Trust, Access, Engagement and Balance

Reflections on the Archive
By Melanie Hardbattle
Sohan Lal Portrait

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1.0 Archives have become very "sexy" in the cultural world over the last two decades. Why do you think that is? Assuming we can even agree on what an archive is, why have they entered the centre of the art world of late?

When I started out in the Master of Archival Studies program in 1998, probably about 9 out of 10 people I spoke with had no idea what an archivist was. Most people assumed I was going to school to "dig up old bones". Now, I would say about two thirds of the people that I speak with know what archives are, and that is exciting. In my opinion, the major factor accounting for this shift in the past twenty years is the growth of technology and social media. Digitization has enabled us to put interesting material out there for people to access freely from anywhere in the world and social media—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, blog posts—has facilitated the public's engagement with these items and inspired creative new representations, interpretations and works based on archival photographs, documents, sound recordings, etc. that would not have been possible previously.

2.0 In your practice/projects, give an example, or two, of how you have engaged the archive?

In my work as a professional archivist for the past two decades, I have had the great fortune to engage with archives of all types daily. To cite a specific example, I am very honored to have served as part of the team that developed the Simon Fraser University Library's Komagata Maru: Continuing the Journey website in 2012 and subsequent projects building on the initial archive. The project brought together records relating to the Komagata Maru episode and South Asian Canadian history in general from institutions, associations, individuals and families from across Canada and internationally and made them freely accessible and searchable online. The material was made accessible by format and theme, as well as through an interactive passenger list and timeline and learning modules. Contextual information was provided via video interviews with community members and scholars. The goal of the website was to facilitate community, student, and scholarly engagement with the archives and to provide opportunities for education and new scholarship. The project enabled us to collaborate and engage with the local South Asian Canadian community and to digitize private records that had never been available for general research; this was significant in providing the community’s own perspective on its history and this event which still has resonance today.

Sikh Procession

We need to get the stories out there so that teachers, students, scholars and the public in general can draw on a balanced historical record.

3.0 In dealing with archives, what are two or three key things which you have learnt?

1) Over my career as an archivist, I have learned that we engage with people as much as we do with records. Trust and respect are key when working with donors. The relationship does not end once the material is donated, so it is very important to build open and strong relationships from the beginning.

2) Access and engagement are extremely important to ensuring that the institutions or groups that maintain archives receive the support that they require, and that archival material is utilized for education and scholarship. Digitization, outreach and promotion are tremendously powerful tools in terms of building community support and creating awareness of holdings. There is little point in acquiring and preserving amazing records if no one knows that you have them!

3) My own personal research interests have shifted very much towards ensuring that the documentary record that is preserved is as balanced as possible. I have come to realize the extent to which many groups were excluded over the years and archivists really need to focus their attention on correcting this imbalance, either by proactively acquiring the records of groups that have been traditionally under-represented or assisting these groups to maintain their own historical record.

Native Fisheries

4.0 With respect to South Asian archives, what is you sense of the interface between community-based archives and academic archives? What are the challenges in creating bridges between both?

As part of the initial Citizenship and Immigration Canada grant that we received for the Komagata Maru: Continuing the Journey project and later, during the 2014 commemoration events, the Library partnered with several community groups, such as the Khalsa Diwan Society, which maintains its own archives and museum. The experience was extremely beneficial from our point of view.

In general, my feeling is that community-based archives often have the connections with and the implicit trust of potential donors, which may take much longer for larger, academic archives to build. Since it is their own community's history that they are preserving, community-based archives and their staff tend to have a deep knowledge of and very close ties to the material with which they are working.

On the other hand (realizing that I am generalizing), archives in academic institutions are more likely to have stability in terms of financial and staffing resources. They are also more likely to have highly trained full-time staff to work with the collections and to have access to more funding and equipment for digitization and other special projects, as well as a purpose-built physical location for storing the material. In some instances, in which a community may be split or divided on certain issues, and academic archives may be viewed as more impartial and neutral, causing less concerns with regards to accessing material. I think that collaboration between community and academic archives is desirable and advantageous for both parties. For example, larger institutions can provide support by signing on to grant proposals or providing technical training or expertise if necessary, and they can benefit from the passion and the profound knowledge of the community held by community-based archives. The challenge is to establish strong communication with each other and to discover how best to complement each other’s activities so that you are building a stronger network together.

5.0 If there was one (or two things) you could say about where energy and funding needs to be focussed over the next 5-10 years in South Asian archives (within the geographies in which you are engaged: Canada and USA), what would they be?

Funding should be focused on preservation and access, whether it be community- or institution-based. We need to ensure that these archives are going to be available to support scholarship and education far into the future, and we need to correct the imbalance of archival sources that existed for so many years. We need to get the stories out there so that teachers, students, scholars and the public in general can draw on a much more balanced historical record. The Komagata Maru: Continuing the Journey website receives approximately 100,000 visits per year and it is accessed by individuals from all over the world. It isn’t just a South Asian story, or even a Canadian story, but one that speaks to global issues of migration, multiculturalism and social justice.

Melanie Hardbattle
Melanie Hardbattle is an Archivist with Simon Fraser University Library, Special Collections. She has been instrumental in the Rungh archive being digitized in the Simon Fraser University Digitized Collections.
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