City archives deserve a proper home
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Archives are often in the news. The recent discovery of residential school records in archives in Rome by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba and the U.S. National Archives’ pursuit of the presidential records of Donald Trump are recent examples.
Archives seldom make the news as an election issue, although they should in the current Winnipeg municipal election. Our City of Winnipeg Archives, a municipal agency housing priceless and irreplaceable historical records, is in desperate need of a proper facility.
The archives are in peril, at risk of fire, flood and decay. The Association for Manitoba Archives urges Winnipeggers to raise this concern with mayoral and council candidates and vote for those who support a proper building for the archives.
And with Winnipeg’s 150th birthday quickly approaching in 2024, what could be a more fitting and lasting way to celebrate that historic milestone than by providing a safe and accessible home for our archives?
The archives’ ability to make their unique contribution to effective and transparent civic administration and community well-being was dealt a terrible blow in 2013, when a torrential rainstorm tore through the roof of the Carnegie Library building that housed and was being renovated for the archives.
That forced the complete evacuation of the records, staff and public service to a supposedly temporary location in what the Winnipeg Free Press described as a “metal shed” in an industrial park on Myrtle Street.
The city’s own 2016 assessment of the Myrtle warehouse notes its “limited administrative office space and public access space, hard-to-find location, substandard storage for archival materials, limited space for appraisal/description projects, no space for conservation/preservation work critical to facilitate access to and long-term preservation of core archival materials, no space for outreach programming.”
As a result, the records are deteriorating and are highly vulnerable to fire and water damage.
After much lobbying of city council by the Association for Manitoba Archives and others, a consultant’s report and broad public consultation, including with the Indigenous community, the city has yet to make a financial commitment to provide an appropriate facility for the archives.
Why is a proper archives facility important?
The archives are a unique asset whose holdings document our city’s extraordinary history since the 1870s. Their records (from council minutes, correspondence, photos and films to architectural drawings, including records of the municipalities that came together to create modern Winnipeg) occupy more than three kilometres of shelf space.
The archives also acquire records donated by private individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to our city. These records are to be found nowhere else. They are not in a local library, museum, or any other archive. Only the city archives have the mandate to acquire, preserve and make them available.
The government records are evidence of the city administration’s actions and, with the private records, they can also be used for a wide variety of purposes, including the archives’ own work on reconciliation with Indigenous people and the work of Indigenous filmmakers Jesse Green and Vanda Fleury-Green on the grievous impact on the Shoal Lake 40 community of Winnipeg’s access to its water.
For a homeowner researching his property, a family historian tracing the residences of her ancestors or an academic studying race relations in the city, the records in our archives are essential.
The city archives facility is the physical infrastructure that preserves these records, no less important than the infrastructure for water, waste and roads. They are essential to hold municipal government to account, the basis for inquiries, audits, access to information requests and citizen research into municipal policies, from traffic cameras to urban renewal.
Books and publications of all kinds in libraries and stores, exhibits in museums, knowledge about historic sites, the restoration of older buildings and heritage precincts, and production of television, radio and internet programs, documentaries, novels, plays, dance and music are based on archival records.
Archival records create jobs, spinoff economic activity and tax revenue.
The city archives have never had a proper home, languishing in obscurity while we celebrate new or expanded libraries, the new Inuit Art Centre at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the creation of Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park, the rebirth of Dalnavert Museum, renovated older theatres, the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the expanded Manitoba Museum exhibit space, the new Aviation Museum building, the state-of-the art Centre du patrimoine Archives, and the new facility planned for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Archives.
It is important to remind candidates of the city archives’ foundational role in municipal governance and community life. Let’s ask them to make a proper home for the archives a centrepiece of our celebration of Winnipeg’s upcoming 150th birthday.
Tom Nesmith was a citizen member of the City of Winnipeg records committee and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and professor emeritus of archival studies in the department of history at the University of Manitoba.
Updated on Wednesday, September 21, 2022 8:23 AM CDT: Adds photo