Monday, December 17, 2007

Lost in the Archives: Funding

Thanks to Ed for pointing out this CBC News article to his readers. The story is about the case of several hundred missing items from the Ontario Archives.

The CBC story focuses mainly on a final report written by Audior General Jim McCarter concerning the missing items and on the painter, A.J. Casson, whose prints have gone missing - or, as the auditor general concludes, were stolen while the works were being moved.

But Ed brings up a good point, one that is far too often overlooked. While the auditor general finds fault with the archives operations, I wonder if the auditor general examined the staffing situation or the funding in the Ontario Archives?

Not being familiar with the Ontario Archives, I cannot make any direct comments. However, I can state that most archives I have known are usually struggling with inadequate funding and staffing. Materials pile up, overwhelming the staff. It is so typical a story that whenever I hear it told, I cringe and laugh a disturbed-ready-for-the-loonie-bin laugh.

It is not uncommon to have an archives staffed by maybe 2-3 professional archivists assisted by support staff or students. Nor is it uncommon to have the archives department low on the budget list. But these realities contribute to the problem of missing, uncatalogued items. And let's be honest, they are not just missing items - they are lost history, pieces of the past taken away from the public's right to see and explore and experience.

These realities are rarely discussed. Rarely. Policitians are more than happy to talk about preserving the past and digitization projects, but rarely talk about the people behind the scenes. It is as though the work gets done magically, overnight, like those Elves in that Grimm Brothers' fairy tale.

What will it take to change the discourse? Shall we lose more stuff, shall we let more go uncatalogued until things reach epedemic levels. Sadly, it is usually at that stage when the powers that be take serious notice.

1 comment:

Carrie said...

Thanks for posting this, Dave. Working in an environment with 2-3 professional archivists plus support staff would be a dream for me right now. I have been out of (library) school less than 2 years and am the only archivist “working” at an archives. I say “working” because it has become more like coping.

Unfortunately, it has resulted in a very clear case of professional burn-out for me. I know that this is my first job out of school, and not all archives are as horrifying as the one I currently find myself trapped in, but I have found it extremely difficult to maintain any sort of perspective, to the point where I am planning for a career change. A job should not feel like a prison sentence – though I am counting down the weeks until my contract is done.

Your comparison to the elves that magically get things done is quite apt, and I have the distinct feeling that many archivists are treated similarly to creative people like artists and writers and musicians: well, you loooooove doing this work, so why should we pay you a decent wage, since it’s something you looooooove so much?

The thing is, there are many parts of this job that I don’t love. Though it is humbling to see/touch original documents that have shaped this country, I still have to get super-creative with the budget, deal with a high level of noise that has apparently shattered my nerves, and tell people there will be a six month wait before they will be able to get any results from their research. Because there is no time or resources available to catalogue and describe our collections, it can take hours to locate a very simple piece of information. And then I have to explain why I cannot “just” digitize all of this information. I also have to explain how working with all this “cool old stuff” is not actually “fun”, as apparently many people who come through my work space think I am having loads of “fun”.

I apologize for hijacking your comments area like this with my big long rant, but you have hit a nerve! I have spoken with my superiors (3 of them) and whenever I mention how overwhelmed I am feeling, I am asked when the next student intern will be in, or how many volunteers I have tried to get in here. Because we all know how easy it is to train students and volunteers. My favourites are the ones who question why only pencils are to be used around 200 year old documents.

about the author

I am an information professional, researcher, and writer with over eight years experience in the information services field with experience in information and communication technology.

I have a B.A. in History and a Master's in Library and Information Studies and working on a Web and Multimedia Design certificate.

I believe that empowering people with information can enrich lives and transform the world.