Friday 18 June 2010

The Association of Canadian Archivists Conference: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

I’m just back from the Association of Canadian Archivists annual conference. This year it was held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the weather was unusually good and the bagpipes and kilts reminded us of home. Highlights included an interesting programme, a gate crashing dancer at the Gala dinner and the East vs West softball game where the East staged a dramatic comeback to win in the final innings.

All the sessions were worth attending and the keynotes in particular were thought provoking. Brien Brothman, for example, talked about his current research and deliberations on 5 particular areas. These were concepts that he felt were significant in 2010 and what interested him was their impact on archives and the archival profession:

1 - The idea of ‘space’ and how space and locality are imagined and realised

2 - The role of ‘windows’ and the ramifications of the meanings of the word

3 - The sensory experience of archives, the impact of the digital world and how this will change the experience of users and views of records and the past

4 - The use of screens, in particular the use of big screens and what impact this might have

5 - The concept of containers.

Brothman discussed the concept of crisis and in particular whether this is a new phenomenon or if it is ongoing. He pointed to writers in the 1920s who argued that they were faced with fundamental change as a result of new technologies. Even the concept of being online is not new – electricity has been connecting homes since the late 19th century. Brothman argued that we should be continuously questioning the impact of what we see as new in 2010, while remembering the broader context of change.

The theme of the conference was ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’. Terry Cook was the final keynote and looked at ‘giants’ in the Canadian profession past, present and future. In an entertaining talk he argued that we should have a ‘big tent’ approach to archives. We should recognise our differences and acknowledge that we may all be wrong, and or all be right. He predicted that the profession will become less monolithic, that there will be several theories to support it and more partnerships. He emphasised the importance of diversity within the profession.

Cook looked back to archival giants in Canada including W. Kaye Lamb whom he credited with the reinvention of the profession. His contributions included the recognition of the importance of records management, the emphasis on historical governmental records, and the beginnings of the concept of total archives.

Hugh Taylor, according to Cook, was a bridge between the old and the new generation of archivists. Reflecting on his own generation Cook listed 10 achievements which he felt were significant: the creation of ACA; the development of archival education; the national network of archives in Canada; descriptive standards; appraisal theories and methodologies; defining and producing guidelines for digital materials and the role of diplomatics; public policy engagement - archivists as activists; aggressive public programming (outreach); recognising the importance of the history of the profession; and the postmodern archive, taking theories and applying them to archival processes.

Finally Cook left us with the thought that while we have been very good at thinking about the politics of archives, we must not forget the poetry, we need to embrace the archival imagination and view archives as joy.

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