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Brave new roles for archivists
Posted Tuesday, August 17, 2010 3:42 PM
U of M archival studies program
The image in most people’s minds when they think of archives is one of dusty files, alphabetization and ancient, yellowed books. But a picture of contemporary archives might surprise you. According to Tom Nesmith, a professor of history who directs the master’s program in archival studies at the U of M, today’s archives and archivists might be more accurately described as active, evolving constituents of and participants in the communities they serve.

Contemporary archivists are becoming more aware of how their decisions shape societal knowledge. They are knowledgeable about the history and development of — as well as the theoretical and practical implications for — archives and archiving. They may be as likely to use archiving and archival studies for human rights causes and in the fight for social justice.

In fact, it was an archivist who served as expert witness in two early legal cases of a major Canadian social justice issue: Willard Ireland was a B.C. provincial archivist when the first Aboriginal land claims were being taken to court, which led to the acknowledgment by the federal government that Aboriginal title did exist and eventually set the foundation for native self-government.

The legal cases are also the basis for thesis work by U of M archival studies master’s student Anne Lindsay, who is studying Aboriginal and indigenous people, social justice, human rights and how these relate to archives and archiving, in particular. Her research situates the cases in which Ireland served as witness “in the larger context of how archives have been useful to that pursuit [of social justice], and how [the relationship] is changing.”
“It gets more interesting the more you research,” she says.

“Archives are becoming more like partners; [for instance,] in increased dialogue with indigenous communities,” notes Lindsay. She says the trend is shaping the reformulation of both information and archives as “building of community capacity rather than simply being a resource for specific questions.”

Lindsay gives the example of the partnership between the Legacy of Hope Foundation and Library and Archives Canada (then the National Archives). “Where are the Children?” was a monumental exhibit organized by an Aboriginal curator who worked with National Archives and other organizations. According to the Legacy of Hope Foundation, the objective of the display and associated initiatives were “to promote awareness amongst the Canadian public about residential schools and to help them to understand the ripple effect of those schools […] and to bring about reconciliation.”

Another example she cites is project naming, in which Libraries and Archives Canada has invited indigenous people to add individual names to historical group photos, including Inuit and Aboriginal photos.

She says it’s all about rethinking the role that archives and archivists can actively take — and take on at a community or national level — rather than only case-by-case responses.

Archives support an academic function along with a whole host of other public uses, says Nesmith, who adds the examples of research into healthcare issues such as psychiatric disorders, skin cancer and Alzheimer’s, research of environmental conditions and a broad range of new cultural purposes. “Novelists, playwrights, poets, filmmakers, TV and radio broadcasters, artists, musicians are coming to archives now to do research,” he says.

The creation of the U of M archival studies program in 1991, he says, “reflected the need to educate archivists for the new roles they were beginning to play and new knowledge they needed, while continuing to draw on the historical knowledge they still required to fulfill those roles effectively.”

The program at U of M is unique in that respect, as the only one in Canada to offer a graduate degree for the completion of a curriculum in archival studies that is in a history department. Its positioning in history has fostered a research-oriented approach in a humanities context rather than one that’s primarily technical or administrative.

Nesmith indicates this as the program’s hallmark and a central reason its graduates have succeeded so well in the field. The U of M program requires the identification of a particular research problem followed by research, a thesis and a thesis defense.

The research orientation, according to Nesmith, has “paid off in spades, particularly for the current class, which is very strong.”

Four students in the 2009-2010 class of six have received accolades for their scholarship and have been awarded national funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). And as anyone who’s slogged through writing and putting together a research proposal knows, getting a SSHRC is no mean feat.

The program’s not necessarily well-known on campus, he says, in spite of the fact that he and adjunct professor Terry Cook, who taught part-time in the program from 1998 to 2010, have been invited as keynote speakers to conferences of academic and professional archivists around the world.

“I think we have a very exciting program here that has made the U of M known among archivists internationally for excellence in this field.”
For more information, contact:
Mariianne Mays Wiebe
Editor, The Bulletin
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