EOC Report: Debating the Current State of the Profession

18 Oct 2010 10:46 PM | Danielle Robichaud

On October 23, archivists from across the National Capital Region and Canada gathered in Ottawa to discuss the current state of our profession. Despite what appeared to be an inauspicious start to the dayundefinedour intended venue (the main Library and Archives Canada building) closed suddenly due to a misadventure with the heating systemundefinedabout thirty hardy souls turned out to discuss what it means to be an archivist in Canada today. Not only was the Eastern Ontario Chapter of the AAO pleased to welcome the participation of l’Association des archivistes du Québec (AAQ)undefinedRégion Ouest, but we were also fortunate enough to welcome colleagues from farther afield due to the coincidental CCA Annual General Meeting.

The evening kicked off with our four panelists, representing various perspectives in the profession. Anne LeClair is an archivist at the University of Ottawa, and the current president of the Western chapter of the AAQ. Her talk was also informed by her previous experiences as the archives advisor in New Brunswick. Karine Burger is a recent graduate of the joint Library and Archival Studies program at UBC, and a fresh recruit at Library and Archives Canada, where she works in the Digital Office of the Government Records Branch. The third speaker, Shane McCord, is also a recent graduate of SLAIS and has just completed an internship at the archives of the National Gallery of Canada. Finally, the panel was moderated by Andrew Horrall, presently a manager in the Government Records Branch at LAC, where he has recently returned after serving several years as the archivist at NATO. As such, the panel sought to provide a cross-section of perspectivesundefinednot only pertaining to education and training, but also with respect to recruiting and employee retention, and the longer term trials and tribulations of rationalization and program review.

Anne launched the discussion by underscoring the importance of the archivist’s role as lobbyist. Particularly in these leaner, meaner times, we need to accept that that resources will always fall short of need (indeed, haven’t they always?), and that it is not just our job but our responsibility to continually articulate the scope of the need to those holding the purse strings. After all, if not us, then who? We may daydream about broad, popular recognition of and support for the importance of archives, but this is unlikely to become a reality.

In extension of Anne’s discussion, Karine and Shane both considered the degree to which current archival studies programs prepare students for a career as an archivist, and touched on a couple of specific challenges that we currently face. Karine focused on her role as a ‘digital archivist’, and asked some probing questions about the adequacy of the status quo in equipping us to deal with the digital realities of today. Given that most records are now born digital (even if they are not managed and transferred in digital form), do we have what we need to carry out our professional responsibilities conscientiously? While the fundamental nature of archival work may not have been compromised by the digital age, it cannot be denied that inherent in the reality of this new world is the need for ongoing and proactive professional development that is very different from its analog counterpart. But who is responsible for creating and making accessible such opportunities? Can the individual or the employer realistically be expected to understand the parameters of a constantly changing (and increasingly sophisticated) skill set, and, moreover, to find opportunities for the necessary (and highly specialized) training? It is evident that we should act nowundefinedand continuallyundefinedin order to ensure preservation of new forms of information; at the same time, it is equally evident that discerning how to do this is (and will continue to be) complex and difficult. As a profession, we must take collective responsibility for this challenge.

Shane recounted his memories of being a fresh-faced student starting in an archival studies program, and pondered the personal and professional repercussions of the divisions in archival theory and education across the country. Indeed, he and Karine both wondered aloud about the identity of the archivist in Canada: are we primarily historians or other subject matter experts? Or are we formally trained archivists for whom a specific and defined skill set (learned, one presumes, within the bounds of a graduate degree program) is paramount? Who decides this, and how do hiring practices and asymmetrical power dynamics (particularly amongst institutions) across the country influence this debate? Subsequent discussion with the audience revealed no strong opinions about this questionundefinedwe generally agreed that effective and ongoing professional development is more important than strict entrance criteriaundefinedbut that may reflect, of course, the unique makeup of a predominantly National Capital Region group.

Shane also highlighted the utility of familiarity with librarianship, if only because many Canadian archives are actually managed by librarians; their professional perspective therefore has an impact on the realities of archival practice in this country. Indeed, the recurring comparison between archivists and librarians was considered by the group, particularly in terms of what we can learn from the accreditation framework of our sister profession. As Shane suggested, this might have the ancillary effect of mitigating the differences and/or competition between archival schools, and thereby strengthening the profession more generally.

It goes without saying that an hour and a bit on Friday evening allowed us to but scratch the surface of this topic. Indeed, one hopes that the greatest benefit of the session has been to contribute some momentum to a dialogue which we must sustain if we are to emerge as a robust and coherent profession in the twenty-first century. In particular, we should be aware that the important corollary to the question about how others view usundefined which seems to come up regularly enough in our professional communityundefinedis how we view ourselves. That is, not only how we view the community as a whole, but how we perceive and treat each other as individuals within that community. Is there consensus about the role of formal archival training, and do we have an effective forum for dialogue about this? Do we think there is a need for tighter regulation, or some type of audit of our professional identity? And how do we decide? In short, the theme chosen for the ACA conference in 2010 is both necessary and timely. In fact, let’s not wait until June; let’s start talking now.

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