“Giving the Future a Past” Conference
Association for Canadian Studies
October 20, 2001
I would like to thank you for inviting me to be here today and for the opportunity to share the podium with Roch Carrier. Roch and I also share the same building in Ottawa, some of the same staff, many of the same professional interests and not a few of the same financial, technological and human resource challenges.Although archivists and librarians each tend to think of themselves as the more skilled and important profession, this dispute is usually settled at our annual picnic where water balloons or a softball game determines the issue. Mind you, archivists can brag that the only statue in Ottawa dedicated to a civil servant is of an archivist.1
All of us at the conference have much in common and together have much at stake. As writers, teachers, researchers, librarians, archivists and other heritage specialists, we are attempting to make information and knowledge of our country and its past available and more accessible to Canadians. We are communicators with stories to tell. These stories are about who we are and how we came to be this way - as individuals, as communities, as organizations and institutions, and as Canadians.History is the collective body of these stories as expressed in writing and recollection, in image and anecdote, in sworn testimony and tall tale, and in the preserved evidence in our archives, libraries, museums and elsewhere.
We are all in the information business.Our greatest skill is in knowing how to turn information into knowledge. This intellectual alchemy is a process without which our history would be incomprehensible and patternless - some accidental or arbitrary alignment of time and opportunity, people and place. Our knowledge of ourselves and of the world requires not only access to accurate and reliable information, but it also requires context, observation, analysis, assessment and testing over time.Information becomes knowledge through a flash of insight, through reasoning and reflection and sometimes through learning that spans generations and millennia.
Every age and culture expresses its views about why chronicling the past is important and how best to do so. But nearly 2,500 years ago, Thucydides had pretty much figured it out. He thought about these issues as he wrote his monumental history of the Peloponnesian War2 and its terrible impact on every facet of Greek life. Writing soon after the events occurred, he advised his readers that he did not write down the first story he heard, nor was he guided by his own opinions. “I was present myself,” he tells us, “at the events which I have described or else I heard of them from eye-witnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible.”3 These are the hallmarks of the vigorous, enquiring and objective mind.Our word “history” comes from the Greek verb, “to ask questions”. Not even then was the truth easy to discover, he says. Different eyewitnesses gave different accounts of the same events, because of imperfect memories or partiality toward one side or the other. He also recognized that some of his readers might not like what he has written because he has not romanticized the war between Athens and Sparta. This doesn’t bother him. “My work,” he says, “is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last for ever.”4 And he tells us, with candor and common sense, why this is important:he will be happy “if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.”5 It would be hard today to provide a better or wiser rationale for the writing and reading of history or for preserving the evidence of its passage.
Every generation leaves certain information and messages for the next … a kind of historical paying it forward. At the same time, each generation constantly re-evaluates the past, asking the same and new questions relevant to its concerns and future; seeking answers in the recorded memory of those who came before … paying it back, if you will. History is a dialogue between present and past with the voices and images of our predecessors still alive in the archives and in the books that they have bequeathed to us. This dialogue is inevitably informed, if not coloured, by views or concerns about a future. History is a complex, honest interplay of present, future and past. Mary Robinson (former President of Ireland and now UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) captured the essence of this dialogue when commenting on a research project on 19th century workhouses where so many Irish died: “... it is important, indeed imperative, that we the survivors, and future generations, should know about those who had no one to speak for them at the time of their greatest need and suffering. The story of the silent people should be heard.”6
Our own age is more impatient than that of the Greeks’ and less appreciative of the past. The lessons of history are often neglected in a technological environment which is squarely focused on the future. Even the techno-term “legacy systems” suggests the old and the useless, and “to archive” in computer terms suggests retention for more than a few weeks.
The study of history requires effort and discipline.If we could label it, our history would surely carry the instructions “Some Assembly Required” and perhaps the additional warning “Contents Under Pressure”.7 It needs researchers, historians, film-makers, teachers and others who bring to it ideas and interpretation, vision and values. Ultimately, information becomes knowledge when an individual absorbs it, questions it and integrates it into his or her own experience. Through our professions and personal interests, all of us are trying to help this critical process take place for ourselves and for others.
Assembly is certainly required of the materials which archivists collect and care for. Sometimes these materials speak powerfully and on their own - for example, a striking photographic image or moving letter. Usually, however, they require others to link them together and interpret them, give them context and make them accessible. Unlike library and other published materials, archival records are usually original, unique and one-of-a-kind - “authorized but unedited”, to be understood only in context of their creation and use. They need to be organized and described differently than library materials. There are many other differences, although they are beginning to blur as professional roles and definitions converge in the online information environment.
Archives are a fundamental source of information, evidence, knowledge and sometimes inspiration. The diaries and journals, the photographs, the paintings, the sounds and voices, the records of government, the maps and treaties - all of these collectively document the Canadian experience in its personal, social, economic, political, cultural and other dimensions. They are essential to identifying and understanding the issues, events, individuals and influences that shaped and often continue to affect that development. Archives constitute the legal evidence of what has happened.
1. Sir Arthur Doughty, Dominion Archivist from 1904 to 1935.
2. 431-404 B.C.
3. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Penguin Classics, Baltimore, 1965 (Translated by Rex Warner).
6. Mary Robinson, Keynote Address, International Conference on Hunger, New York University, May 19, 1995.
7. Christopher Hitchens drew a similar analogy in his November 1998 article in Harper’s Magazine on the teaching of American history.