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Manitoba History: The Importance of Collecting Historically Significant Material in Small Communities, or “Raiders of the Lost Archives”

by Carole Ann Roberts
Keewatin, Ontario

Number 23, Spring 1992

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The collection of local history by small communities is an expression of their individual nature. Local history is approached not as an aid to the study of national or international history, or even as a microcosm of the national story but as a subject worthy of study in its own right. [1] However, there remains concern about the preservation of manuscripts in local museums, historical societies and libraries where physical facilities may be inadequate and only volunteer part-time custodial care is available. [2] There are hundreds of small communities in Canada, each with its own unique cultural and ethnic “personality”. One can only guess at the amount of important documents, manuscripts and other printed materials, including photographs, which lie in obscure boxes or are filed incorrectly in unusable repositories, lost and forgotten. It is important to make the citizens of such communities aware that historical collections are essentially a product of their time and of conditions that can never be reproduced. [3]

Keewatin, Ontario, is a small community of 2,000 people, located six miles west of Kenora, a town with a much larger population of 15,000. Both communities were built around industry in the late 1800’s. Mining, lumbering, papermaking and flour milling were the area’s main sources of livelihood. Today, the primary activities are papermaking and tourism.

Kenora boasts a new museum to house the many artifacts from both native and non-native cultures. As well, there is an area on the lower level, not generally accessible to the public, which could be referred to as the archives. Two large file cabinets house documents and letters, books from a local judge, but mainly photographs and ephemera. These are listed by subject and arranged alphabetically. There is also a cross-referenced index for locating material. The museum is also in the process of acquiring books of a related nature on art and history. The curator is a well-educated individual who has studied in an internship program for museum studies and is probably the most informed in the community with regards to the history of the area. The staff is also well-trained in museum studies.

There are two libraries in the area, one in Keewatin and the other in Kenora. The larger, in Kenora, occupies two floors and offers a microfilm facility, as it houses the entire collection of the local newspaper. The Keewatin library has limited hours but is as professional in its approach as the Kenora library. Both have interlibrary loan facilities, allowing any book to be received within a three week period from Thunder Bay. Both employ professional librarians and an informed staff.

The third area for local history is located at the Mather-Walls House in Keewatin. This site is owned by the Ontario Heritage Foundation and operated by the Lake of the Woods Historical Society. The Society offers interpretive tours to the public on request and is generally open July and August, for the tourist season. The Society’s intended material. However, over the years the operation of the Mather-Walls House has taken much of the attention, while the archives has received a secondary position.

The collection of photographs of the Society is in a file cabinet in the attic. Diaries of John Mather, the father of David Mather, the original owner of the house, are kept on the second floor in the Society’s office along with mining records and a book collection. Recently, the Town of Keewatin handed over three boxes of documents from the town’s old office, and in one of these boxes the Mather diaries were found. There was much more in the way of town documents, but they had been destroyed as “useless” by the town before it was thought to hand over the material to the Society. The material received ranged from school records of 1916 to welfare payment books during the Depression. There was no order and the material was badly mixed. The boxes remained in that condition until two summer students sorted it and compiled a detailed list of the contents. However the material is not usable as it is not accessible to the public and even if it were, it is not catalogued properly. Indeed, no one but a few of the members are even aware of its existence.

When the Ontario Heritage Foundation purchased the house from Edna Walls in 1975, its contents were included. Miss Walls had kept all of her personal papers, letters and photographs, as most of us to, in boxes and unused dressers. These items have remained that way since 1975. An examination of the contents reveals a woman who had graduated from the University of Toronto in 1917, taught school in Edmonton for more than 30 years, and retired at her father’s house in later years. As she remained single, her own life was left intact, undisturbed by little hands and crayons. For example, her notebook from university gives a detailed look at the program she undertook.

The purpose of this examination is not to chronicle archival holdings in Keewatin and Kenora, but to illustrate a situation which surely exists in the many small communities in Canada. There is a vast storehouse of archival material which is rendered useless because its existence is unknown, or is not catalogued or available for use, or if catalogued, is not entered with the provincial or National Archives. The size of the collections is not always a fair indication of their usefulness. [4]

The historical society in the community usually appoints itself as the collector of historically significant materials. However, “... just as any quack could at one time practice medicine, any peddler could sell drugs and any ignoramus could pose as a schoolmaster, so today it is possible for everyone and anyone to secure and hold a position in a historical society...or archival agency.” [5] Well intentioned people involved in a society may have a limited or inaccurate historical knowledge. Often, their sense of judgement in obtaining materials are clouded by personal preference. The collection could result in being of little interest or historic value to anyone.

The historical society wishing to establish a local archives must have a collection policy, a strong board of directors and a repository that can be efficiently managed for easy public access. Collection topics should be defined so that they do not overlap with those of nearby towns. [6] As in the larger archives, an exchange of information and assistance only helps to strengthen the resources as hand. The board of directors of the historical society will vary in number, but the usual rule is twelve. Some members to be included should be the local librarian, the curator of the museum, a member of the town council, a representative of local industry, a senior government employee, and professionals including accountants, lawyers, doctors and teachers. A strong board of community leaders will result in respect and interest in the community. The society should not, however, turn into an exclusive club. The above list is merely a guideline to ensure a stable, credible society. Finally, the location of the archives must be chosen. This should be decided according to space, staff and environment. For several reasons the most appropriate place for such a collection is the local library. A library offers professionals to handle the collection and an already existing budget which could accommodate the overhead costs of a collection. The Library will probably always be there; the historical society may not. Museums are usually understaffed and under-funded whereas libraries tend to have more financial and general community support. Further, most libraries already have a good local history collection and access to networking for a more national perspective.

As well as providing a logical setting for such a collection, the library represents, in most small communities, one of the few cultural and intellectual resources and is regarded with a certain reverence. This is important especially if papers of a prominent individual or institution are sought after. “Communities aware of the role of archives are more inclined to deposit their documentary heritage with an institution in which they have confidence ...” [7]

It must be understood by the librarian, however, that the professions of archivist and librarian are separate and distinct. The odd misplaced paper or document is perhaps more important than the loss of a book. [8] “Library material is produced in multiple copies for cultural purposes with dissemination in mid. Archival materials are created in the course of performing an organizational function and broad dissemination is not necessarily anticipated.” [9] Therefore, the failure to acquire archival material could mean the loss of information about a particular organizational function. [10] Archival material should be arranged in the manner it was produced, preserving the functional integrity of the series. [11] As well, special precautions must be taken with respect to storage, environment and access.

The collection boundaries must be established and adhered to as closely as possible. The framework of the collection will be general literature and historical works written about the area. [12] There may already be existing archival material held by the historical society and/or museum. In this case, the holdings should be reappraised. As in the case of the Lake of the Woods Historical Society, the boxes of documents received from the town hall are retained for their age, not investigated for their value.

There are no hard and fast rules for a local collection as each is as individual as the town or region it documents. [13] Those in charge of the collection should become familiar with the records available in the community. The town hall, hospital, service groups, government offices, schools, and businesses should be approached to determine what records are available. This will prevent the loss of old records and make record holders aware of your interest. As well, the general public should be informed by news bulletins. Local newspapers are usually quite willing to run stories of a cultural nature. Personal papers, and diaries are of great importance in determining the social history and individual perspective of the area’s development. Ephemeral literature should not always be disregarded. Menus, playbills, postcards, sports and social event flyers are also important in the understanding of cultural history. Photographs are usually the most easily attainable, being a part of everyone’s personal memorabilia. If the original is not immediately available, and the photograph is important, a copy should be made with the source carefully indicated for future reference.

Oral history is slowly coming into its own right as a valid form of historical study. It can reveal the history of ordinary people who were not a statistic on welfare, or belonged to a union, or marched with the suffrage movement. [14] Critics, however, point out that memory is sometimes unreliable and that the interviewer may greatly influence the responses of the interviewee. The informant anxious to please might attempt to tell the interviewer what he or she thought the interviewer wanted to hear. These are only some of the problems facing oral history. However, the advantages of this method far outweigh the disadvantages. Details can usually be checked and stories can often be verified by other sources. If an oral history program is to be attempted, there is a vast amount of literature on the subject to assist the historical society or librarian.

The care and preservation of the archival collection differs greatly from that of a library collection. A small community library will usually not have sophisticated fire alarms or environmental controls. However, an effort should be made to ensure that articles are sorted in acid free containers and files, that there are no problems with dampness, insects, cold, heat, or light in the archival storage area. Security should be carefully controlled as these items cannot be replaced. Public access in the storage area should not be allowed; only trained staff and/or volunteers should have access. The area for public use should provide ample lighting and a large work table that is visible to staff. The materials requested must be signed for so as to indicate who is using the material and what is being requested. This also ensures that the material will not be lost or stolen.

The establishment of an active archives is not an easy or inexpensive task. However, if carefully planned and executed the costs will be reasonable and ease of operation will be greatly enhanced. Librarians, curators and historical society members should become familiar with archival procedures and if at all possible, those in charge should be specially trained. There are an abundance of texts and articles concerning the problems of small archives. As well, federal and provincial archival agencies and archivists’ associations are willing to assist the novice in their collections.

There is no need for a small community to be excluded from the national picture. Hundreds of such communities hold what could be a new perspective on an old story. Records, manuscripts, photographs and other historically significant materials are waiting by the box-full to be discovered and appreciated in hundreds of small towns across the country.


1. John L. Hobbs, Local History and the Library, completely revised and partly rewritten by George A. Carter, London: Andre Deutsch Limited, 1973, p. 18.

2. A. R. Turner, “Archives and Local History Collections in Saskatchewan,” Canadian Library Journal, Vol. 29, No. 3, May-June 1972, pp. 207-208.

3. Hobbs, p. 108.

4. Ibid., p. 34.

5. Bertha Josephson, “How Can We Improve Our Historical Societies?”; Vol. VIII, No. 3, July 1945, p. 200.

6. Enid T. Thompson, Local History Collections: A Manual for Librarians, Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1978, p. 13.

7. Kent M. Haworth, “Local Archives: Responsibilities and Challenges for Archivists,” Archivaria, No. 3, Winter 1976-1977, p. 33.

8. Hobbs, p. 109.

9. Jean T. Kadooka-Mandfin, “Archival Responsibilities for the Special Librarian,” Special Libraries, Vol. 67, Dec. 1976, p. 43.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Hobbs, p. 110.

13. Ronald J. Grele, Envelopes of Sound, Chicago: Precedent Publishing, Inc., 1975, p. 3.

14. Ibid., p. 2.


General Interest

Anderson, Frank J. “A Sense of History: Some Notes on the Establishment and Maintenance of a Local History Collection in a Public Library,” Library Journal, 83:13 (July 1958), pp. 2003-2007.

Bodin, Ruth B. “Cataloguing Manuscripts—A Simple Scheme,” American Archivist, 27:1 (January, 1964), pp. 81-86.

Bonanno, Tom. “Turning the Crisis Around,” Ontario Library Review, Vol. 65, No. 2, June 1981, pp. 119-123.

Creigh, Dorothy Weyer. A Primer For Local Historical Societies, Nashville: American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), 1976.

Cunha, George Martin and Cunha, Dorothy Grant. Library and Archives Conservation, Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, 1983.

Duckett, Kenneth W. Modern Manuscripts, Nashville: AASLH, 1975.

Firth, Edith G. “Basic Principles For Developing a Local History Collection,” Ontario Library Review, Vol. XXLVII, No. 2, Spring 1963, pp. 36-40.

Gordon, Robert S. “Suggestions For Organization and Descriptions of Archival Holdings of Local Historical Societies,” American Archivist, Vol. 26, No. 1, January 1963, pp. 19-39.

Grabowski, John J. “Fragments or Components: Theme Collections in a Local Setting,” American Archivist, Vol. 48, No. 3, Summer 1985.

Haworth, Kent M. “Local Archives: Responsibilities and Challenges for Archivists,” Archivaria, No. 3, Winter 1976-1977, pp. 29-39.

Hobbs, John L., Local History and the Library (Completely revised and partly rewritten by George A. Carter), London: Andr! Deutsch, 1973.

Hodson, J. H. The Administration of Archives, Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1972.

Kane, Lucille M. Guide to the Care and Administration of Manuscripts, Philadelphia: TheSociety of American Archivists, 1980.

Le Hardy, William. “Record of Local Clubs and Societies,” Archives, No. 3, 1950.

Lynes, Alice. How to Organize a Local Collection, London: Andr! Deutsch Limited, 1974.

Lytle, Richard H., ed. Management of Archives and Manuscript Collections for Librarians, Philadelphia: The Society of American Archivists, 1980.

McCrank, Lawrence J. Archives and Library Administration, London: The Haworth Press, 1986.

Norton, Margaret Cross. Norton on Archives, Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975.

Peace, Nancy E., ed. Archival Choices: Managing the Historical Record in an Age of Abundance, Lexington: Lexington Books, 1984.

Pederson, Ann, ed. Keeping Archives, Sydney: Australian Society of Archivists Incorporated, 1987.

Punch, Katherine. “The Human Side of History,” Ontario Library Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 2, Spring 1963, pp. 41-43.

Ritzenhale, Mary Lynn. Archives and Management: Conservation: A Manual on Physical Care and Management, Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1983.

Shellenberg, T. R. The Management of Archives, New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.

Thompson, Enid T. Local History Collections: A Manual for Librarians, Nashville: AASLH, 1978.

Turner, A. R. “Archives and Local History Collections in Saskatchewan;’ Canadian Library Journal, Vol. 29, No. 3, May-June 1972, pp. 204-208.

Conservation and Preservation

Barrow, William J., Manuscripts and Documents: Their Deterioration and Restoration, 2nd ed., Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1972.

Cunha, George M. Conserving Local Archives Material on a Limited Budget, Nashville: AASLH Technical Leaflet 86, 1975.

Eaton, George T. “Preservation, Deterioration, and Restoration of Photographic Images;’ Library Quarterly, 40:1 (January 1970), pp. 85-98.

Guldbeck, Per E. The Care of Historical Collections, Nashville: AASLH, 1972.

LaFontaine, Raymond H. Environmental Norms for Canadian Museums, Art Galleries and Archives, Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, 1979.

Weinstein, Robert A. & Booth, Collection, Use and Care of Historical Photographs, Nashville: AASLH, 1977.

Zigrosser, Carl and Gaehde, Christa, A Guide to the Collecting and Care of Original Prints, New York: Crown Publishers, 1965.

Oral History

Allen, Barbara and William Lynwood Montell. From Memory to History, Nashville: AASLH, 1981.

Baum, Willa K. Oral History for the Local Historical Society, Nashville: AASLH, 1977.

Cortinouis, Irene. Augmenting Manuscript Collections Through Oral History, American Archivist, Vol. 43, No. 3, Summer 1980, pp. 367-369.

Fogerty, James E. “Filling the Gap? Oral History in the Archives,” American Archivist, Vol. 46, No. 2, Spring 1983, pp. 149-156.

Grele, Ronald J. Envelopes of Sound, Chicago: Precedent Publishing Inc., 1975.

Training Staff and Volunteers

Menzenska, Mary Jane. Archives and Other Special Collections: A Library Staff Handbook, New York: School of Library Science, Columbia University, 1973.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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