Five reasons why Canadians should save the archives

Damn the Man, save the archives: Shannon Hodge
Photo by Jason Hughes

When I was in university, I spent three summers in a row reading every single article published between 1952 and 1977 in The Georgian, a former student newspaper and one of two predecessors to Concordia University’s The Link. Enthralling, it was not — but I sure did learn a whole hell of a lot about Montreal during a, and arguably the most, critical time in its recent history. I also learned I could never truly have the patience to be an archivist.

Learning about — and from — the past is kind of the point of archives, isn’t it?

Yet recent and crippling budget cuts to archives across Canada are eroding our collective history and institutional memory. Sadly, those are the very same things needed to keep current and future governments in check.

Shannon Hodge, the director of archives for the Jewish Public Library, has some choice words for those responsible for the cuts, namely Stephen Harper’s Conservatives — in fact, some of those words are below as she enumerates just five of many reasons why Canadians should care about the budget cuts to Canadian archives.

So if you really want to damn the Man, save the archives.

—Tracey Lindeman


1. We keep track of the Man. One of the primary roles of Library and Archives Canada (LAC), as well as provincial, territorial and municipal government archives, is to ensure the transparency and accountability of our elected officials and their decisions. Under the Library and Archives Canada Act, government departments, with certain exceptions, aren’t allowed to destroy or dispose of documents or files without the consent of the Librarian and Archivist of Canada. To truly know how important archives are, just check in with any First Nations’ land claim case or Japanese Canadian World War II internees and ask them. It doesn’t matter who we elect, good intentions or no, archives are an integral part of the checks and balances required for peace, order and good government.

2. Preserving and promoting your community. Community archives in Canada support a myriad of ethnic, linguistic, social, minority and sometimes disadvantaged groups of people. The recent cuts to Library and Archives Canada terminated the National Archival Development Program (NADP) along with reducing staff and services at LAC. The NADP cost only $1.7 million, but grants from the program helped a huge number of community archives across Canada make thousands of documents, photographs, artifacts and stories accessible through digitization, exhibits and other projects. This accessibility and outreach is important because it opens these small community archives to new audiences. Using archives to educate people about our diverse communities makes for a more informed and understanding citizenry. When it comes down to it, the NADP cuts are yet another example of how access to information and knowledge is being severely undervalued in Canada right now.

3. Have an issue? Would you like to know more? Uncomfortable about the reopening of the Jeffrey Mine? Looking for statistics and the reality of crime in Canada? Trying to renovate an historic building? Get thee to an archive! Archives aren’t just for historians studying the lives of old politicians — archivists assist a variety of researchers looking for answers to issues that affect you every day. Even in my small community archive, we are visited by students age 12 and up, architects, social workers, musicians, hairdressers, authors, poets, doctors, lawyers, teachers, religious leaders, politicians, journalists, filmmakers and more.

4. William Wallace didn’t have a love affair with Princess Isabella, or truth bombs. Speaking of filmmakers, are you the type of person who cringes at historical or social inaccuracies in films or books? I understand sometimes the story needs a little artistic license, but there are limits. Mel Gibson, I’m talking to you. Archives are goldmines for filmmakers, playwrights and authors. We provide the documentary and photographic sources that describe the past in layers and give it context. Archives are a smorgasbord of historical, cultural and artistic inspiration for the literary, film and art communities.

5. Genealogy for everyone! Aren’t you just a bit curious about your ancestors? Knowing where your family comes from and even checking out the DNA that’s been passed down along the way is always fascinating. Archives are a vital source for most people researching their family’s background. I mean, Web sources like wouldn’t even exist if not for archives.

Archives may preserve, the past but we’re constantly focused on the future. How do we protect material and information today for the people of tomorrow? Without the proper care and funding of archives, large parts of our personal and political histories won’t exist for our future generations. ■

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