Archives Moment: Archives Challenges

Archivists have several tasks in order to get records ready for public viewing. One of those tasks is description work, actually describing the records. The task may seem simple but there are quite a few challenges.

First, when we acquire records from a person or organization, if the records are ordered or labelled in some way then it makes it easier for archivists to describe them for the public. However, often times this is not the case. Even if there is some labelling, there is often no discernible order to records which can make it difficult for describing records.

Archives are all about context. No one single document can give you the complete meaning about a subject. You have to look at the surrounding records around a particular record to get a better picture of what happened. Thus, archivists take description work very seriously because we want patrons to be aware of the whole picture.

In particular situations where there is little information at all.  For example consider a photograph with little or no description, archivists do their best to do some investigative work to try to accurately describe the record. At the Musée Héritage Museum Archives, since we deal with records pertaining to St. Albert, we often have to review our history in order to describe records. For example, photographs are one of our larger collections at the museum. And people like to have accurate descriptions for people, place, and time. Take for example this photo below:

This is an aerial photo of St. Albert. We initially did not get any information with this photograph. But by reviewing our history, we can do our best to better describe and give an approximate date for this photo. We know for instance because of our surroundings that this is a photo of downtown St. Albert. But when the photo was taken is not as easy to decipher. But we can investigate further to find out the date.

The key in this photo is that we have significant buildings that we can identify. So if we can figure out some dates for these buildings, we could narrow down the date for the photo.  For instance St. Albert Place is in this photo, which is the main civic building in St. Albert and also where the Musée Héritage Museum is located. If you do a little a bit of research, you’ll find that St. Albert Place opened to the public in 1984. So this photo has to be have been taken in or after 1984. You will also spot the clock tower that is famous in downtown St. Albert. Again a bit of research will tell you that was built in 1991. So that narrows the date range of the photo to be 1991 or after.

There are many other clues in the photo, but one in particular that may not be as obvious is the parking lot in the middle. For the longest time, this lot was not paved. However, in this photo the lot is mostly paved. So when was the lot paved? Digging into our records we couldn’t find the exact date, however, we found other aerials with dates that help us to date this particular aerial. We have aerials from the early 1990s that show the lot unpaved and then there are aerials from the latter 1990s showing the lot as paved. Due to deduction between photographs, we have been able to determine that the aerial photo that we have posted above was taken in 1996. You’ll find a similar challenge like this at the museum that you can try out.

As you can see from the exercise above, it can be a bit challenging, time consuming, and often quite fun to find information about a record in order to describe it. It’s the closest thing to detective work when you need to write a description. We hope that when you try the Archives Challenges at the museum, you’ll get a better taste of the interesting work that goes behind the scenes to describe records for you.

So come on down to the Musée Héritage Museum to try out the Archives Challenges. Please feel free to contact us at 780-459-1528 or archives@artsandheritage.ca if you have any questions. If you really like the challenges, you can try the following two challenges at home and then get in touch with us if you would like to verify your answers!

Photo ID challenge

Photo dating challenge