Archival Origins: ACA 2019 Toronto

Another year has passed and so another Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) Conference is in the books. ACA 2019 in Toronto explored our “Archival Origins” and encouraged us to think about the roots of the profession, how we got here, and where we are going. I am thankful that this blog gives me the opportunity to reflect on conferences I attend. I enjoy going back and reading the posts in subsequent years, and feeling inspired all over again! The ACA Conference in Montreal in 2016 inspired me to start this blog and here we are three years later. Let’s hope I can keep up the momentum going for another three years.

ACA Toronto was a homecoming of sorts for me, as my first ACA was in Toronto in 2011. Back then I was a fresh-faced baby archivist ready to take on the world. A little older and hopefully a little wiser, I headed to Toronto again. Things have changed in the 8 years since my first ACA. The structure of the conference has remained largely intact; there is still a baseball game that pits east and west…but the conversations have changed. Ours is now a profession that is keenly aware of its inherent whiteness and lack of diversity. This year was the first year that delegates could choose to self identify with their chosen gender pronouns by affixing a sticker to their name tag. This year we had the privilege of welcoming Chief R. Stacey Laforme from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation who attended many sessions at the conference and provided us with some inspiring words in the closing plenary.

I admit that today, in my work, I feel an unease that wasn’t there when I was that fresh-faced baby archivist back in 2011. I question how my work entrenches western concepts of documentation and I am growing more and more aware of what (and who) is being left out. I can see this happening at the ACA as well and it is reflected in the sessions. I believe we are moving in the right direction and I am hopeful. In 2011, we weren’t talking about reconciliation or indigenization. We weren’t talking about the archives of marginalized communities. We weren’t talking about emotional labour and the intimacy of our work. I believe we are moving in the right direction.

I was inspired by something that Chief Laforme said in his closing address: “We are never so far apart that we can’t find common ground.” In a world where we largely exist in our own echo chambers, this resonated deeply with me. He told us that tough questions with tough answers – that’s how we move forward. We need to continue to challenge ourselves to think about our profession differently. We need to think about what we preserve and who we serve, and who is missing. What will the next 8 years bring?

Apologies in advance for the length of this post – I wanted to capture the full breadth of the conference as I experienced it. To help make sense of it all, I have broken it up into three chunks – one for each day of the conference.

Highlights – Day One

Day one of the conference opened with an address from the outgoing Librarian and Archivist of Canada, Dr. Guy Berthiaume. When assuming the role, Dr. Berthiaume set four overarching commitments that set the tone for his tenure as L&A:

  1. Make LAC serve clients of all types and acknowledge their different needs
  2. Position LAC at the forefront of archival/library practice and embrace new technologies
  3. Ensure LAC is a proactive and respected partner in the archival community
  4. Ensure LAC is visible

Having worked for Library and Archives Canada at a very dark time in its history, I can attest that Dr. Berthiaume brought positive change to the institution during his time. He restored some funding to the archival community, reinvigorated public programming, improved access by embracing new technologies for things like crowdsourcing, and he generally improved the lives of my former colleagues and friends who have devoted their careers to the institution. On the eve of his departure, it was nice to hear the pride in his voice. He is certainly leaving the institution much better than he found it. I am looking forward to seeing what the new L&A, Leslie Weir will do to continue LAC’s forward trajectory.

Following Dr. Berthiaume’s opener was a second plenary session that addressed the archival legacy of various commissions affecting Indigenous Peoples. Johanna Smith (LAC) discussed the revival of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) (1991-1996) through digital access to the archival records of the commission. The bulk of the recommendations from this commission were never followed through with the exception of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has made a tremendous impact on Canadian society. The documentary memory of RCAP had become obscured because the bulk of the material had been preserved on proprietary CD-ROMs and floppy disks. LAC extracted the records from the floppy disks, created descriptive metadata, performed an ATIP review, and created a web page to provide access.  You can read more about the various indigenous documentary heritage initiatives at LAC by visiting this site.

Raymond Frogner (NCTR) then discussed the development of the archival collection at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which includes over 7000 recorded testimonies from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He explained that traditional archives keep records that enshrine the settler narrative and that it is difficult to see a path forward in our traditional archival paradigms. The work of the NCTR has required a rethinking that focuses on respectful societal relationships and self-determination.

Karine Duhamel spoke about the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (NIMMIWG), which was timely given the release of the Final Report on June 3rd.  The report is the result of 14 concurrent inquiries both national and provincial/territorial over the past several years. The Truth-gathering process collected 750 statements and more than 800 art expressions from survivors and family members. With a view to making the records of the commission available in an archives, Duhamel explained that the archives must be a place to reclaim power not just a tool of hegemony. The archives needs to be a tool of resistance. It will adhere to donor protocols and be inclusive. They will accept any language and take on the translation. The Legacy Archive will be an activist archive that will promote “artivism.” It will be a tool that people can use for outreach, education, and research in order to reclaim power and place.

[Girl sitting at desk writing in notebook at Putnam School, Ottawa Ontario] 1961 (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4301956)

New Education Stream

The Programme Team and ACA Education Committee decided to try something different this year when it came to workshops. Instead of offering pre-conference day-long workshops, smaller mini-workshops were offered throughout the conference and ran concurrently with the other sessions. While I was torn, I decided to attend a workshop on the first day. “Steal this Workflow: Scaling up your digital preservation program through automation” was presented by Stefana Breitwieser (Canadian Centre for Architecture), Tim Walsh (Concordia), and Sarah Romkey (Artefactual Systems). It provided an overview of tools for digital preservation including BitCurator and some that Walsh created (Brunnhilde). The session outlined the processes and workflows that the Canadian Centre for Architecture has utilized to preserve its wealth of digital records and make them available. There is far too much content to discuss here but it was a useful demonstration of some key tools.

Some takeaways for me:

  • I should learn how to use the command line (lots of tutorials available, like this one);
  • An understanding that there is a lot of work to be done prior to ingesting archival information packages (AIP) into a preservation system.
  • I shouldn’t be afraid to try things and play with the various tools to find a solution that works for my specific situation.

Movie Night

After a day of thought-provoking talks and demonstrations, I had the privilege of attending the ACA’s first Audio-Visual Screening Night, hosted by the Media Commons at the University of Toronto. What a fantastic event! Archives across the country were encouraged to submit short clips and then talk about the context of the films and their preservation. In all, there were 13 clips provided by 13 different institutions. Here are my favourites:

  • Across This Land with Stompin’ Tom Connors (1973) – Media Commons
  • Valcin Family (Montreal, 1971) – part of the Home Made Visible project, preserved by York University Library
  • René Lévesque Q&A with Scarborough College students in 1968 – University of Toronto Archives
  • The MASK (Eyes of Hell), 1961 – TIFF (this one was really special because it was Canada’s first feature-length horror film and the first instance of 3D technology shot in Canada. We were even issued with funky 3D glasses for the screening. Put on the MASK!)

Highlights – Day Two

Day Two opened with a back and forth discussion between John Roberts (Archives of Ontario) and Marcia Douglas (Deloitte). The duo discussed how our digital processes are often based on assumptions from the analog that do not reflect the reality of digital. They argued that arrangement and description should be about making explicit connections focusing on context and provenance so that records can continue to be understood in context over time. Marcia used a great pipeline analogy saying that there are multiple stages to building a pipeline that have different contexts. There is building, then operations, then maintenance. Each has a different use at a different time and we need to capture the context of all of these stages in the lifecycle so they can be understood by a user in the future. Roberts and Douglas challenged some of our assumptions and commonly held beliefs in a playful opening session. They encouraged us to expand our professional identities rather than defining ourselves by what we are not (i.e. we are not librarians, we are not historians, we are not records managers…) The session was a good way to wake up our brains and expand our thinking.

Following the plenary, I enjoyed a presentation from the Archives of Ontario that included Rebecka Sheffield and Nana Robinette. They walked us through the Record Keeping Transformation project that began in 2017, with the intent to modernize recordkeeping practices in the Ontario provincial government and ensure that RK requirements are embedded into the design of new projects and systems. The overall message of the session was that the team has tried to find innovative ways of solving their “wicked problems.” They found that in order to attempt to solve a wicked problem you have to:

  1. Chunk it out
  2. Don’t fear failure
  3. Watch for consequences
  4. Break down barriers
  5. Sit at the table
  6. Think fast, be adaptable

Rebecka and Nana walked us through the new approach to appraisal that is being used at AO, which helps to work through problems that the digital landscape presents. They have created an appraisal toolkit and presented five appraisal questions to consider:

  1. What is an adequate record?
  2. How do we capture the record?
  3. How long should we keep the record?
  4. How do we ensure trustworthiness?
  5. How do we preserve and provide access over time?

Nana Robinette outlined some of the ways the team is working collaboratively with new tools. The one idea that really struck a chord with me was their use of sprint sessions, which aim to remove all distractions over a set period of time to answer challenging questions. The idea is that there is a conclusive decision made by the end of the session. They found this very helpful for moving forward. It’s an idea I think would be really interesting to explore as a conference session at the ACA next year in Vancouver. I would encourage people to think about whether there is a question that could be answered or a small problem that could be solved in a short sprint session at a conference with a small group of people.

In the afternoon, I chaired a session all about collaboration with several archivists from the University of Toronto (James Roussain, Jessica Barr, Tanis Franco, and Daniela Ansovini). It was an interesting session as it was designed to be a discussion with specific questions posed to the audience. I was pleased that the attendees embraced the format and there was an interesting discussion about how we can better work outside of our silos and validate our decisions when we work alone. The group discussed the possibilities of sharing documentation so that institutions are transparent about their decision-making. The presenters explained how useful the University of Toronto Archivists Group was to the development and launch of the UofT AtoM instance that covers 11 separate institutions.

My day had a very pleasant ending as I shared a Pimms and some delicious food with the folks from Artefactual Systems at their (now becoming annual) meetup. This year’s batch of stickers was a big hit. How do they come up with all these great puns?!

Highlights – Day Three

I really enjoyed the opening plenary for Day Three, which included discussion of community-driven archives. The highlight for me was Elizabeth Mudenyo (Regent Park Film Festival) who introduced us to the Home Made Visible project. The project encouraged members of visible minority and indigenous communities to submit home movie footage that would be digitized for free. Often what is preserved about these groups relates only to oppression and hardship and the project sought to show a different side of life – one of family, of togetherness, and of joy. To date, the project has amassed more than 200 tapes/reels from 37 participants from across Canada. York University will be the home for the archives of this project going forward and phase two of the project will include artist commissions that reflect on how these movies can expose wider audiences to thinking about archives and will look at how traditionally marginalized communities can participate in archives.

Later in the morning, I was in good company in my session with 9 other presenters in the only-slightly chaotic Lightning Round session. I highlighted the Lower Mainland Municipal Archivists Forum – a group I formed in 2016 to create an opportunity for municipal archivists to ask questions, share best practices, and find potential areas of collaboration. Once again, I really enjoyed the experience of presenting to my peers and getting their feedback on how we can all work more collaboratively.

The final session of Day Three had us looking back to look forward. Cathy Bailey (LAC) took us down memory lane to early explorations of the preservation of electronic records at the then National Archives. A select committee was formed on e-records in the early 1990s to gather evidence of what was happening in the community. This was an interesting way to set the groundwork for the follow-up presentation by Emily Sommers (UofT) who talked about the efforts today to solve the digital puzzle. It was interesting to think about how long the community has been struggling with this wicked problem and just how far we have actually come. What I found most valuable about Emily’s presentation was her questions to ask when considering the acquisition of digital records. It is important (just as with analog collections) to ask some questions to understand the context of the records you are acquiring. I thought it would be valuable to share her questions:

  1. Do you separate your personal files from your work files?
  2. What type of digital files are created?
  3. Are certain files in both paper and digital form?
  4. How are your digital files organized?
  5. Do you use more than one computer?
  6. What media are used to back up files?
  7. Do any digital files require passwords?

Emily also recommended an article that I think would be useful for all of us who are tackling the digital in our institutions: “How to Talk to IT about Digital Preservation” by Scott Prater, Journal of Archival Organization (2018). I am going to be sure to check this one out!

As I mentioned in my introduction, the conference closed with some observations from Chief R. Stacey Laforme. He was lighthearted and jovial but imparted important messages, not least that it is time that archivists “spiced up our image.” As a member of the Awareness Strategy Task Force, I take this message to heart and I hope that we can find ways of doing just that. He also encouraged us to work with Indigenous organizations to understand the significance of cultural objects and oral histories and make the links to indigenous researchers more direct. He explained that it is not enough to teach knowledge – we have to teach consciousness. We all have things to fight and things to fix and we need to be doing it together with good intentions and open hearts. Many thanks to Chief Laforme for his inspiring words.

And then of course…we danced!

And dance we did…until 1 am. I don’t think the DJ expected that much enthusiasm from a room full of archivists, but I believe he was impressed. We did the Time Warp, stayed at the YMCA, Shook it Off, and Blistered in the Sun. Twas a good night.

Roll on ACA 2020 Vancouver!

I have the honour of being the Chair of the Programme Committee for next year’s ACA Conference at the University of British Columbia on Canada’s stunning west coast. My adopted home will be the center of attention when the archival community joins us in Vancouver next year. The theme of the conference is: Vision 20/20: Seeing Archives Differently. I hope this theme will inspire the archival community to be radical and think big! Stay tuned for the Call for Submissions in the weeks to come and please consider submitting a proposal. I would encourage people to get creative – let’s shake up the traditional conference format.

Until next year…

Cover Photo

King Street East: south side, looking west
[1856 or 1857]
City of Toronto Archives
Fonds 1498, Item 1


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