In June 2020, the Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) held their 45th Annual Conference with the theme “Seeing Archives Differently”. An apt title, as it became the first virtual conference in the history of the ACA.
Over 50 speakers from across Canada, as well as several international speakers from Europe, Australia and the United States presented on a range of topics from Decolonizing Archival Theory and Practice to #Archivists4ClimateAction. The NVMA sent its archives team to the conference. Read on to hear their impressions and observations of this brave new world!
Jessica Bushey, Archivist
Having attended nearly a decade of ACA conferences, I found this year’s theme and virtual format to be a perfect reflection of our current lives – DISRUPTED, GLOBAL and INTENSE! The conference sessions, regardless of topic, inspired comments and questions from the attendees that courageously explored issues of power, race, climate change, and mental health within our profession.
This year marked the first ACA conference to include a panel session on the impact of climate change on archival practices. I sat on the panel, along with archivists from Canada and the United States who participate in taking action on climate change. We met through Project_ARCC, which is a community of professional archivists working towards the following goals:
- protecting archival collections from the impact of climate change;
- reducing our professional carbon and ecological footprint;
- elevating relevant collections to improve public awareness and understanding of climate change;
- and preserving this moment in history for future research and understanding.
The session provided me with an opportunity to speak about The Forest, an archival exhibition presented by the NVMA at the Community History Centre in Spring/Summer 2019 and its related public programming on Living with Wildfires.
Daien Ide, Reference Historian
I am no stranger to museum conferences, but this was my first archives conference. In keeping with the current strangeness, I found myself in my home office with a laptop screen as my only window into the ACA annual conference. It was not only different, but unexpectedly lively!
For the first time, this ACA conference was entirely online and there were more registrants from around the world and across Canada than there would have been if the conference had been held physically in Vancouver (as originally intended). As a result, the conference felt diverse in both people and issues. It was refreshing to see a new generation of archivists driving the discussions.
The topics ranged from reconciliation with Indigenous peoples to the role of archives in climate action; from training more Black and Indigenous archivists and archivists of colour to communities salvaging memory in the light of political oppression, environmental disaster and human loss. I am interested in all these topics, but I will highlight one in particular that touched upon my experience as a reference archivist – that of grief.
“There’s Something We Need to Talk About: Uncovering and Supporting Archivists’ Emotional Work” was an insightful panel session exploring the emotional dimensions of archival work. It made me think about how best to manage privacy and access to records that may be a source of pain for a researcher, donor or for an entire community.
For me, working in a community archives means dealing with the deeply personal: from donors offering their personal records because they are dying, to those who donate a recently deceased loved ones archival materials; from the archivist that processes photographs that are disturbing to look at, to researchers on a quest for their biological parents whom they have never met. These examples reveal the multitude of emotional challenges presented in archival work.
As a person of colour I have my own emotional response to archival records that dovetails with my archival instincts to preserve them. Disturbing words and photographs echo in my mind from having worked intimately with documentary evidence of past wrongs that leave generations with emotional scars.
As a reference archivist, I am encouraged to see my professional colleagues speak out in national conferences about the topic of mental health in the workplace. I believe that more can be done to ensure that both archivists and the public feel they have a safe space to connect with the uncomfortable truths that may be discovered in Archives.
The NVMA may not be seen as a place with emotionally charged archival materials, but it does have its share, including a growing collection of oral histories. It is important to be aware of these issues and develop protocols to reduce potential harm that may arise. In doing so, Archives are contributing to building stronger, healthier communities.
Christine Hagemoen, Archives Technician
This was my first Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) conference and, more importantly, my first virtual conference. It was a mixed experience, perfectly fitting for these strange COVID-19 pandemic times we find ourselves in.
The virtual conference sessions worked quite well online, almost better than they would be in person. Since the sessions are recorded, attendees can view the videos afterward and catch up on what was missed. This is also a good feature if you find two sessions that you want to attend, but they are scheduled at the same time – watch one live, and the other afterward at your convenience.
The content at the conference was really rich and easily accessible, but what I missed was the community-building events among conference attendees. As a first time attendee and new to the ACA, (and feeling a little like an outsider), I was surprised to discover that there wasn’t a “Newcomer’s Orientation” or “First-Timers Session” offered. I realize that this kind of session would be challenging to provide in a virtual context, but the fact that we were in a virtual milieu, with its lack of natural social situations, that extra effort is needed to engage all kinds of attendees and to make them feel welcome, feel included… like they belong. As an Archives Technician, I am considered a “paraprofessional” as I don’t have a postgraduate degree, so it’s rare that I would attend a professional conference like this.
It also gave me a unique perspective on the conference, one that reminds me of the first time someone visits an Archives. It raises the question of: How does it feel to be an uninitiated outsider in a “rarefied” setting? This made me consider several more questions: How can we as cultural heritage workers, support our visitors and their personal and professional development? What can Archives do to make everyone feel welcome and engaged? How can Archives build a sense of community and support storytelling? Going forward, how do Archives welcome and engage those people who feel like outsiders?
I am inspired by the work being done by archivists in the area of community outreach and engagement, especially the recent programs and projects at the NVMA, but there is always more work to be done. Something to consider for future virtual conferences.
For more on the Association of Canadian Archivists, check out their website: https://archivists.ca/
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