ARCHIVE MATTERS: Archives in a Digital World

by Angie Bain, Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, Lower Nicola Indian Band 

In our fast-paced world where we look to technology to streamline the research process, visiting your local archives still pays off.  Archival repositories are investing time and resources into digitizing portions of their collections.  This effort makes it easier for those who cannot visit in person.  In some cases, digitization helps introduce researchers to records that they have not seen before.  Experienced researchers may gain easier access to records that they frequently consult.  Fragile items, once digitized, can be handled less frequently while still allowing the research community access to the records.  Digitization has some obvious benefits.  Not so obvious to the casual researcher are the costs associated with the digitization and the impact it is having on the research community.

The ease of access to certain records that digitization allows, can negatively impact access to original archival records.  This can come about in two ways.  The first is when records are withdrawn from circulation once digitized, or new access restrictions placed on the records for conservation purposes after digitization.  Whatever the situation, the end result is that the research community can lose access to original archival materials.  This has proven to be a problem when the digital records don’t meet the needs of the researcher.  Sometimes, the quality of the scan is too poor.  Sometimes the record was scanned in black and white, but the researcher needs access to the colour version.  Sometimes the researcher needs to view the original document to confirm contents.

The second impact that ease of access can create is less tangible.  Digitization and ease of access create the expectation that accessing archival documents should be easy.  When a search of digital collections or digitized finding aids is complete, inexperienced researchers may feel that their research is complete.  When we rely on digital records, often over looked are the records that cannot be digitized due to the nature of their contents or their physical condition or size.  Records subject to Access to Information or Freedom of Information privacy restrictions are generally not available, or at least, not easily located when researchers rely too heavily of digital records and tools.  The value of ATIP and FOI requests is perhaps best saved for another blog post, but I would hazard to suggest that if you have not at least considered records available through these processes, you may be overlooking some significant records relevant to your research.  Ease of access to digital records can create an aversion to invest the time and resources to identify, locate and access records that are not easily found or accessible.  

Digitization of archival records needs to be about more than simply scanning documents and making them available to the research community.  The real value of an archives, something that digitization can never replace, is the work that is done behind the scenes to obtain, describe, care for, store and understand the records.  Archival descriptions, finding aids and catalogues will always be critical to getting documents into the hands of researchers.  When time and resources are taken away from these tasks to simply digitize the records, there is little real value added beyond the digital product.  Context and description of the records are often needed before they are appreciated and understood.  Researchers, visiting repositories and interacting with archivists in person benefit from the expertise and knowledge that goes beyond existing finding aids and catalogues.  This interaction is critical both to the research community and archives.  It was important in the past, and arguably may be considered even more important today.  To remain relevant and responsive to the needs of their users, archives need this interaction.  To navigate and understand the nature and extent of archival collections, researchers need to continue to interact with archivists.  Digitization must not take this relationship out of the equation.

A final point to consider is that our enthusiasm for digital records often results in researchers overlooking records from repositories and archives that have yet to join the digital wave.  Many small and specialized archives hold records that are underutilized simply because they are not well known outside of a select group of users.  A new addition to this blog will be highlighting records that might be considered to be hidden gems, or more aptly put, records that may be undervalued because the records, or the finding aids and archival descriptions, are not readily accessible in a digital world.  Your comments and recommendations are welcome!

This month, the hidden gem that I have recently rediscovered is the Pacific Salmon Commission Archives (www.psc.org).  The Pacific Salmon Commission was formed in 1985 by Canada and the United States to implement the Pacific Salmon Treaty.  The archives is located in Vancouver, B.C.  Appointments are needed to access the archives and contact information is available on their website.  While my research is still in process, and I have many records still to discover, what I have found here has been particularly useful for anyone interested in fishing and early fisheries in British Columbia, including First Nations traditional and historic fisheries along the major river systems in the province.  Indian Fishery reports, notes, files and statistics are detailed and descriptive allowing one to get a comprehensive understanding of First Nations fisheries.  Reports often contain unique maps and historic photos.  A useful document, “Early Indian Fishery, 1811-1906” (2550.2-8) contains notes and extracts from many early historic reports and publications about fishing and fisheries.  These typewritten extracts are easy to read and can lead to further avenues of research.  A box entitled “Indian Cards” contains cards with names, fishing locations, gear and catch results.  These records may be of interest to communities and families that still fish the rivers and streams.  Other records I have consulted in the past were particularly helpful in understanding how the fish tagging system evolved into a type of currency and exchange.  If you find yourself in Vancouver, and have an interest in fisheries, I encourage you to get in touch with the Pacific Salmon Commission.

Add new comment