Archives, Canada history, Historical documents, Historical research, Historiography, military history, Record keeping, Remembrance Day, social history, Women, women's history

Trying to study war no more

chessmen

 

Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One – the so-called war to end all wars. A senseless slaughter of young men on both sides, sent to fight from muddy, disease-ridden trenches, and told to wipe the memory from their minds after peace was declared and move on.

Yet the physical and emotional trauma those soldiers suffered followed them home after the armistice.  Many ended up in insane asylums or became burdens to their families for the rest of their lives, shunted off to a back room in the family home plagued by nightmares or strange mutterings, or drunkenness.  Even those who seemed to be doing alright walked the streets at night, unable to sleep because of their nightmares.

Broken lives. What we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But those soldiers were told basically, to suck it up and forget their experience of war, and move on.

When I worked at the City of Vancouver archives, I got researchers looking into all kinds of things. Military units and people prominent in the armed forces. Evidence of women’s political groups or agencies or information about those working for suffrage, women’s rights, and equal pay.

And though there were a few documents scattered throughout the collection documenting  the issues or the people working for political and social justice, there were plenty of documents about the military and their people.

I encouraged those who wanted to unearth records about progressive history to look at what we had and try to read between the lines as to what wasn’t there or what was on the other side of the mirror. But that kind of research is harder and takes longer to do.

And often, these researchers were so discouraged by the lack of information about progressive movements that they resorted to the easy-pickings; the men, military, and marine records that have traditionally been abundant in archives. And the result?

The war records get used and studied and written about again and again.

And the documents kept coming in. Old women came to the archives from time to time, proudly carrying their brothers’ or father’s, or uncle’s, or husband’s personal records or war mementos, and offering them to our collection.

Yet they seldom brought in anything that would memorialize their own life’s work or passions. And when I’d ask them, they’d became self-deprecating, shake their heads and deny that they had ever done anything of lasting value.

Generally it takes a certain kind person or a certain kind of organization that, dare I say, has enough of an ego to think their actions and the documents that record them have historical value and relevance. And then think about bringing them into an archive to be preserved and made available to future historians.

Altogether, this makes it easy to see why many archival records are of a conservative nature. They’re more accessible, follow a familiar and logical organizational scheme, and pertain to institutions, organizations, and people who have access to funds and political power.

And that makes them easier to access and get funding to research and commemorate as well.

It’s a bit of a vicious circle.

 

 

 

Administrative records, Archives, Historical documents, Historical research, Record keeping, Research

How archival documents are organized

One of the biggest challenges inherent in archival historical research is figuring out how records or documents are organized.

Sometimes you have to backtrack to find a permit or registration number from one set of records to get into another set of records to find the information you’re really interested in.

A cardinal rule of archival arrangement is that records are kept in the order in which they were created. That’s because documents found next to one another can give clues about  the way different records were created or used, and about the reality of life at the time. It also explains the rationale for some of the custodial work of archivists and the instructions you are often given to use a set of documents. It’s essential they remain in the order in which they were found – or given to you to use.

archive image
some archival documents are hand-written in an old style which adds to the challenge of reading them

It’s part of what makes archival research challenging but, in my opinion, also interesting because it gives a portal into the thinking of a past era.

While doing your research, it may not be apparent how a set of files or documents are arranged.  This might be explained in material accompanying a set of documents, probably written by the archivist who processed the records.

But in many cases – mostly to do with time and budgetary priorities – you’ll be on your own to work out the system in which the records have been arranged. You’ll have to look at them with a critical eye to figure out the system that exists, so you can use the records most effectively.

Think of it as an adventure! Because otherwise you could become very frustrated.

Administrative records, Archives, Historical documents, Historical research, Library, Record keeping, Records management, Research, Vancouver history

Archival records weren’t created for future researchers

archive image
some archival documents are hand-written in an old style which adds to the challenge of reading them

 

An archives is, often and strictly speaking the records created in the course of the daily work of a business, society, church, club, or government agency or department. 

These records include documents such as letters (correspondence), minutes of meetings, work-flow documents, registrations forms, records of employment. cemetery registries – all that kind of stuff.  

They are the tracking, book-keeping, and monitoring documents created by, for example finance department could  know who to send the property tax assessment to. Or so that plots in different parts of the cemetery were assigned to the next person to be buried there. Or so that the health inspector knew who the owner was if  a customer complained about the cleanliness of a restaurant.
The department or organization that created these records probably had no thought to researchers of the far future who might use them as a means of tracking down relatives,  figuring out the comparative value of land over time, or compiling stats on tuberculosis deaths in a given year. 

They collected information and instructed their staff to manage it based on what that administrative department found most useful or pertinent at the time and for the purpose the records were intended.

They would have been compiled in a way that made sense at the time based on their needs and uses, something that may be unclear or even illogical to a present-day historical researcher.

Documents could have been organized according to address, legal address, or name of an applicant. They could be in chronological order based on the date someone applied for a building permit. Or they might be arranged in some combination of these.

More next Saturday.

 

 

 

 

Administrative records, Archives, British Columbia history, Canada history, Historical documents, Historical research, Record keeping, Research, Vancouver history

Archival research – where to start?

directions

 

If you realize you’re at a point in your research that you need to use an archive the first thing you need to do is figure out which, if any archive, will hold the records you need.

Because archival collections are, strictly speaking, collections of one-of-a-kind, original documents (artefacts), it follows that they’ll only be found in one place (with a few exceptions of copied artefacts).

This post is the first one to help you figure out which archive to go to for your research,  starting with an overview of areas of responsibility between municipal, provincial, and federal jurisdictions in Canada. And since I’m most familiar with the archives in my home-town of Vancouver and my province of British Columbia (BC), I’ll be using many examples from these repositories.

I’ll try to make this as simple as I can 🙂

startledcat
Hang on – this stuff gets dense!

 

The majority of archives fall under the jurisdiction of some level of government – whether municipal, provincial, federal in Canada – or some other division of power in the country whose records you are seeking.

You’ll need to know which level of government is responsible for what in order to know which archive will hold the records you want to look at. 

For example, you’ll find the administrative documents that were used to run the various departments of the Vancouver’s city government from the date of incorporation (April 6, 1886) at the city of Vancouver archives. 

These will include records created by the city’s departments, committees, and councils including police, fire, planning, engineering, parks, city manager, etc.

At provincial-level archives you will find administrative documents that were used to run all the various councils, committees, and departments of the provincial government from the date of formation of that province.

In British Columbia the provincial archives is now officially called the British Columbia Archives and Records Service (BCCARS) .  

The records at BCCARS includes those created by departments that have carried out responsibilities that fall under BC provincial jurisdiction, as determined, with some exceptions, by federal law.

In a nutshell, here are the areas of responsibility of provincial governments in Canada. Bear in mind that division of responsibility have changed over time so you may need to do some preliminary research to ensure you are looking in the right archive for the time-period you are researching.

But here they are, currently;  with some exceptions depending on the jurisdiction (particularly Quebec)

  • internal constitution
  • taxation for provincial purposes
  • municipalities (in BC, Vancouver is its own legislative entity called the Vancouver Charter). Other municipalities in the province have their powers and responsibilities but these are legislated under the BC Municipal Act.
  • school boards
  • Hospitals
  • property and civil rights (their largest area of responsibility)
  • administration of civil and criminal justice
  • penalties for infraction of provincial statutes
  • Prisons
  • celebration of marriage, provincial civil service (aka vital stats)
  • local works and corporations with provincial objectives

For federal government records, on the other hand, you will need to consult with the National  Archives of Canada (officially called Library and Archives Canada) to find records that fall under Federal jurisdiction.

Here are the general areas that the Canadian federal government is currently responsible for:

  •  trade and commerce
  • direct and indirect taxation
  • currency
  • the postal service
  • census taking and statistics
  • national defence
  • the federal civil service
  • navigation
  • fisheries
  • banking
  • copyright
  • Aboriginals and Indian reserves
  • naturalization
  • marriage and divorce
  • criminal law
  • penitentiaries
  • interprovincial works and undertakings.

 

If you (brave researcher) want to delve further into this, here is the link to an article from the Canadian Encyclopedia about the division of power between the Canadian federal government and the provinces.

For countries other than Canada – comparable divisions apply but you will have to determine that from your own governmental websites.

Enough for now?

 

 

 

Administrative records, Archives, Historical documents, Historical research, Library, Record keeping, Records management, Research

An Archive is not a Library

library

Ok – so you’re doing historical research on an issue, person, building, or place and realize you need more specific or unique information than you’ve been able to find in books and on the internet.  

It’s probably time to find out if there’s something in an archival collection that would help.

But what the heck is an archive?

The Oxford English dictionary defines an archive(s) as:

1) A noun

“A collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people”

and

2) A  verb “To place or store in an archive”

Archives used to have a very specific meaning – though still obscure and  unfamiliar to most people – and referred to a physical place where original one-of-a-kind physical documents were kept.

But in the past 20 years or so, the term has become muddied because old or obsolete electronic documents are now frequently found within an archives section of webpages, databases, and other digital sites and can refer to  past issues of newsletters and magazines, old or historical emails, databases, websites, and other digital material.

This post, however, is about original kind of archive – the physical place where original (mostly paper) documents are kept. 

Of course the definition of an archive doesn’t necessarily make it easier to understand so I’m going to make a few comparisons with libraries that I think will help make it more clear.

A library is something that most of us are familiar with and have been going to since we were kids – a place to get information about something we’re curious about or need to research. But that’s about where the similarity with archives ends.

A library contains mostly books that have been published which means that there are probably thousands of copies of most books available throughout the world.

You can go to a local library and find the kind of books you want by looking up the author, title, subject, keyword in the online catalogue, or by browsing the shelves within the non-fiction part of the library where other books on a related subject are shelved using some kind of classification scheme. 

You can usually go right over to the shelves and help yourself to the books you’re interested in. You can take as many as you can carry to a table to look at at one time. And you can take most if not all of them home to borrow for a few weeks.

And there isn’t generally a problem with keeping your purse or bag or backpack with you in the library or with using a pen to take notes.

But mostly, you cannot do any of these things in archives.

So now that you have an idea about what an archives isn’t, I’ll delve into more into that in the weeks to come.