The Truth about Archives: Part II – South Asian Documentation Project, filling gaps in our history

This is Vino back at it, to share another blog on my experiences at the 2016 Archives Society of Alberta (ASA) conference in Canmore, Alberta. Building on my last blog, that looked at how archivists shape historical narratives, I wanted to talk about a particular session I attended.

Often, archives recognize that there are gaps in the information they hold. There may be certain eras, people, or topics that are just not well represented in the archives for any number of reasons. Sometimes when this occurs archives will actively go out and find this information to fill the gaps.  This is exactly what the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA) is attempting to do with their South Asian Documentation Project.


South Asian Documentation Project

Braden Cannon of the PAA was the presenter at this session and he revealed some interesting facts. Approximately 160,000 people in Alberta have origins from South Asia. South Asia includes India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, and Afghanistan. Locally 7% of the population in the Edmonton area has South Asian origins. This number was kind of mind blowing for me, as I am also of South Asian origin. I knew there were many South Asians in the Edmonton region, but 7% is a relatively large percentage of the population so it was surprising for me to hear that the PAA did not have many records, in their holdings, to accurately document this community.


The PAA decided to implement the South Asian Documentation Project in 2015 to better understand the South Asian influence in Alberta, and specifically Edmonton, identifying areas where they could gather records related to the community and its history. To discover more about the community the PAA spent three months meeting with different members of this large community and identified several associations that were part of this group.  Ultimately a research paper on the South Asian community was produced and this contact even led to a couple of these groups to donating their records to the PAA.


Open house on preserving community records

This project will continue this year, with the PAA looking at hosting open houses with the South Asian community to have more in depth discussion on archival records, hoping to get more responses from the community. Since the South Asian community is broadly based, and the nations included in this group are quite different from each other, the scope of research and contact with the many people who are represented will take time.


Origin South Asian Edmonton community webpage


There has been discussion in the archival world about whether archives should actively seek and gather records. On one hand, we risk placing our own biases on determining on what is worth documenting and preserving. On the other hand, if no one comes forward with records, then we risk not having solid information about this part of our population, potentially losing it all together.


At our museum we find this gap exists with documents relating to the latter half of the 20th century in St. Albert. We in particular would love to have more photographs to document this era to compliment our stronger holdings on the earlier half of the century. (Actually any photos of St. Albert from whatever period would be great!)


But I think we are at a point where we cannot always wait for records to come to us, particularly if the general public does not know what we do. So it is up to us to make sure people know that an important part of our work is housing historic records for our community and research now and in the future.  I know it is important to consult with our community members, whether it is through news releases, city announcements, or blogs, so that we identify areas where we need to be gathering additional information.

Next blog I will discuss another underrepresented group, where a lack of records about them actually left this particular culture completely hidden until recently.


Looking at some PAA vital stat records at the conference

At a conference session, looking at some vital stat records held at the PAA