Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/10/2017 (244 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For Shelley Sweeney, being head archivist for the University of Manitoba’s Archives & Special Collections department is a job she loves and has enjoyed doing since 1998. She is just the second person to take on the role of head archivist in the department’s history.
The university’s archives were established in 1978, but the first collection was acquired in 1962. That belonged to German-born Canadian writer Frederick Philip Grove, also known as Felix Paul Greve, who was one of Canada’s most important Prairie writers. His work included Settlers of the Marsh and In Search of Myself.
Interesting fact: Greve faked his own death in Germany to avoid prosecution (money issues) and reappeared in North America as Grove. This is just one example of the interesting stories one can unearth working as an archivist.
In an email interview, Sweeney opens a door into the world of collecting and preserving the university’s and a part of the province’s history.
FP: What is the role of archivist working for the university?
SS: As the head, I manage the university archives and publications, special collections of private records, and the rare book collection. I am also the university archivist and so am responsible for collecting materials relating to the history of the university. Because we do not have a university historian, I play a modest role with regards to that as well. I depend on my staff for their knowledge and expertise, of course.
FP: How big is the archives? How much of the archives material comprises of photographic images, film or video? And what is the oldest photograph residing in the archives?
SS: An exact number is impossible to say. But we have approximately 14,000 feet of records (growing practically by the hour!), well over 500,000 photographs, about 4,000 films, videos, and audio recordings of various formats. We additionally have probably in excess of 15,000 maps, architectural plans, posters, and other oversize materials such as flags, banners, and other similar materials. The collection has been growing so quickly of late, we have not been able to keep up with recording the total numbers. We normally receive about 300 feet of textual records per year.
The oldest photograph residing in the archives? That’s a tough one. I’ve sent an email to my colleague, Lewis St. George Stubbs, but I would think it would be a daguerreotype in the Pugh Family fonds, dating before 1860. (Stubbs did confirm Sweeney’s estimation.)
FP: How does your department acquire material and how much of the material is given or offered to the archives?
SS: For university records, we work with the university records manager to transfer permanently valuable records to the archives. With regards to private records, currently people come to us and offer us materials.
Based on the description of the materials, we assess them to find out how closely they fit into our collecting mandate. If they don’t fit our mandate, we try to pass donors on to other institutions in town. If the materials fit our mandate, then we ask to physically see the materials and appraise the records based on the description as well as the physical contents. The reason we typically do not approach donors is because we have so many collections being offered to us. Those records keep us busy!
There is a third category of records that are sold to us through book dealers. Thanks to generous donors and a modest acquisitions fund, we have been able to buy early Manitobiana, such as a photo of Louis Riel and some of his counsellors, or a Manitoba cookbook from the beginning of the 20th century. This last category of records is extremely small compared to the volume of records we receive as donations every year. For private donors we can provide a tax receipt, which is an incentive for some donors to donate.
FP: What goes into the decision to add a document, book or photograph to the archives?
SS: Except for very old documents or photographs, we normally collect the total records of an individual, family, or organization, that are deemed permanently valuable. We look at how closely the records fit our collecting mandate, which is very much university and Manitoba based. We also look at how closely the creator of the records is associated with this province. Then we consider our global collection and how well the records might complement what we already have. We try to avoid collecting records that provide the same type of information as collections we already have. Then we look at the universe of possible records and collecting institutions and ask — are these records so important that someone needs to collect them and should that institution be us? This is the history of this province and we are responsible, along with our fellow Manitoban archivists, in ensuring that records exist for members of the public, students, and scholars to use now and for the future. It is a heavy responsibility and we are very much aware that we don’t want to make a quick decision. All of us are keen to do whatever must be done to provide the most comprehensive picture of the province. That being said, all of our institutions are limited, in some cases severely limited, in accepting materials because of the heavy demands they make on staff, money and infrastructure. It is a fine balancing act.
FP: When new material arrives for the archives, what is the average time it takes for it to be catalogued and made accessible to anyone who wants to see it?
SS: The average time from acquisition to access can be anywhere from a year to 20 years! It depends on what the demand is for the material to be used. Generally, if researchers are waiting on a collection we try to process those first. In addition, if we are providing a tax receipt, we must process those papers quickly as well.
That still leaves a number of collections that come in every year that are not processed. Federal and provincial grants do help us to tackle the backlog, but in the last five years or so we have been losing ground as so many collections have been coming into the archives. This is due, I think, to the nature of the collecting public. Many of the people who collected these records are of an age that they cannot care for the records themselves anymore and young family members are not interested in keeping the records for themselves, but are happy to place them in a public institution to make them available to everyone.
Likewise, many organizations, such as the Ukrainian National Home, are winding down as the younger generations are not interested in maintaining them. The greatest amount of physical records were likely produced between the late 1950s and the early 2000s and the greatest amount of those records are just beginning to enter the archives.
Today, the volume of born digital records is skyrocketing, but many of those records, such as emails, photos on Instagram or Facebook, or electronic records, will likely be lost since the capacity to accept these types of records is currently very limited.
(Born digital records are images made with a digital device, such as a digital camera or a phone camera. Digitized records, in reference to images, are photographic prints scanned and saved as digital files.)
FP: How many photographic collections does the university have? Henry Kalen’s images are a part of the archives. How did the archives acquire his images?
SS: We have many photographic collections, but the major ones are the Winnipeg Tribune Archive, the Robert Taylor Archive, the Henry Kalen Archive, and the Hugh Allen Archive.
Taylor, as you may know, was a nature photographer who was responsible for putting Churchill on the map as the polar bear capital of the world. Hugh Allen worked for the Winnipeg Tribune and was also an independent photographer who covered many sports activities.
Our most famous photographic collection, which also has a significant textual component, is the Hamilton Family fonds of séance photos. That collection has an international profile.
We received the Kalen collection from his widow, Gloria Kalen (she recently passed away), thanks to the good work of Serena Keshavjee at the University of Winnipeg. She had worked on a major book on modernist architecture in Winnipeg and had worked closely with Kalen. When he died, she assisted his widow in placing the records with us.
FP: From the images that make up the archives, are there any that are your personal favourites?
SS: Absolutely. My personal favourites are the Hamilton Family séance photos. Some of them are on their way in the next while to be displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. They have been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as well as in Sweden and Paris. They have been featured in films, television documentaries, a novel and a play. They have been immortalized in music and have been the inspiration for countless exhibitions
Outside of these extraordinary records, however, one of my personal favourites is the story behind the acquisition and exhibition of a carte de visite of Louis Riel and his counsellors dating from 1869. It was acquired from an auction in Australia by a book dealer on the West Coast, who sold it on to another book dealer in town, who sold it to us as part of a larger collection of eight photos. We created a virtual exhibit and a physical exhibit and held an opening, which coincidentally occurred two hours after the Supreme Court announced its decision relating to the land grant that was given to the Métis, which negotiated settlement was fashioned in great part by Louis Riel, to end the Red River resistance!