK and USA), I am looking forward to this program and do think I will learn from it.

One of the first things one notices about archival education is that it is a professional program. In financial terms, this means that it costs more than undergraduate programs and that the student generally pays for it. In terms of costs, the tuition is far from a nominal fee. In sad contrast to the MA I am completing (where I only had to pay about 10% of my fees as the rest was covered by a tuition scholarship), one has to pay to do archival studies. Let's say that it is higher than your typical undergraduate program, while still much lower than what law and medical students pay. Another characteristic of professional programs is the degree in question is required for the career (e.g. LLB/JD for law, MD for doctors, B.Ed for teachers etc). While I am irritated at the high costs, these two characteristics are acceptable.

My critique is more concerned with the fact that archival/librarian education is done as a separate graduate degree. In many job listings, a MLIS (Master of Library and Information Studies, or equivalent credential) degree is required. However, this is not always the case. Some small archives will simply employ librarians, without any specific training or education in archives, as archivists as these employers either don't know about archival training or don't care. (Now, don't get me wrong, I'm very keen on libraries and like librarians, but libraries and archives are different institutions, with different rules and procedures.)

From what I see in working at two archives, speaking to archivists and an initial evaluation of the archival (also library) curriculm, there doesn't appear to be a major research component, traditionally a defining aspect of graduate programs. Indeed, is there a single good academic reason that archival/library programs could not be offered as an undergraduate program? It could be like a specialist (i.e. 50% or more of all courses taken have to be in the archival/library area) undergraduate program. This would have the great advantage of providing another professional option at the undergraduate level, surely welcome in an era where BAs are overproduced and often underemployed. Is some aspect of archival/library school that really requires a prior BA? My guess is not - maybe a year or two of university study, at most.

Why then is archival education organized on the graduate level? I think this is a grab at professionalization and status. Archivists may not have the prestige of professions with regulatory agencies like doctors, lawyers, teachers etc (e.g. an agency which licenses people to a profession and which requires them to possess a certain degree), so they opt for prestige with a special degree. But really is it necessary for it to be like this? I know there are some Canadian archivists (many archival professors, it would appear) who envision a major vision of graduate education, with thesis research and all of that. Sure, I like to do research and have even done a traditional graduate degree, but is all that really needed (or professionally useful?) for an archivist?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Genealogy and the purpose of archives

At the Small Religious Archive (SRA) where I presently work, genealogy is big part of what we do. These kinds of queries represent the vast majority of queries we receive from the public and much of the research to answer them is often routine, as people are generally interested in vital statistics. I enjoy writing detailed letters back to users detailing the research done, but on some occasions, nothing could can be found and this is terribly frustrating. There was recently someone who wrote in from the West coast (which is far away from SRA) with a complex request, but it turns out that we didn't have anything on any of his ancestors. He was a little vague as to whether or not his ancestors would be covered by SRA.

I wonder how archivists should respond to what I might call the Genealogical Fact and how this Fact impacts the broader purpose of archives. The Genealogical Fact is that most (or a plurality, at least) archival users (I'm bracketing major governmental archives like the LAC etc) are interested in researching their family history. These people tend to outnumber all other kinds of researchers dramatically, whether they be academic historians, lawyers, activists (I would be fascinated to see some data on how important archives are to legal disputes such as resolving native land claims) and so on. Serving this community of users is generally quite rewarding, as you help someone to find out about their family's past. Beyond that, however, it is good for publicity. As a Globe and Mail column argued some years ago, archives have a very low profile compared to analogous 'knowledge institutions' like museums or libraries (school students are almost certain to have visited at least one museum or library during their studies, but an archives? Unlikely. I certainly never did until I was most of the way through my undergraduate studies).

Further, given the realities of limited budgets and limited storage space, should archives try to accommodate and tailor their future acquisitions with genealogists in mind? If so, to what extent? Obviously, most (all?) archives are mandated to preserve certain material, regardless of the likelihood of it ever being used. I am personally quite interested in preserving records that are of general historical interest, but is the Archivist's personal interests important enough to determine the purpose of Archives?

How does one balance an Archives mandated mission (e.g. preserve records according to legislation), the Genealogical Fact and items of general historical interest?


Welcome to the accidental archivist. I have had a personal blog for years, but this will be my first foray into professional pseudonymous blogging. Why the accidental archivist? Well, like many in the profession, archival work was not my first career plan. However, I worked at an archives during my undergrad years and generally found it interesting work and thus am giving a try. As I am aiming to keep this relatively pseudonymous, I will provide only a few broad facts about myself.

So, who is the Accidental Archivist? These are the tales of a young man just starting out in life. I am presently finishing a MA in history and will start my third (and perhaps final) degree in the fall in Archival studies. In terms of archival work, I have worked at two archives. The first was Small Educational Archive (SEA) and the second, Small Religious Archive (SRA). Both of these shared some characteristics such as both being located in the basements of buildings (oh, to work in a non-basement archive!), having a small staff (less than five, including yours truly) and paying moderate wages.

I'm also Canadian, should any one be curious. I'm certainly quite interested in working at British archives (and should a US archives from somewhere in the northeast offer me employment, I should be quite tempted), and am generally interested in keeping up with archival events from all over. Despite my broad aspirations, all my archival experience (and education...) has been Canadian so that is the context that I write from.

In terms of what I will be blogging about, there are a number of possibilities. I will discuss archival concerns arising from work, archives items in the news and anything else of interest that occurs to me. I certainly invite readers leave comments and get interesting discussions going. Also feel free to send in links - I certainly miss things. Beyond the Canadian media, I usually rely on the New York Times and the BBC for my international news