archival encounters #1: intro

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It’s nice to be able to use this blog for a third course in just three years – I actually really enjoy blogging, even though I fear that the only one reading my blog is my mom (hi, Mom!). Ah well.

This is my introductory post for the course, so I am going to address a couple of questions asked of us by our professor. Firstly, she asks us to introduce ourselves; this is something I usually have an unnecessarily hard time with, mostly because I don’t know what things about myself are interesting or relevant in an academic setting. I’ll have a go at it anyway:

I’m Hannah, and I’m a third year English Honours major. I was born and bred in Vancouver and grew up in Kitsilano, and I pretty much always knew that I wanted to be “a writer”. These days, I have narrowed that down only slightly more; I’m interested in publishing and I love to edit, but I don’t know how to turn that enjoyment into an actual career. I’m also minoring in music, my other passion – I sing and play the piano, but mostly I study theory and some history. I have two part-time jobs and am also a Girl Guide leader; when I’m not busy with these things I like books, field hockey, hot yoga, and interesting food.

I took this class for a variety of reasons – I will unabashedly admit that it was one of only a few seminars that fit into my schedule and still had spaces when third-year registration rolled around. Despite this initial reason, it was actually also one of the seminars that appealed to me right from the proposal stage; I am interested in the past and, being a native Vancouverite, local archives are particularly fascinating to me. My dad is from small-town Scotland and has spent countless hours poring over the archives of his hometown in order to compile a ‘word book’ (really an encyclopedia) of everything relevant to their culture, language, etcetera. Both of my parents are interested in history, and by age 10 I had read pretty much every age-appropriate historical fiction book on the Tudors.

Our discussion today led me to some initial questions about archives – I’m going to just list a few of them and elaborate a bit:

  1. Is there a limit to what we can call an ‘archive’? For instance, could a sound file be an archive, although it is a digitized version of something else? For many families, wedding videos or home videos of children growing up are considered archives, at least within the family. Can we see websites as archives if they are achieving the same goal of preserving something to make it more accessible and available to a greater range of people?
  2. Is there a way to track the ‘path’ of an archive, from its initiator or creator through the person who decides to enter it into the archives? Further, how does one justify entering something into an archival collection? This is probably something I could find an answer to through Google, at least partially, but I still wonder about the inner workings of archival material.
  3. How can we deal with different levels of accessibility and (for handwritten documents) legibility? For instance, photographs are stored and preserved carefully to maintain their colours and prevent fading and most archival documents are kept away from sunlight for the same reason. However, my dad tends to read old, handwritten documents (scanned onto his computer and heavily zoomed in) and pick out individual words one at a time because it’s too difficult to try to grasp the entire puzzle at once without decoding some fragments first. I guess this is more of a thought process than a question, but surely there must be documents that are very valuable and worth preserving but which require a magnifying glass and other document readers to actually understand.
  4. How are archives categorized? Someone mentioned this in class today and it got me thinking about different ways in which archives can be grouped (by time period, location, relevance, format, etc.). Hopefully this is one we can begin to find an answer to through our time in the RBSC.

In particular, I’m interested in the ways archives can shed light on relationships between people and provide a snapshot of a particular time in history or even a time in the life of one person. I’m also interested in what is kept and what is discarded, and whether or not a collection of archives can ever give us a full and accurate picture, or whether it will always be filtered through the compiler or through a particular cultural view.