Recognition of the Importance of Archives in Society

I’d like to share some exciting international archives news; I’ve got my archivist hat firmly on for this post!

Recently, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, better known as UNESCO, formally adopted the International Council on Archives’ (ICA) Universal Declaration on Archives. The Declaration was first written by archivists in Quebec. It was further developed by the ICA who made it available in 20 languages.

I won’t go into the Declaration too much, but please have a look at it. Instead, I’m writing today to answer the question, what does it mean?? The Declaration and UNESCO’s adoption of it is important because it gives world-wide recognition to the roles of archives and archivists in society:

  • as memory keepers,
  • as instruments of transparency and accountability,
  • for retaining corporate knowledge, and
  • for informing future decision making

The Declaration covers the many roles archives play in businesses, organizations, governments, and society in general. It also outlines how trained archivists support these roles.

Good archives don’t just happen (the old adage junk in/junk out comes to mind); the Declaration shows the importance of having the right policies and laws, compliance, funding, and accessibility in order to fully support archives. The better the archives the better they are able to fulfill the important roles outlined in the Declaration.

I should point out that this Declaration mostly applies to an archives’ role with regards to records management. Not many people associate archives with records management, we are better known for our historical role. However, archives and records management are part of the same process, each equally important in ensuring the right information is available to the right people, at the right time. There is a theory in North America that likens the process to a lifecycle, records managers deal with records while they are current and active (alive) and archivists deal with them when they are inactive (dead). While it does illustrate the process, it’s not a perfect metaphor. For instance, saying a record is inactive doesn’t mean that it isn’t important; it just isn’t likely to be required on a daily or monthly basis anymore. Also, I don’t mean to imply that the two phases are separate, good records are ones that are created with the whole process in mind. Records managers and archivists work together. In many parts of the world they are much more integrated even than they are here in North America and the two roles are synonymous.

So how does the City of Edmonton Archives fit into all of this? One way the City of Edmonton shows its commitment to Edmontonians is through The Ways. In particular, Section 1.6 of The Way We Live: Edmonton’s People Plan is about government and citizen interaction. The City of Edmonton Archives supports this commitment through access to the historic municipal records at the City of Edmonton Archives. In addition, the Archives is working with the Office of the City Clerk to ensure that the right records are being created, organized, and preserved for eventual transfer to the Archives.

Apart from our role as the official repository of the records of the City of Edmonton, we also have records from Edmonton organizations, businesses and citizens. People often ask us, not only whether their records (whether personal or otherwise) are suitable for donation to the Archives, but also for advice on how to manage their current records. We have created guidelines to hand out but we are also happy to talk to people, whether one-on-one or through presentations to groups. We also offer courses, usually in the fall (keep an eye on our Archives News page for course listings).

Now for some fun with our records; I wanted to demonstrate how the principles in the Declaration are held up through research at the Archives. I got derailed a little bit but bear with me please. I started with photographs; this is from our collection of Edmonton Bulletin photographs:

The first meeting of a new City Council, November 5, 1949 held in the Civic Block (former City Hall)

This photograph is of Sidney Parson’s first council meeting as Mayor. The former councilor won a hotly contested mayoralty race and the Edmonton Bulletin reported that voter turnout was one of the highest ever in Edmonton. This may have been because there was also a referendum (more about that later). I looked at this picture and thought about the kinds of records that were generated which we have at the Archives. For one thing, I can tell you that the pictures on the wall are of former City Councils and we have them here at the Archives. The most important records though are the meeting minutes. I think it’s safe to say that the woman with her back to the camera was taking notes. The man next to her is probably George Docherty, the City Clerk. We have most of the City Council meeting minutes available in our reading room. The more recent ones are available through City Clerk’s and many of those are online. I looked up the minutes for this particular meeting; here is a scan of the introduction:

The minutes list the questions asked in the referendum. They recorded the results as well, here is an excerpt:

I’d like to draw your attention to questions 8 and 9. First of all, for adults it was a comfort station but it was ok to say toilet for children? This is where I got derailed, I confess. I could have gone many different ways. After all, this was a referendum about going into debt with the public’s money, and for all kinds of civic works too, from upgrading the High Level Bridge to purchasing firefighting equipment. Both interesting subjects, it’s true, but no, I went with comfort stations. With some pretty interesting results though. All kinds of paperwork is generated when public buildings are constructed. We have records on several comfort stations but I focused on one that was just south of Whyte Avenue on 104th Street. We have correspondence with the architect, including the contract (I could tell you how much a comfort station cost in the 1950s if you’re interested). We also have other types of records ranging from clippings files to details on renting office space (there was actually an office attached to the comfort station with the idea that it could be self-supporting). We have a lot of blueprints as well.

I’ve been itching to put a detail from a blueprint in one of my posts. I think they are so beautiful and interesting and we have a lot of them (our blueprint archivist estimates that we have over a million).

A detail from a blueprint we have for the South Side Comfort Station. (This type of blueprint is technically called an architectural drawing white line print).

Detail from a blueprint for the South Side Comfort Station. This is the best photograph I was able to take but it doesn’t do the original justice. Most blueprints are too large for us to copy in house so we have to send them out if a researcher wants a copy.

I didn’t research much further so I don’t know how long it was there, but please feel free to comment below if you know anything about this or any other comfort station built in Edmonton in this time period.

I went from international news and transparency and accountability to comfort stations. But I think this seemingly frivolous paper trail does demonstrate how you can track the way the government spends public money. And it’s somewhat topical given the ongoing debates about putting public washroom facilities on Whyte Avenue. It could even inform the debate. Did they work out in the 1950s? How about in the 1960s or 1970s, etc.? Were there problems and, if so, what was done to solve them? Why aren’t there any on Whyte Avenue anymore? Can we learn anything from what was done previously? I happened upon this line of investigation because I was looking at pictures of council meetings but there are endless possibilities for further research to see how the records at the City of Edmonton Archives support the needs of people in terms of understanding where we came from and how we got here, keeping government transparent and accountable, retaining the corporate knowledge of the City of Edmonton, and helping with decision making.

I’ll close by inviting you to have a look at the new rotating exhibit of holiday themed images we have on our online catalogue.


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About the Author
Elizabeth Walker
Elizabeth has a Masters of Archival Studies from UBC and she’s been the City’s digital archivist since September 2010. She’s passionate about outreach and increasing engagement between the Archives and the community.
  1. Irene Walker
    7 years ago

    I found this blog very interesting, most councils have difficulty dealing with the issue of comfort stations ( what an interesting way of putting it), especially with the problem of vandalism. I wonder if having an office attached helped?
    It makes me feel like going to do some research.


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