For my first post, I thought I would talk about international archives, primarily focusing on Canadian archives. Hopefully, this will provide some insight to those of you considering working in archives or special collections outside of the United States.
This past summer, I had the privilege of attending a two-week long study abroad program in Canada (specifically Ottawa and Montreal) hosted by the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. In this course, we focused on Canadian archival organization and description, while analyzing the differences between Canadian and American archival practice. In addition to attending lectures, we visited a number of archival institutions, ranging from governmental to academic to community-based archives. Among them, my personal favorites were the Library and Archives Canada, the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, the Jewish Public Library Archives, and the McGill University Archives.
One of the things that I found particularly endearing about Canadian archives is that they have a heavy focus on transparency and collaboration on all levels. This carries into the way archives interact with different departments, institutions, and even the public. Canadian archives also heavily enforce accountability and documentation of all decisions made regarding appraisal, and often go through several levels of approval to de-accession or destroy government materials. While it may seem excessive to have so many voices weighing in, doing so has allowed Canadian archival institutions to run more proficiently and leaves less room for error in deaccessioning materials. This management system came to light due to an incident in the 1980s, in which it was discovered that documents containing the names of Nazi war criminals living in Canada had been destroyed. This shocking discovery led to public outcry and demand for reform that helped shape Canadian archival management into what it is today.
In addition to management, Canadian archives also differ in the appraisal, arrangement, and description of their materials. With appraisal, they use a method known as macro-appraisal, in which the value of archival material is determined by the context of why and how the materials were created. This is in contrast to the approach taken in the United States, which emphasizes the content (and not context) of materials when determining value. In terms of arrangement, Canadian archives make a distinction between collections and fonds. Collections and fonds are on the same intellectual level, but whereas fonds indicate archival material that have been organically assembled, collections indicate materials that have been artificially assembled. Fonds are predominantly used in Canada, and archivists tend to opt for a more provenance-oriented arrangement method.
Something I was surprised to discover in talking with various Canadian archivists was that having a library science degree is not a strict requirement for becoming an archivist in Canada. Unlike in America, where having an archival educational background is highly valued in the field, many of the archivists I met had a variety of backgrounds, from history to political science. However, despite lacking a formal education in archival practice, all the archivists I met have been incredibly proactive and involved in the field. Their constant discussion with peers and the public has helped strengthen archival processes as well as representation and accessibility within institutions across Canada.
Of course, Canada and America have their similarities, particularly with regard to the issues that archives face presently and looking toward the future. One important issue surrounding all archives is subjectivity and inconsistencies with the organization of entire collections and subsequent description of materials. This is evidenced by differences found not just between institutions, but also between processing archivists. While archivists are tasked with providing unbiased representations of archival material, bias is inherent in the way archivists process materials. The lens through which an individual views archival material is unique, which can result in inadequate representation of a fond or collection’s subject matter. Accurate representation and loss of culture are big hurdles for archival institutions to overcome, particularly with materials related to marginalized communities. Additional universal issues in the field include community awareness, public outreach, lack of funding, and providing optimal reference knowledge to patrons.
I learned so much about Canadian archives in the short time that I was there. If you are interested in learning about the way international archives process and describe their materials, I would highly encourage you to take a study abroad course or get in touch with an archive that sparks your interest.
Rita Wang is currently in her second year of the MLIS program and is on SJSU SAASC’s web team for the 2017-2018 school year. Throughout her time in the program, Rita has had three internships in archives, with the first working as a student archivist at the SJSU Special Collections and Archives. There, she was introduced to archives and archival practice, which persuaded her to switch from a librarian concentration to an archival pathway. Rita has also worked as a surveying archivist intern for the Computer History Museum in San Jose. Currently she works as a processing archivist intern at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives, specializing in East Asian collections.