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Manitoba History: An Interview with Manitoba’s New Provincial Archivist, Mr. Peter Bower

by Sharon Babaian
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 4, 1982

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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Q. Why did you decide to pursue a career in archives? It is an unusual and often unknown career.

I was attending university as a history student and naturally got involved in some primary research which whetted my appetite for studying documents. After doing a number of history-related things and having done as much post-graduate work as I had wanted to do I drifted into archives and soon decided that it was one of the most important historical fields in which to be working. That was some seven or eight years ago now.

Peter Bower

Q. In a general sense why do you think archives is such an important field?

I think that archives are the most fundamental expression of our society. Archives touch all aspects, in fact, reflect all aspects of our society, from the most modest levels to the highest. With the development of the new social history, our efforts to provide a total mirror of Canada’s or Manitoba’s past is finally being more fully justified, if not realized and appreciated. In the Canadian tradition of the total archives concept, we try to preserve a selective documentary cross-section of society through time and space. Historical research is capable—if the record survives—of penetrating different aspects of society to provide textures of times and profiles of people. These research developments will bring history closer to and make it more easily appreciated by the average citizen.

Q. What are some of the more specific purposes of maintaining archives?

One of the very important reasons is that archives are, in effect, the primary guardian or keeper of the recorded social covenant that exists between those chosen to govern and those being governed. In our society the evidence of precedents, customs, and conventions are quite properly preserved in our archives. Mutual obligations, traditions and practices are fundamental to the healthy functioning of society, and archives have a vital role in a democratic society helping us to maintain them.

We also try to instill good record-keeping practices in jurisdictions such as governments and organizations to better ensure the protection of documents relating to individual citizens—ranging from pension eligibility and benefits to land titles. Through the protection of financial records of organizations, to take another example, we can provide the basis for determining and encouraging accountability by having the documents about how much money was spent for what purposes, and by whose authority. We also try to keep the evidence of how an organization works—we call these operational records—so that it can be seen how an agency or department or a business has tried to deliver whatever it is that it is supposed to be delivering. Operational records also allow the assessment of a given programme’s strengths and weaknesses, and this assessment might be used to adjust the programme in the future, or to apply any lessons learned to another field or operation. In addition, there are the obvious legislative areas of work. We try not only to document the impacts and results of statutory and other instruments that governments devise in the process of regulating society in response to people’s needs and wishes, but attempt also to preserve information about how statutes came to be formulated and what influenced the discrete components of statutes. These are a few of the many values that are not often considered when and if people think about archives. The more common perception focuses on archives’ roles in historical research in an academic or popular meaning.

There are other reasons why archives are very valuable. People, by and large, tend to neglect the fact that we are a source of important scientific information. Through records that have been carefully kept, researchers can determine quite accurately what happened under what conditions in the past, with present or future applications of the results in mind. To a certain extent, modern environmental research can be based on archival materials. We are encouraging this, and hope more will be done. Studies of arctic ice flow, for example, are very important to the development of oil and gas industries in the north. We have to know how the ice moves, why, when, and where. There is also my favourite example of climatological research. In this work the researchers—geographers, climatologists—are trying to identify major swings in climate based on documentary evidence. If we can determine the length and nature of a cycle, we might be able to anticipate periods of excessive dryness or wetness, hotness or coldness, and may be able to adjust patterns and types of cultivation. The implications of this work are obvious in this time of global malnutrition and famine, not to mention to the economies of provinces such as Manitoba.

I can think of many, many more reasons why archives are important—not only dealing with the identity of us as Manitobans and Canadians, but with our social well being now and in the future.

Q. This sounds like a very large task. What sorts of problems do you encounter in attempting to fulfill these various roles?

Determining what should be kept is a very difficult matter for an archivist. Using an earlier example. I would note that in some climatological research, phenological indicators such as ice-breakup in the north or the blooming of a flower in spring which might be just an offhand reference in an otherwise innocuous letter, today have suddenly assumed an unforeseeable importance. Who would have thought that one should keep something that seemed so minor as a reference to these kinds of phenomena? That whole process of determining what we should keep when there is so much from which to choose is, I suppose, the starting place to answer this question.

A jurisdiction the size of the government of Manitoba probably produces upward of five miles of paper records—just paper—alone in a year. How to determine what is of permanent value not just for historical and cultural needs, but for many other reasons is a real challenge for archivists. In that mass of material, we normally find there is somewhere between five and ten percent of all documents which is of enduring value. I suspect, well, I know that many historians I talk to about the selection process tend to the position that we should keep nearly everything—after all, how can you play God and decide what is to be kept indefinitely and what is not? Once we have made the selection, by whatever means, we then face costly matters of custody. public service, and preservation. Looking at preservation, I note that we know most post-1850/70 paper records—just to take one example —have a life-span (based on scientific data and on our own practical observation) of probably not more than eighty years under reasonably good though not archival conditions. This is a superb irony of our times. Despite modern technological marvels and enormous information storage capacities, our post-1850/70 archival heritage is probably in far greater jeopardy than that which precedes it. The quality of the paper used before 1850 was just so much better than modern paper My doomsday scenario is that we could be facing an almost total loss by disintegration of our twentieth-century archival heritage.

The conservation problem worsens in certain respects if you consider some of the other media that archives collect. One of the most interesting ones, I suppose, is colour photography Colour probably has a life-span of less than twenty years in most commercially available film—depending on storage conditions. Colour is also a source of information. The past isn’t black and white or a washed-out image, yet we know of no means at acceptable cost of preserving colour short of freezing the images until such time as technology comes to our rescue. With machine readable records, which is, of course, the product of one of the major technological developments of the last few decades, we know that if you neglect such simple procedures as precision re-winding a computer tape about every six months or so, you start losing data even if the record is kept under otherwise optimum conditions. When you realize that archivists in the United States are expecting about 80% of vital government records will be computer based by 1985, potential losses become horrendous in their implications.

Audio-visual materials (and this, if anything, is also an audio-visual age) may have lifespans of twenty years or less even under good storage conditions. All in all, as is summarized in the 1980 Report on Canadian Archives to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, we are facing a very difficult situation. In fact, that particular report estimated that 90% of paper records now in archives would be too brittle to be handled within nineteen years of this day. I am not sure what the answers are, or even if there are any acceptable answers yet on the horizon. Perhaps we must hope that technology will rescue us, and very quickly. This too is an irony, for modern technological developments are partly responsible for the archival predicament. It has been suggested to me many times that microcopying is the way of the future. Unfortunately, microfilm, which was once touted as a medium of some permanence (about four hundred years), is now being talked about as having a reasonable life-expectancy of possibly only between fifty and one hundred years. So in many respects, we seem to be facing insurmountable problems at this time. Furthermore, all these figures of life expectancies are postulated on the assumption that materials will not be too heavily used. Yet, one of the main purposes of an archives is to make available what we have (with due respect for necessary restrictions, of course). When we put material before researchers, even careful handling deposits oils from fingers on the paper which accelerate degradation processes. There seems to be an almost perverse antagonism between acquiring and preserving material, and having it used. We are going to have to resolve these difficulties and reconcile preservation with necessary use of historical documents.

Q. Are there any new forms of technology which may solve some of these problems?

The video memory disc, which is being funded partly by the Public Archives of Canada, might offer some hope for a process that has an acceptable prospect of permanence (but recall the hopes for microfilm). Some of the statistics are quite staggering. If you record information on a 12-inch disc, we can get something in the order of 108,000 images or notations on that disc. If you expand the size of that disc to about half-a-meter, we can talk about fifteen million images. The development looks promising, but it still begs several more archival conundrums or challenges. An obvious one is the high cost of placing the information from archival holdings on the disc. Archives in Canada hold billions of pages, images. recordings. and so forth about our society. The potential availability of the disc, like microfilm, also does not resolve the question of what materials should survive in their original form. Some people have talked to me of the “mystical link” with the past that they feel when handling an item prepared by, say, Riel. But there are far less mystical reasons why the matter of keeping certain originals is testing archivists.

I am not entirely convinced that in certain court cases, for example, dealing with land possession and entitlement where archival documents might be pivotal, that microimages in the absence of originals would withstand a serious challenge. Even if the microimages can be proven indisputably to be authentic copies of the originals, the loss of the originals has eliminated certain techniques of determining whether the record has been tampered with or forged—in short, whether there are grounds for reasonable doubt. Perhaps this is too conjectural, but some jurisdictions have been concerned enough to assert in statutory form that microfilm is admissible in court under certain conditions. Yet, to my knowledge, we are still awaiting the serious challenge to such pronouncements that will establish the law.

These are the kinds of factors we have to consider when deciding whether we should convert information from one medium to another. Original documentation has importance, but it is very clear that we are not going to be able to keep it in the quantities we are now trying to sustain.

Q. Do you feel that Canadian archives generally are fulfilling the high standards and large goals they have set themselves. How do they compare with archives in other parts of the world? What more can they do?

Given the problems I’ve outlined, I would find it difficult to say that Canadian archives and archivists are doing a good job, but I have sympathy for the reasons why we are not doing as good a job as we wish.

On a global comparison, however, Canada is doing relatively well and seems to be better funded than most countries. (I’m not sure if the last part of that comment means much in view of the wretched state of most Third-World institutions.) We have made several notable contributions to international archival thought. For example, Canadian archives are as a whole committed to the total archives concept whereby we house public records and private documents of all media in the same facility, as well as various technical supports. This, combined with a holistic approach to the historical record, is significantly different from traditional American, British, French, and Dutch practices. On the other hand. I know of no archivist in Canada who would claim that we are acquiring a satisfactory “mirror of Canada past”—to adapt the title the Public Archives of Canada once used for a major exhibition celebrating its centenary. It is not just a matter of volume of material acquired, but also its quality and relevance to present and future research needs. If we are in serious trouble with conserving what we already house in archives, the prospects do not seem bright for preserving an even better and probably larger and more refined sample from and for our society.

Much of what I have talked about so far may be taken to refer mostly to what some call ‘serious research” (that is. academic research), but I feel a strong personal commitment to other levels of research such as geneaology—which is no less serious in its own way. Archives have a major role to play in contributing to lifelong education of our people, both in stimulating a desire for knowledge and in helping to satisfy this need. For example, I wish that more school children could use our resources effectively though here again, the fragility and uniqueness of our holdings militate against youngsters being allowed to handle the documents freely. In these days of the information and knowledge barrages to which our children are daily subjected, it is unqualifiably important that we help equip them to handle information—to be able to distinguish between the important and the ephemeral. I recall UNESCO’S medium-term plan for education, advanced in the late 1970s. where it was argued with conviction that children need to have their thirst for information carefully educed and nourished to sustain a desire for knowledge throughout their childhood and later life. The plan suggests that this desire can best be fulfilled in the early years of life by emphasizing the particularities of children’s locales; in short, by studying their immediate environment and communities. We must encourage and satisfy the desire for more knowledge and the development of analytical capabilities by starting at the local level, not with the remote and unfamiliar. Once the processes have reached a certain level of maturity, the mind can more easily stretch toward the more universal and global dimensions of mankind.

If, as I argue, archives are a fundamental and even the most intimate expression of society, there must surely be some mechanisms found whereby we can place at least adequate facsimiles of original documents in the hands of school-age people. I know this has been attempted on modest scales, but neither the quality or quantity provided is really adequate or right on target in substance. I am not suggesting that everyone is, can be, or should be an historian or archivist, but I do think that exposure to primary research—even in modest form—can help people in handling information, discovering broader purposes, and in generating self-knowledge or identity.

It has always struck me that most geneaologists—though by no means all—seem to be concentrated in the later years of their lives and I’ve often wondered why. Certainly there is the factor of more leisure time being available, but perhaps it is of greater importance that as one draws to the final change in life as we know it, maybe there is an impulse to find a deeper meaning to one’s individual existence and to place one’s self in the continuity of the human experience. This is a profound impulse—if it exists—and relates to some of my thoughts about archival materials and childhood education. If geneaology and family history have anything to do with identities and a sense of continuity, then I can easily suggest that these needs are present in children though less well defined. If we can demonstrate the continuity of existence in a time of apparent discontinuity, and assist in the development of personal senses of identity and self-worth, it does not seem a great leap to suggest that family units, communities, and society will be strengthened: that self-respect will be enhanced as well as respect for others. If we can help children, for instance, understand why grandmother holds certain attitudes, ideas. and values (some of which may no longer be in vogue), and not just that she does, as well as appreciate that newer convictions and opinions are descendants of the old, then I am sure we will not only be helping to close the generation gap, but also to inspire the retention or refinement of enduring principles.

Clearly I’m not suggesting that the maintenance, diffusion, and use of archival materials is a panacea for all our social ailments, but I do believe that archives are basic to the protection, health, and education of society. They are even more than the memory of our species.

Opening of Conservation Laboratory, August 1982.
Source: Provincial Archives of Manitoba

Q. Given your views of the importance of archives and the difficulties archives are facing, what kinds of solutions are required?

It is essential that archives raise their profiles to the public at large, and certainly to the academic community so that there can be a greater understanding of and contribution to what we are trying to accomplish. This is not as easy as it may sound, for unlike museums and galleries we do not place our materials on permanent exhibition. This is not just because of the resources required to mount displays, but more because of the essential fragility of the media we collect. Yet we should undertake more displays—especially travelling ones—than we have in the past. On the other hand, it would be easy to underestimate the quantity of direct and indirect contacts already existing between the public and archival information. This is most briefly understood in the context of broadcast documentaries, historically based books, journalistic retrospectives, the administration of justice, and so forth.

Speaking of the academic community—specifically historians—we must encourage an appreciation of the archival view of the past. It must be understood that we approach our craft in a related but significantly different manner; that the imperatives of our vision of the past—and, I suppose. of the present and future—should command less condescending and apathetic attitudes than are now prevalent amongst many historians. Of course there are exceptions, but not enough to dissuade my discipline of the view that most historians regard archivists as their handmaidens as one of my Ottawa colleagues puts it in great irritation). Without wishing to criticize or lecture my academic confreres, I would emphasize that archivists and their institutions cannot focus on any particular period, people, or phenomena without jeopardizing the broad and balanced collections to which we are dedicated. That said, however. I can hardly overstate the need for frequent and substantive contacts between archivists and historians, if only to help the archivists remain sensitive to research trends and developments in historiography and historical methods. Archivists are hard pressed to stay abreast of archival literature let alone historical.

I should also like to see much more emphasis on Manitoba’s post-World War I history, and beyond the Winnipeg General Strike. Within the next three or four years. I believe the Manitoba Archives will have gathered some excellent materials for original research in this more recent period—materials which we have not been able to offer in substantial volume in the past. As research into the twentieth-century experience advances—and this is predicated on the availability of important archival holdings to support the studies—perhaps it will be easier to demonstrate to our society that what our archives house touches them more closely than the holdings of most custodial institutions.

Q. How are archivists being educated and trained to confront such issues?

The formal training of archivists in Canada, and in most western countries, is not nearly so advanced as it should be. One must distinguish between training and educating archivists. At best, I should say that we train archivists in Canada through an apprenticeship approach with a few more formal courses thrown in of several week’s duration. Entry into most major archives has generally been through history programmes at universities, and an M.A. is increasingly becoming a basic requirement.

There is a Master’s level programme starting at the University of British Columbia which I hope will prove to be a salutory development. It should provide a more suitable education for archivists by going beyond what history departments can or have traditionally provided. I trust it will rapidly advance the development of archival theory, and expose archivists to a climate of free inquiry and open debate untrammelled by the restrictions now imposed by overwhelming workloads, the entrapment of having to handle day-to-day work detail to the almost total exclusion of longer-range study and analysis, and the necessary caution which many of our archivists must exercise in view of their involvement with government records and the public service.

If I may extend your question somewhat, I think we must also go beyond providing appropriate training and education for archivists. A good case can be made, with mutual benefits. for teaching researchers of all kinds about archives—not to produce archivists, but to help prepare better researchers. Just as archives are serving research communities from medicine, law. native studies, environmental work, and so forth, so we should offer courses to them and to students pursuing pure and applied history.

Q. What are your plans for the Archives of Manitoba in the immediate future?

Well, it is important that I be able to convey in selfless terms the need this institution has to attract adequate resources to do what we ought to be doing. Not just for the Archives of Manitoba, but throughout the province, we must encourage a network of repositories whether they are called “archives” or not. Many museums, libraries, universities, and historical societies are collecting archival media, and somehow we must support each other In a very real sense. the provincial archives is the sum of all holdings (real or potential) in the province, and not just those of the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. Furthermore, when I say “resources” I do not just mean the necessary dollars; I also mean collections. Left in basements and attics or even in the average household living environment in Manitoba, our documented heritage is rapidly self-destructing. We must encourage people to come forward with significant documents of all media so that they can be properly preserved for posterity. Of course, this in some ways runs counter to the understandable feelings that some people have of wanting their own family’s heritage in their own possession. The best I can say is that this in due course—and that course is short—leads to the irreversible disintegration of the heritage. While conservators can work wonders in restoring documents, it is too costly a process to be broadly applied. The best approach I can offer is to encourage the development of networks of various kinds of local repositories capable of offering adequate care and security for our recorded heritage, and providing access to the information as restrictions permit. Perhaps in time, micro-copies can be made of some of the most important materials. both as a protective measure and to allow circulation of the information to different places in the province. This last development would help overcome the problems some researchers might have with the decentralization of holdings.

While I am not sure how all this might be brought about. especially during times of very limited financial resources. this sharing is essential even to make the most of what we do have in the attempt to preserve our heritage throughout the province. lust as we would not bring an historic building from Flin Flon to Winnipeg to preserve and display it, so we should attempt to leave archival resources in their locale of origin so far as possible with preservation in mind. This is important to improving the consciousness of heritage and culture in our various communities, and essential to helping us understand why we are what we are, and to knowing ourselves better wherever we are in Manitoba.

Page revised: 1 January 2011

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