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Letter to the Editor: Closing Wetaskiwin’s Archives

Letter to the Editor by Carolyn Hill

While I sincerely appreciate the dedication that the 24/7 Response Hub and Shelter organization shows in helping the vulnerable of our society, I ask why this program could not have been implemented without destroying the many years of work and the thousands of hours of volunteer labour that have made the City of Wetaskiwin Archives a respected member of not only this community but also the provincial and national archival community. In contemporary times, it may interest you to learn that the National Archives of Canada considers saving documentation of the Covid19 pandemic a national priority so that future researchers could learn from our experience. What’s that you say? Preserving evidence for the future? Isn’t that what an Archives does? Yet our City Council votes to close our Archives because (a) the archivist resigned and (b) neither Council nor City Administration understands the function of archives or what is in the collection.

A little history is warranted. I was the City Archivist for twenty-five years from 1985 to 2010 when I retired. Our budget was never large but I was responsible for deciding what the needs of the Archives were. Here in Wetaskiwin the Archives position has been downgraded for several years. The budget has been reduced to bare bones, while a Communications Department has been introduced into the City Budget. The Archivist has no control over her budget. She has been unable to take part in training opportunities presented by national and provincial archival organizations. She has had to use Preservation funds to provide displays for the City and other organizations in the community, and has been unable to access provincial or federal grants because the City did not approve new policies deemed necessary to be an accredited Archive. Up until that time, The City of Wetaskiwin Archives, started in 1977 by dedicated volunteers, has always been held as an example of a well organized and properly managed regional archive for other institutions to follow. Most of the projects at our archives were undertaken with provincial and federal grant funding. These include constructing a fire safe vault which is humidity controlled to preserve historical documents, all housed with specialized, movable, shelving permitting easy access. Projects approved for Federal funding were deemed important to national interests and were rigorously graded in competition for funding with much larger institutions such as the United Church of Canada Archives. The most recent Archivist, with her intelligence, industrious work ethic and dedication is not the reason for the decline of our archives. Its downgrading can be credited to the City Administration and Council.

It has been stated by the Mayor and City Manager that the Archives had to be closed because the Archivist (or Records clerk as the position is now designated) resigned. This is an example of attaching blame to the employee least responsible for the closure. Would not the reasonable procedure be to advertise for a replacement? Why not for this position? As to Administration and Council not understanding the archives or the collection, why is this? The information pertaining to the collection is in catalogues and indexes on line available at any time for access by interested persons. Council was given opportunities over several years to visit the archives or to have special presentations made at any time convenient for administration or Council members. In fact this information, which is constantly updated, has been available in one form or another for over forty years!

City Council has also stated that” this closure would allow the city to consult with stakeholders on how the Archives can best serve the needs of the community while also positioning it for long-term success.” The Genealogical Society has already given its views on this closure. The archive receives at least over 365 requests for assistance each year. This number shows to me that it is well valued by its stakeholders. To position it for long term success is dependent on the City valuing and respecting the Archives department and its staff and being willing to undertake the work necessary to understand the complexities of archival work. In the digital age, it is far more than the antiquated notion of confining papers to dusty boxes.

The Archivist resigned because she had been trying to do her best for the City for ten years and with little or no acknowledgment of her hard work and achievements. In the age of COVID, whatever the merits of reorganizing the vast majority of her space for the assistance of our vulnerable citizenry, the effect was to relegate her to reduced quarters in an unsatisfactory, small backroom in the same building. I know this woman, a mother of three small children. What of her health and safety? Ask yourself! Would you want your daughter working in confined space sharing common areas with a wide variety of strangers?

The area to be her office and research room was completely inadequate. Unduly small, it was not designed to additionally house the reference library. Neither could its small size contain necessary preservation and research equipment. These include specialized scanners, microfilm readers, and large tables enabling maps and plans to be spread out for easy purview, consultation, and researcher discussion. Yet this dereliction to provide for the City’s Archives, or Archivist, can surprise no one. In 2018 when the existing building, the old City Hall as many of us knew it, now referred to as the Civic Building was put up for sale there was no plan in place then for the Archives. At that time our Mayor vowed in a letter to his citizens that the archives would not be closed. Sound familiar?

In conclusion, I am appalled that not one person in authority at the City or on Council thanked her for her contributions or offered to assist her to move all of the items in the archives to the new back room. In fact several volunteers, including men who moved the massive antique furniture that belonged to the archives, came in on their own accord to help her in this enormous task to keep the entire archives assets safe. So now the City Administration and City Council can look in the fully packed vault and know that someone will have to determine what these priceless assets are worth.

In short, Wetaskiwinites, this is our heritage. You can insist that City Council takes steps to protect, preserve, and nurture that which belongs to all of us. Or, will we succumb to the temptation of some of our American cousins to cancel, erase, and destroy our past?

— Carolyn Hill, Wetaskiwin