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Doughty, pater familias of the National Archives

The Archives had become a central and active cultural institution for Ottawa in those early decades of the century. There was no National Library or Museum, the National Gallery was somewhat in the background and quite controversial. Doughty created a different kind of archives in the old building that he was given on Sussex in 1907 (now the National War Museum). If we were to walk into it today we wouldn’t think of it as an archives; there were exhibits of artifacts that Doughty had collected, maps, war trophies, costumes. In some ways we’re moving back to something more holistic in archives and starting to recognize that to understand the past one needs all forms of evidence. You need documents, the multimedia documentary records, but also artifacts, furniture, some record of buildings and landscape, or we are failing history. To be in keeping with R.G. Collingwood’s description of history as the imaginative re-enactment of past events, we have to rethink how we present the evidence of our past. An historian tries to understand all the evidence and ask how a decision was made in a certain way in the past. To understand what influenced an individual in that situation, one needs the whole ground of evidence.

Interviewer: The rebirth of total archives.

Mr. Wilson: It’s total archives to me. We talked about multimedia fonds — one of my questions to my class at the University of Toronto was this: you have all of the papers of a Canadian artist, all of her annotated books, her whole studio set up with the pallet, the object she was painting, the studio itself with the light coming in as it did in that building — what’s the fonds?

The fonds is not just a body of papers but that whole body of evidence that you need to understand the past and the individual in the context of her time. That’s the fun part to me, and what the new media are allowing us to do is to go back to that holistic approach. We can break down many of the barriers that we’ve created for certain curatorial reasons. We have to keep photographs in a certain way, art in another environment and manuscripts in yet another. The real power of the new media is in allowing us to pull it all back together again, much in the way that Doughty was trying to do in the first decades of this century. This entails new relationships with other archives, with the gallery and museums, libraries and parks in the Heritage portfolio.

Interviewer: Was he more of a collector than an archivist?

Mr. Wilson: He was a collector but he also had a romantic vision of what history was all about. For the Quebec Tricentenary of 1908, he was trying to do something very large, to create the historical myth of Canada on which Canadian identity and unity could rest. He started to become concerned with the writing of historical textbooks, English and French, in the 1890s. They were different stories about different pasts, and politically divisive. He tried in his writing to create a new myth in which no one was humiliated. As for the events of 1759-60, he proposed that both sides won, both Canadian sides won, Wolfe certainly at the battlefield on September 13, but later at the Battle of Ste-Foy the French Canadian Militia beat the English, forcing them back inside the walls of Québec. Both sides waited to see which fleet would arrive in the spring. Doughty, in his view, was trying to create a sense that all Canadians won in 1759-60, that it was a new nation for which he was trying to establish some kind of unifying mythology right at the centre point of Canadian historiography, the Plains of Abraham.

We started off talking about my thesis, getting involved in Doughty’s story changed its whole direction. I realized that Adam Shortt and his Board of Historical Publications was just a small aspect of the much larger story of Doughty and the Archives and the intersection of history, culture, and politics. An archivist has to recognize that we are at a meeting point between politics and academic, historical interpretation. We all have to realize that we interpret one to the other, sometimes it’s not so easy.

Interviewer: To return to R.G. Collingwood’s “imaginative re-enactment of past events”, there are times in scholarship when one’s struggle is rewarded, when the psychological and intellectual meet with a nearly sensual pleasure in a realization or discovery — what might be called an ‘ah ha’ eureka moment.

Mr. Wilson: I think that comes with the enjoyment of working with the original source material. I was phenomenally frustrated as a student because we were dealing with all of these textbooks with all of the same standard rehearsal of events and facts, until I finally got into the original sources. It showed me that some of the greatest fulfillment to be had as an archivist comes in reference work alone.

Looking back at the earliest stages of my career, working with researchers using the Queen’s collections — and there are some extraordinary collections there — I realized there was another kind of pleasure to be had with archives, in discovery and in making materials available for the first time. We acquired records long lost in the attics and basement. From the basement of City Hall, for example, came all of the official records of the City of Kingston back to the 1830s. They were piled on the floor of a jail cell, we took them into the archives to be cleaned up and arranged with descriptions, which gave them intellectual context, and then made them available to the public. Watching researchers use this material was very satisfying, seeing a genealogist spend an extraordinary amount of time and effort over material to come up with one fact for example. Yes, I’ve heard it walking through the reading room or the microfilm room, you know, sort of a yell, “I found it!”.

Interviewer: We may have a mounting morass of information because, and it’s something we’ve learned from T.V., we have lost the ability to discriminate, we’ve acquired a habit of taking everything in and valuing nothing.

Mr. Wilson: And having a form of collective amnesia. If you ask someone what were the main news items 12 months ago, would they know? What was that referendum about around Charlottetown? Anybody remember?

Interviewer: What was the question?

Mr. Wilson: Anyone trying to remember would have to come to the Archives and find the record or the TV news from those nights when we paid such close attention to it. In this information morass I think we really have to be careful about what the archival role is, and focus on that. I think it goes back to one of the more ancient definitions of archives, that archives are the records that are retained in the context of their creation as evidence of actions, decisions and transactions. Archives are evidence and if we maintain it in the context of its creation, with the metadata or other descriptive data as to who created it, when it was created and why, we can prove custody and control and be sure of its authenticity. Then we can go into court with those records and prove them where we need to, on First Nations land claims or other kinds of issues. The historical researcher of the future can also rely on them for their research.

That is our piece of this total information morass, not all the other random information that’s out there. It’s sometimes difficult to work through it all and what it means.

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