Monthly Archives: June 2012

Genealogists Lukewarm About The Work of Archives

What does it matter if the Federal Government has ended the National Archival Development Program?

From June 1st to 3rd, 2012  I was present at the Ontario Genealogical Society (OGS) Annual Conference in Kingston, Ontario.  I had the opportunity to talk to delegates “one-on-one” about the impact of the loss of the National Archival Development Program (NADP).  This was a program which funded a system of grants available to archives across Canada.

The National Archival Development Program cost the taxpayers $1.7 million annually, spread out over the provinces and territories.(1)

Genealogists are not the only beneficiaries of archives, but they are one of the more interesting client constituencies because they come from many walks of life and represent the “grassroots” of Canada.  Although they are on the whole knowledgable about Canadian history, nearly all genealogiests make their livelihood from another occupation and few have post secondary education in a heritage field.

Interviewed individually, genealogists offer different opinions from the cautiously supportive noises they make as a group.  I learned that genealogists are still not convinced that it takes any education or training to organize, protect and ultimately, digitize original archival materials.  “There are many of us in every community who would be willing to come to the archives and do the work for free,” said one fellow.  He was not alone in this opinion.  (His recent work consisted of indexing every surname in a collection, a helpful thing to do but thank goodness that the archivist had already determined who created the files and their purpose.) 

Genealogists also think that computerized systems can be trusted to digitize antique printing and hand-written (holograph) materials with useful results. “You just put a stack in the hopper and away it goes,” one woman told me. She had hands-on experience digitizing recent family papers resulting in a nice little product.  However, there are severe challenges to using optical character recognition and mechanized feeders on old records which vary in colour and size.  Moreover, she seemed oblivious to the confusing porridge of digital documents which results when there is no explanation or context. Images cannot be digitized without a retrieval system. Photographs do not identify themselves and even if there is someone to turn the item over and look for an inscription, that inscription can be completely wrong.

In the course of my chats I learned that Ian Wilson is quite right when he says that many genealogists think that firms like ancestry are actually doing all the work for the archive. This is not the case. “The Federal Government has got to cut back somewhere,” several people said. “We do not believe that this will have much of an impact on our access to the records, because there is always [ancestry / google etc. – fill in the blank].”

When I turned the conversation to the Canada Census, the feed-back was quite different and often emotional. Genealogists are very envious of the Americans (who will soon be able to see their 1940 census) and angry that Canadians must wait ninety-two years. Statistics Canada will be transferring the 1921 Canada Census to the National Library and Archives of Canada on June 1, 2013 and many genealogists believe that the Census will be available almost immediately. When I told them that the cutting of the National Archival Development Program was only a small part of a 9.6 million dollar hit being taken by the National Library and Archives of Canada, and that the cuts would result in loss of staff and equipment to digitize huge fonds like the Census, there was a strong reaction. However, the loss of similar resources for university, municipal and other smaller archives did not worry many OGS delegates much. Based on my conversations at the conference, I believe that archives cannot expect much more than a tepid response to the loss of National Archival Development Program, which is a sorry thing, seeing that genealogists, indeed all Canadians, have so much to loose.

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(1) The NADP funded the Canadian Council of Archives, which in turn administered a system of grants which increased and extended the work on documentary heritage collections across Canada. A new batch of grants was available each year and archives competed for funding to open those boxes languishing on back shelves, get the contents sorted, tidied and rehoused in appropriate containers, prepare descriptions of the contents and publicize what they found. More and more, the NADP grants were being used to hurry up digitization to increase access. The grants permitted hiring of extra staff for short periods to get the job done as well as the purchase of supplies and services from the private sector. For instance, the City of Vancouver Archives was able to clean a significant number of acetate negatives and place them in cold storage. The program also made a huge contribution to the training of young archivists by providing short-term employment in a professional setting for young graduates.

 

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