'It's a sorry state': Historians say Winnipeg's archive needs upgrade to preserve irreplaceable collection

'It's a sorry state': Historians say Winnipeg's archive needs upgrade to preserve irreplaceable collection

Several Winnipeg historians say they’re concerned about the future of the city’s archives, more than five years after a rainstorm forced their relocation to a smaller facility in a former warehouse in what was supposed to be a temporary move.

“It’s a sorry state, I think,” said Tom Nesmith, a retired University of Manitoba professor who taught archival studies and worked for over a decade at the national archives in Ottawa.

“It’s a story, though, of what I would say was great progress in the beginning — great promise and hope. And then misfortune, neglect, and now, I am afraid, indifference, even.”

The city’s archival collection houses municipal and privately donated documents dating back to 1873, and is valued at more than $4 million for insurance purposes, according to the City of Winnipeg Archives’ annual report for 2017.

Heather Bidzinski, chair of the Association of Manitoba Archivists, said the city’s collection is considered to be among the richest municipal collections in the country.

You have one shot at storing this stuff properly, and that’s it.– Christian Cassidy, West End Dumplings

It’s currently housed, though, in a space that “in general is not large enough and not suitable long-term for managing the preservation and access to this rich collection,” Bidzinski said.

The archives were previously held at the Carnegie Library at 380 William St.

A heavy rainstorm damaged the roof of the Carnegie Library in 2013, while the building was undergoing major renovations that would have turned it into a state-of-the-art archival facility. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

A heavy rainstorm damaged the roof of the library in 2013, while the building was undergoing major renovations that would have turned it into a state-of-the-art archival facility.

As a result, the archives were moved to a centre at 50 Myrtle St., in the city’s Pacific Industrial area. The building, originally a warehouse, was intended to be a temporary repository, the city said at the time.

Research visits drop

​Nesmith and other experts say the building is too small and too hard to find to serve as a long-term public archive.

Unlike purpose-built archival facilities, it doesn’t offer temperature or humidity control to protect the records inside it, and archivists working there have no space to do preservation or conservation treatments on the sometimes fragile documents.

Nesmith points to those shortfalls as the reason annual in-person research visits to the city’s archives have dropped by more than 50 per cent since 2013 — from 720 in that year to 347 in 2017.

During that same period, the archives have seen a jump in phone, online, or walk-in requests for archival material — from 587 to 1,021.

“There is a crisis — of preservation, security and storage, and as well as access — that I think people need to be aware of,” Nesmith said.

City not ruling out restoring library

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the City of Winnipeg said the city will focus on options for the archives after its new, larger Corporate Records Centre — currently at 311 Ross — becomes operational next year.

“This may include a reassessment of 380 William [the Carnegie Library], as well as other potential solutions,” the spokesperson wrote.

Under the City of Winnipeg Charter, the city’s record committee is mandated to make recommendations about, and implement procedures for, the management and safekeeping of municipal records deemed to have long-term value.

Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Winnipeg, says there’s a question about whether the city if fulfilling its mandate to protect municipal records deemed to have long-term value. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

“Quite frankly, there’s a big question about whether it’s doing that right now,” said Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Winnipeg.

In 2016, a report to the city’s executive policy committee calculated the price tag to refurbish the Carnegie Library at $9.2 million.

I’ve heard it described as the finest collection of municipal records in Canada.– Gordon Goldsborough, Manitoba Historical Society

At the time, the committee decided not to redevelop the building and was criticized in a letter from the Association for Canadian Archivists as well as Walby, who called the archives a “national embarrassment” in an opinion piece published in theWinnipeg Free Press.

The Association of Manitoba Archivists’ Bidzinski said the archives aren’t at immediate risk in the Myrtle centre. But she said her organization is concerned about long-term strategies for their preservation and would like to see them made more publicly accessible.

“I think with the move of the city records centre to more appropriate spaces, it’s a good time to start thinking about the future of the archival program and the archival branch, and where best they can be managing these records,” she said.

Untapped potential

Walby and Nesmith said municipal archives have the potential to be places that are engaged with and useful to their communities beyond the storage of records.

“When you look at what other cities are doing, they’re not just kind of meeting the bare minimum requirement of having a city archive,” Walby said.

“They’ve used their archives to advance public culture, to advance public interest research, to bring together different communities, to bring together different university groups, different neighbourhood groups — because all of these groups have a stake in the story of the city.”

Gordon Goldsborough, the head researcher for Manitoba Historical Society, said he worries the five-year span without action suggests the city sees the archives as a repository rather than a public resource.

The public area of the City of Winnipeg Archives isn’t large enough to be suitable in the long-term, historians say. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

“That’s, I think, the real frustration in this — that they’ve got a wonderful collection there,” he said. “I’ve heard it described as the finest collection of municipal records in Canada.”

Christian Cassidy, a Winnipeg historian and writer for West End Dumplings, said he’d love to see the problem solved permanently by 2023 — the city’s 150-year anniversary.

“I think it’s important to note that if something happens to these materials because they’re not being stored properly, that’s it. You don’t get to recreate them,” he said.

“There isn’t an 1880s diskette sitting somewhere where you can just access them and print them off. You have one shot at storing this stuff properly, and that’s it.”

Published at Sat, 08 Sep 2018 07:00:00 -0400