“Archives are not about records….” by the Musée’s Archivist

The Association of Canadian Archivists’ 42nd annual conference took place in Ottawa from May 31 – June 3, 2017. The conference was entitled “Archives, Disrupted” and consisted of sessions that looked at what the archival world is doing when confronted by disruption to its normal or recognized practices. What was interesting about this conference was that it was not only a look at the challenges of disruptions caused by outside forces, but also how archives should be disrupting their own traditional practices and learning perhaps to let go of some of our tried and tested methods in light of a changing world.

The very first session I attended, “Social Justice Impact of Archives” set the tone for the rest of the conference for me. One of the presenters, Rebecka Sheffield of Simmons College, pointed out that archives are not about records (pictured to right). Or at least it’s not always. Archives are, however, always about people. It can be easy to lose track of this important point when we are knee-deep in processing. Why and what materials we process always comes down to people, both the creators of records and our users. Sheffield’s talk was about our need to disrupt the profession to break down western colonial views entrenched in the archives, by questioning the lack of diversity in the profession and look at different case studies and readings in classrooms. Sheffield reiterated that archives is a process, not a product and we need to relax our hold on the records and look more into the process.

For me this conference emphasized that archivists, first and foremost, need to remember that we are dealing with people and their experiences. This was reiterated with the closing keynote delivered by Eugene Arcand (pictured to left). Arcand is a residential school survivor and shared some of his experiences. His goal was not to gain pity but rather hope that the rest of us gain an understanding of his people’s plight. Referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he felt that the truth part has been easy but reconciliation has been very hard for his people.

In one particular incident, Arcand talked about finding a photo of a basketball team picture from his residential school. For all the abuse and hardships he faced, the only good thing he remembers from his time at residential schools was a chance to play in sports and develop lifelong friendships. So he was excited to see the photo and wanted to share it with his cousin who was also in the photo. Arcand thought his cousin would be happy to see the photo, but instead he was sternly rebuked. Arcand was confused and asked what was wrong. His cousin told him to closely look at the photo again. His cousin noted that in the photo he had his hands behind him so they wouldn’t be seen because he had been whipped. He knew that any photo that showed people with their hands hidden meant that they had been abused. While for Arcand the photo was initially a delight to see, for his cousin it brought up past nightmares. This incident is a good reminder that photos and images may initially seem innocent, such as a group photo, but for some people it can trigger some very raw emotions. So it is a collective responsibility of all of us that when we decide to display something openly we have to consider some of the different angles in which an image can be interpreted, particularly with records related to residential schools.

Arcand shared his experiences and disrupted our feelings to make us feel uncomfortable because this is also part of reconciliation. He felt that moving forward, archivists have a big role to play in blending colonial and indigenous ways. He also felt younger generations have a lot to teach older generations such as himself. We all have something to learn from others, particularly from people from different cultures. Thus, any disruptions we face can be seen not only as challenges but also as a means to grow and move forward.

Discussion on the Indian Reserve pass system

Look at digital archiving taking place at the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation in Nunavut