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Regular readers of this blog will probably be aware by now that here at Deseronto Archives we have fairly advanced views about opening up our collections and making as much of them as possible available online, both through this blog and through our Flickr account.

Tay Bridge, Dundee

At the moment I am in Dundee, Scotland, at day one of a conference with the theme ‘Democratising or Privileging: the Future of Access to Archives‘. The programme is absolutely packed with talks about providing online access to archives and the role of digitization in making materials available to as wide an audience as possible.

Some of the most intriguing perspectives have come from users of archives. Dr Alan MacDonald spoke of his frustration about lack of published policies on what materials will be chosen for digitization and the lack of clarity over charging for access to online archives. (In the UK it is much more common for archives to charge genealogists for searching and reading records than it is in Canada.) He called for consistency in access to materials and for as much as possible to be open and free for all uses. A website designed for family historians, for example, may not be useful for other researchers if the only access to it is by name indexes.

Chris Paton is a professional genealogist and his pleas to archivists included a request for free wi-fi in archives, permission to take digital photos, longer opening hours and simpler user registration and photocopying policies. He also thought it was important for archives to make use of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter. Both Chris and Alan emphasized that although digitization is useful for accessibility, detailed online [item-level*] cataloguing is even more so, especially in a time of financial constraints for researchers (and everyone else!), although they both recognized that this is much harder to get funding for than ‘sexy’ digital imaging projects.

There is a strong Canadian contingent at this conference and Sara Allain from the University of Toronto Scarborough gave an interesting analysis of what she termed the ‘Digitization Rhetoric’ currently being advanced at Library and Archives Canada as the solution to the problem of access to materials there. Jenny Seeman of Memorial University of Newfoundland also looked at digitization, wondering about whether selectively digitizing a collection unfairly privileges one narrative about its contents over others, using the case of the Dr. Cluny MacPherson collection as her example.

Professor Wendy Duff of the University of Toronto talked about social media use in archives and ways of using elements of gaming theory to encourage public engagement with archival material online. I particularly liked the mental picture of online archives as rhizomes, providing multiple entry points to the material and different paths through it, which would vary from user to user. She also described archivists as walking finding aids, a point also echoed by Alan MacDonald, who agreed that the knowledge of archivists is priceless, and that it is hard to replicate that in online resources.

All in all, a fascinating day and plenty to think about!

Day 2

Many of the themes in the first day of the conference continued to be mentioned during the second. The difficulty of balancing public demand for materials with the cost of digitizing them came through loud and clear from representatives of the National Records of Scotland. Historian Professor Allan MacInnes gave an intriguing analysis of archival managers in relation to Calvanistic theology. According to Allan, administrators of archives fall into categories of the Church Invisible, the Church Visible and Reprobates. I can’t remember the precise details of the first two (they weren’t very complimentary!), but found myself warming towards his Reprobates: archivists “who believe that research and scholarship are more important than policy and procedure”. The issue of trust between archive managers and users was a strong theme of Allan’s keynote, along with a call for more collaboration between them.

More Canadians appeared in later sessions: Michael Moir of York University examined the ethical issues of access to confidential and sensitive information in personal papers. I liked Michael’s point that use of archival materials can be seen as a return on the investment of the institution in giving them shelf space: the cost of archival storage at York had been estimated at $80 a year for a box. Dr Jean Dryden reported on her research into archivists’ approaches to dealing with copyright restrictions. There’s a lot of caution in the community about putting things online and accidentally infringing copyright, so it was reassuring to hear from Jean that there have been no instances in North America of archives being sued for putting images online: any disputes have been settled amicably. I was interested to hear from Jean about the Smithsonian Archives of American Art’s approach, where entire collections are being digitized on the basis that “access trumps everything”.

François Cartier gave a thorough overview of recent developments at Library and Archives Canada, with a strong call for archivists to be part of the policy-making processes at their institutions. He quoted Carl Sagan: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and Christopher Hitchens: “that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence” as important principles to remember in response to claims made in the name of the modernization agenda at LAC.

Dr Cathryn Spence of the University of Guelph talked about her research on wills of women in the late sixteenth century. She had to pay for printouts of  these (digitized) records in Scotland (and actually ended up asking her parents to get some of them for her as a Christmas present!). Other parts of her research were undertaken in a relatively poorly-funded archives service: Edinburgh City Archives.  Cathryn was full of praise for the staff of this small repository, with whom she built up an excellent and trusting working relationship in a way that is very difficult in the larger, impersonal surroundings of the National Records of Scotland. This echoed Allan MacInnes’s observations made earlier in the day. The worrying part about the situation in the City Archives is the reliance of researchers on the knowledge of one archivist. One thing I’m hoping to achieve by writing blog posts here is to avoid having everything I’ve learnt about Deseronto’s archives leaving the Archives when I do! (Not that I’m planning to, just yet…)

Dr Vivienne Dunstan gave us a valuable insight into the problems faced by researchers who are wheelchair users. She described herself as “a big fan of online catalogues”, the more detailed the better (continuing another of the previous day’s themes). It was pleasing to hear that Vivienne found many archive services were willing to be flexible in giving her access to materials above what might have been usually offered. This was something else Allan MacInnes had called for: flexibility over standard procedures, where that is appropriate.

All in all, the conference was extremely interesting. Calls for archival policies based on evidence, on collaboration and on user needs were the main themes of the two days. And judging from the users who spoke, detailed catalogues; online resources which are explorable in a range of ways; mutual respect between staff and users; and adaptable procedures were top of their list of requirements. Thanks to colleagues at the University of Dundee’s Centre for Archive and Information Studies for organizing a fascinating event!

There’s further coverage of the conference over at British GENES and Viv’s Academic Blog.

*Postscript: Chris didn’t actually say ‘item-level’ – he was talking about cataloguing in general. My apologies!

Circle Six Orchestra

Accession 2012.07(6): The Circle Six Orchestra

Here is a brief numerical summary of our activities in Deseronto Archives over the course of 2012.

New accessions received: 16

These included a photograph of the Circle Six Orchestra, a scrapbook relating to the Deseronto United Church, a photograph album from an airman who trained at Camp Mohawk in World War One and a list of Deseronto voters from 1914.

Email queries answered: 63

Telephone queries answered: 25

Visits to the archives by researchers: 101

Images uploaded to www.flickr.com/deserontoarchives: 105

Visitors to the blog in 2012:15,293 (13,058 in 2011)

Blog posts written : 17

Our thanks to all our patrons and donors and best wishes to you for 2013!

Waterfront Festival, July

Here are some facts and figures relating to the work of Deseronto Archives over the course of 2011.

New accessions received: 28

Email queries answered: 47

Telephone queries answered: 12

Visits to the archives by researchers: 73

Images uploaded to www.flickr.com/deserontoarchives: 109

Events organized/attended:

Doors Open, Napanee/Deseronto/Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory May 28th
Archives Association of Ontario conference, Thunder Bay June 17nd
Inter-agency Service Fair, Deseronto June 22nd
Waterfront Festival, Deseronto July 2nd
Deseronto Public Library 125th anniversary events October

Blog posts written : 17

Visitors to the blog in 2011:13,058 (8,097 in 2010)

Detail of Sambro Island Lighthouse lens from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

The annual conference of the Association of Canadian Archivists has just come to an end. It has been an excellent event, with many stimulating papers. One of Thursday’s sessions was particularly relevant to Deseronto, as the speaker, Ian Richards, did his Masters thesis on the topic of the contribution that archives can make to the development of their local communities. His particular focus is on the City of Brandon in Manitoba, but the general points he made are relevant to many other municipalities, including Deseronto. His thesis is available from the University of Manitoba’s electronic thesis collection.

Other sessions covered issues such as Access to Information and Privacy laws, measuring the impact of an archival program and the role of outreach in a networked world.

I gave a talk on the Saturday about the work we’ve been doing in Deseronto, including this blog and our Flickr and Twitter accounts. This dovetailed quite well with Ian’s talk and with the talks on outreach and impact, as I was trying to show what the effects of our engagement with these Web 2.0 technologies have been.* My main arguments were that people need direct access to online cultural materials from search engines, that they have to be able to share those materials with other people and that if they are experts on a particular item, they need to be able to contribute to improving its description.

I summarised the main impacts of sharing Deseronto’s photographs online as:

  • Comments and notes from users
  • Collaboration with users
  • New accessions: virtual, digital and tangible
  • New creative works
  • Funding for new projects

Many of these consequences have been featured in posts on this blog. The difficult thing to measure is the impact that the Archives’ activities have had upon the community of Deseronto as a whole. One of the sessions this week suggested that we need to measure the ‘hard to measure’, over an extended period of time. I look forward to hearing about the best way of achieving that.

*The slides are available on SlideShare.

Deseronto map We’ve got a group of Women’s Institute members coming to visit Deseronto next week. The Archives won’t be open, as they are coming on a Tuesday, but we have put together a small exhibition for the group to see. They will also be having a look around the town, so we have also made a brief tour guide which pinpoints some of the significant buildings, past and present, including photographs and descriptions. It seems that this might be of interest to other visitors to Deseronto and it is now available to download.

“Look out for two grey-haired, not-very-tall people in green anoraks”.

This was how Mrs Devos described herself and her husband. We had arranged to meet at London City Airport, although we had only known each other through the Internet, and for a mere five weeks.

Mr Devos had put ‘Deseronto’ into Google in February and had come across this blog. He got in touch by email on February 18, to tell me about his father’s photograph album, which I’ve described in an earlier post. We were delighted to get copies of the photographs, but as Mr Devos lives in Worcestershire, England, our interaction has been purely through email.

Last Friday I posted a ‘Thank you’ letter to Worcestershire from Manchester, where I was attending the Archives 2.0 conference and talking about the work we’re doing in Deseronto using online resources such as Blogger and Flickr (including, I might add, the story behind the Devos photo album). Noticing that the letter was posted in England, Mr Devos emailed to say that he would be in London this week and to see if there was any chance of meeting up. As it happened, I would be on my way from Edinburgh to Kent via London today.

So we arranged our rendezvous (despite misgivings of friends of both parties, who were automatically suspicious of meetings arranged with strangers over the Internet!). We found each other without mishap (the green anoraks were instantly recognisable) and had a lovely chat over a cup of coffee in the airport café. We’ve gone from a chance international online encounter to a face-to-face meeting in London in just over a month!


When I talked about our accession of the Devos photo album in Manchester last week, as one of the consequences of putting materials online, I didn’t know that I would actually be getting to meet Mr Devos and his wife. It is another example of the fact that you never know quite where these online initiatives are going to take you, if you are willing to let them.