A Crash Course in Archives

The Whistler Museum and Archives is collecting donations of objects, photographs, video, and other documents to record Whistler’s experience during the pandemic.  We’re accepting items Monday through Friday, 11 am to 5 pm, and all donations will be safely quarantined.  While collecting artefacts is fairly straightforward, as we’ve written in past articles on the topic, archives themselves can be confusing.  So, here’s a quick crash course!

Archives are naturally-generated historical records that are created by a person or organization over their lifetime.  They are preserved in order to demonstrate the function of the donor in society or changes of places and events over time.  Records are usually unique, as opposed to books or magazines, which often have many identical copies (this is one way archives and libraries differ).  For example, a business might donate an advert they created, or a person might donate their photos of the Bike Park from the past decade.

Though archives and artefacts are often grouped together, they are actually separate. Artefacts are physical things, such as Myrtle Philip’s pants and riding jacket shown here, while archives are records such as letters, photographs, films and journals.

Here at the archives in Whistler, we aim to describe, preserve, and provide access to materials donated.  The archives is a tool for researchers – from historians, to genealogists, to filmmakers – to access primary sources and records untainted by censorship or skewing.

The principles an archivist is taught during a degree in archival science are chock-full of French terms, arising out of Belgium and France in the mid-1800s.  Provenance dictates that materials from different origins should be kept separate.  It would be impossible to find anything if we kept all our donations in one big “Whistler Collection.”  Respect des fonds, stemming from provenance, means we must group materials according to the entity which created them or from which they were received.

The archives room within the Whistler Museum is full of the stories of the resort town and those who have called it home.  Keeping it all in order as it grows continuously can be a daunting task, but one our Head Archivist Alyssa Bruijns does very well.

But, wait!  We can’t physically rearrange things into a new order!  We rearrange “intellectually” when cataloguing, because we also have to respect original order.  If we physically rearrange the records donated to us, we risk losing the context of how these records were created.  While keeping this context may not seem useful right now, it may reveal very useful information for a researcher in the future.  When a record is removed from its fellow records, it can lose its meaning and credibility.

So, what’s the point of keeping records if you can’t find anything, maybe by subject or date?  We must describe the records using a catalogue and metadata so we can find them for you.  In fact, in the 1970s, Canadian archivists were among the first int he world to put together a comprehensive description standard that took into account the changes technology brought, called “Rules for Archival Description (RAD)”.   It is the archivist’s Bible.

Many of our archive collections are safely housed in acid-free boxes such as these shown here holding the Blackcomb Mountain Collection.

Archives are meant to last; some archives have already lasted centuries.  To preserve archives safely, we rehouse records in acid-free containers, store in climate-controlled areas, and digitize deteriorating items.  For fragile items and valuable records in high demand from the public, digitization can provide remote access.  Due to media formats dying out a frightening speed (RIP VHS), we must digitize our older media to current formats so we don’t lost it entirely.

Still, even current hard drives can become corrupt and file formats do fall out of use, and this is partly why we never throw out original materials.  Digital technologies still have a shorter life expectancy than paper, though we’re hopeful this could change.  Until then, the Whistler Museum & Archives will keep digitizing to bring you access to our community’s history.  Our photo collections can be found here: whistlermuseum.smugmug.com/; our video collections can be found here: youtube.com/WhistlerMuseum; and our archival catalogue can be found here: whistler.ica-atom.org/.

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