Further comments from Richard McQuade concerning Long Branch archives

Richard McQuade, whose earlier comments are included in a recent blog post about the Long Branch archives, has shared the following comments. For ease of online reading, I’ve subdivided longer paragraphs into shorter ones.

Richard McQuade, Director of Archives at St. Michael's College School at the University of Toronto, visited the archives room in March 2012.

Richard McQuade comments:

“I find some of the comments interesting and am not entirely in agreement with some of them. For example, Dave Cook’s comment, ‘that an archive has value to the extent that its contents are readily available to people seeking local historical information’ requires a deeper context.

“I recall that you had to leave early the night of my visit because I also addressed this issue. For the contents of an archive to be readily accessible, those contents must first be preserved, conserved and catalogued before being made available. I would presume that Dave would agree with that because the alternative would be that anybody with any interest in local history should have open access to whatever holdings are in an archives whenever they like.

“If the first three conditions cannot be met then it would almost be impossible to get to the accessibility of the holdings themselves. An archives requires a high degree of organization and must be managed to ensure what is effectively the indefinite preservation and conservation of the items entrusted to it. Accessibility is not the first priority and can only come after the first three above conditions are met.

“That is not to say that everything would be inaccessible, but I wouldn’t want anybody to mistake an archive for a library, the two are very different, with different methods of organization, record-keeping and retrieval. Having also designed two high school libraries and then run them, I’m quite aware of the differences between them although to many people they seem to be almost the same.

“You are quite right to point out that the City Archives are woefully underfunded and understaffed and this will be true of all tax-supported archives for a long time to come. It will likely get worse before it gets better. That means, as you point out, that one can’t rely on the City Archives to undertake organizing the Long Branch materials.

“Most often, materials are donated to archives but money to organize them never is so the materials languish in a secure environment but without any organization to them. I know of one case where it has taken thirty years for Library and Archives Canada to organize some parts of a massive private collection donated to it.

“The primary function of every government archive, at any level, is to handle government documents as their first priorities. In good years, governments give them the funds to do more and this is where the Long Branch materials can have a problem. They would not be high on the priority list of the City Archives. On the other hand, their preservation would be assured, which is the first priority.

“Of course Michele Dale is quite correct in her comments about how the City Archives are very accessible. It is open more days and more hours than most local societies could manage and is an absolutely first rate, professional organization. It has the advantage of a significant online presences as well.

“Notwithstanding those advantages, the local small archives has a number of advantages that the City Archives doesn’t. The local archives is community based. Its users are almost always local people who are passionately interested in their local past. That also means that the local archives is much more likely to get relevant donations of materials and funds. The community has a stake in it and it has both the ability to reach out for local support and to satisfy local needs.

“For example, at St. Michael’s College School I receive donations of photos, memorabilia and ‘leads’ to a variety of oral interviews and other materials that a larger archives does not receive because they do not have the personal connections within the community.

“When a person contributes to a local archive, they do it because they feel, very rightly, that their contribution is highly valued while they do not feel any connection to contribute to a larger institution. As Michele acknowledges, local identity is important.

“As you know, Long Branch wasn’t always part of Toronto and it, New Toronto and Mimico still have strong senses of local identity. In fact, we even see the City promoting that on street signs in different neighbourhoods.

“You can certainly use my photo and the comments I made that night but I also hope that these other comments will be considered in your paper.”

Comments from Jaan Pill

Richard McQuade’s comments are highly valuable, as are the comments of each person involved with the ongoing discussion.

With regard to the previous report, I’d like to clarify two details.

Re: “That means, as you point out, that one can’t rely on the City Archives to undertake organizing the Long Branch materials.”

I’m not aware, from a reading of the text, that that is what I said in my report. What I did note was that the materials would be kept together in fonds if they were to go to the City of Toronto Archives.

Re: “You are quite right to point out that the City Archives are woefully underfunded and understaffed and this will be true of all tax-supported archives for a long time to come.”

In a report for members of the Society, an abridged version of which appears online as a blog post, I said that at the May 1, 2012 executive meeting of the Society, one person commented that there’s a backlog at the Toronto Archives with regard to the processing of archival materials.

With regard to Dave Cook’s comments about accessibility, I did not report what he said as clearly as I might have. 

In saying that archives are useful to the extent they are accessible, Dave Cook was, as I recall, speaking of material that had indeed gone through the prior steps of preservation, conservation, and cataloguing.

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