Tic-toc. Tic-toc. The sounds of my grandfather’s Westminster clock as the hands chase each other through the day. When Curious Quarterly asked me to reflect on over thirty years of public service with the archival and heritage collections at the Royal BC Museum, I quietly drank my cold coffee to ponder the idea.
Four weeks into retirement and I can honestly say, in the administrative sense, nothing has changed! Resources, both financial and human, remain scarce and, in fact, reduced. After all, our society continues moving forward creating company records, personal records, school and university records, public service program services, etc. as our economy and culture advances into this 21st Century. After thirty years, we have begun to realize one must do “less with less!”
So, is that it? Two paragraphs!
No, thankfully. Over the past thirty years archives, libraries and museums have fundamentally changed. While they have always been open institutions, that is, the public has access to their holdings and records, the access has changed due to public pressure.
When I first started, young heritage and information professionals were university trained, with archivists being the last group to undergo post graduate training. We were trained in the concepts of preserving, researching, referencing, and documenting heritage collections. We learned the “professional” language we would use to manage the collections and interact with our clients and researchers – the language of the gate-keeper dedicated to watching over and governing access. Like our library users, archives and museum researchers needed to learn: a) the base principles of archiving (before it became the popular term for the technological process of backing-up computer data); b) the format of finding aids and reference room card format; and c) the professional words needed to convince archivists, in their gate keeping role, of a researcher’s sincerity, words such as provenance, description, and the most magic of all: replevin.
Access was open but not equal. Researchers who mastered the language and procedures of archives excelled in their projects. The information revolution changed all that and the world turned topsy turvy.
Information technologies have made our world, especially access to knowledge, broader and more equitable. Search engines and online encyclopedias provide reference points to all manner of information. Private web sites populate the Internet providing information and opinion on major topics as well as previously unheralded events with an abundance of material, e.g. photographs, audio visual and written documents for one to review and analyze.
Today, access is based on the use of common language with the hard-to-learn professional languages relegated to the management and administration of the heritage collections. The democratization of information access also illuminates one of the key objectives of Western archives, that is, archives are repositories where citizenry can hold its governments, politicians, and the Public Service accountable for their decisions, programs and services. Now archivists, curators and collection managers act as stewards to the collections, ensuring its heritage is safe and secure while ensuring a broad base of access.
The deposit of historical government archives, debates, decision making, and the implementation of such deposits are fundamental to a functional democracy and the citizens’ ability to critically review and analyze the workings of government. Today, this concept forms one the key concepts in the 21st Century mandate of the International Council of Archives and its member nations (Canada being one), the major advocacy and issue based organizations, and the politically themed groups within our democracy.
Now researchers can access materials online from secondary and primary institutions around the globe. Universities, governments at all levels, and researchers themselves are loading more and more material online for public use. One is no longer required to travel to Victoria to access information, except if the information is too fragile to copy or if one needs to examine the material more intensively: to observe the brush strokes of Emily Carr or focus on the minute background detail of a Hannah Maynard glass plate. It is not great for the hoteliers and restaurant owners in Victoria but it is wonderfully useful for anyone in the world seeking British Columbiana.
It is ironic that in a time where our fellow citizens demand more access, more accountability and a strong ethical basis from their governments and public servants, community archives and community museums, like their senior government counterparts, continue to suffer limited resources. Perhaps the celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday will spark a heritage renewal? Maybe the solemnity of the Great War’s centenary will rekindle a re-commitment to preserve and make accessible the records which document the terrible toll of modern warfare? But this is a topic for another day…
Looking back our archives and museums are more accessible and more democratic than they were thirty years ago. The women and men who steward the collections are better trained and far more aware of the need to broaden access to information. They remain as dedicated and caring as previous generations in protecting this most precious gift for the next generation.
Tic-toc. Tic-toc. A word of warning: time slips by so quietly in this digital age, no tic and no toc to measure the passage of the years. Thirty years and still so much to do.