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Archives 101: What Are They and Why You Should Care

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at McGill chapter.

What are archives? Most people have a vague idea, but the truth is only a handful of people know how to access them and incorporate them into their daily lives. Archives are not just for academics or students doing research, they represent a look into the lives of historical communities and often shape the way we think of the past. I sat down with Taylor Lacaillade, a second-year Masters student in McGill’s Information Studies graduate program who’s worked with a labour union archive before, to talk about archives and why people should give them more thought. 

Alexa Cárdenas for Her Campus McGill: Let’s start with the basics, how would you describe an archive?

Taylor Lacaillade: An archive is a repository for documents that show some kind of transaction or event and usually are of some kind of historical significance, either to a larger community or some kind of organization or business. 

HC: Why is it important to have archives?

TL: It’s important to have archives because these are spaces where these records are preserved and also made easily accessible for researchers to use. Without archives, people who are in control of these records, over time as they become more useless (for example, historical McGill documents that are no longer necessary for them to use) sometimes will be just thrown away. And therefore, if a researcher really wants to look at that kind of subject, they won’t really be able to access those records or papers. It’s also important to have archives as ways to keep organizations accountable, as a way of preserving their history so people will know exactly what [these organizations] were doing and not have that information be buried. Without an archivist, these kinds of organizations might attempt to throw away any documents they have that would prevent them from keeping a clean record for themselves.

HC: Who decides what to keep in an archive? What’s the criteria for accepting something or for disposing of it?

TL: Really good question. I think this is something that’s becoming a big issue within archives because, historically, archivists describe themselves as “neutral hoarders of history” but now we’re talking more about how there’s an intense human bias that comes into play. The first step is getting something from a donor: the person who has collected or created the documents is the one to initiate this kind of process, usually. In that case, they gather what they consider historically or organizationally significant, which is where the aspect of human bias comes in. Then, once the archive receives it, they have to look at a series of criteria in regards to their mission statement or mandate. For the most part, every document that is minutely important will be kept, but too many copies of things, large physical items like filing cabinets, materials that are damaged to the extent they are unreadable, and things that could be a danger to other items in the collection would be disposed of. 

HC: So, from what you’re saying, archives can and should be political; however, there are many factors that affect what’s kept in the archive. What do you think about places that want to keep archives “neutral”?

TL: This is where my perspective differs from other archivists, particularly older archivists, where, for me, I think it’s impossible for an archive or organization to remain politically neutral. The act of archiving something is inherently political: when you look at some kind of historical event, you have to acknowledge whose voice is being recorded and deemed significant enough to be placed into an archive. And even then, once it hits the archivist’s hands, acknowledge how the information is described by the archivist. Something I talked about in a paper I wrote where I focused on queer community archiving was the way archivists describe documents having to do with queer history really alters how people perceive those documents.

For example, there is a huge difference between labelling something “1800s lesbian or bisexual women’s documents” versus “1800s close female friendships documents” (which was the way it was called back then). This is a big issue, because if a researcher goes into it and they don’t have enough background knowledge to read between the lines, they’ll just say “oh, you know, they’re just close friends,” when in reality we know the document might need to be described differently. But of course, describing it as “wlw relationships” would be a very political move at an archive, specially considering what language was used at that time. 

Archiving as a field has always prided itself on being inclusive of all perspectives; however, often, archives don’t do this in practice. 

HC: What’s one misconception about archives you’d like to address? 

TL: The perception that the archives have all of the information. I think one of the most important aspects of archival literacy is acknowledging that the archives don’t exactly have the truth or don’t have all the perspectives. When you see a historical document in an archive, you have to really read between the lines. What isn’t presented in archives is just as important as what is in the archive.  

HC: What’s one quality you’d like to see in your fellow archivists?

TL: I really wish there was more acknowledgment of the inherent political-ness of archives. There’s a lot of discussion about this but you don’t see it much in the literature of archives. I think we spend so much time focusing on the historical definition and perception of archives that we don’t discuss how political it can be and how operating an archive, collecting that kind of information and making it accessible is also a political move.

HC: You had to take a class called Archival Literacy, which is about teaching people how to interact with archives. Why is that important?

TL: Archives provide primary sources for people to look at. If you are a student who is researching anything and you need primary sources, you might think “all the information I need is online,” when in reality a vast majority of it has not been digitized yet. The real meat of material that you can look at and pick apart and analyze is still on some piece of paper in an archive somewhere. This is the same for academics and for people who are just trying to find out more information about a subject. Knowing how archives actually operate and knowing how to use them is important because it will prevent you from thinking of archives as mysterious places where the information and documents get lost. They weren’t lost, they were there, you just needed the skills necessary to go into the archive and request the documents that you were looking for. 

HC: Can you tell us a bit about McGill’s archives? What kind of experiences have you had with them?

TL: McGill archives have a variety of different collections, I don’t know all of them off the top of my head but I know two main groupings of records, just because I’ve worked with them in some way, shape, or form. One is anything having to do with the history of McGill, like different student organizations, founders documents, transcripts from hundreds of years ago—you’ll even be able to find evidence of all the shitty things McGill has done at the archives. The other is from organizations that have entrusted McGill with their records, one of which is the Japanese Canadian Cultural Society. McGill archives is not just about McGill, they do store other significant things about the city. If you’re interested in researching a project that might have literally anything to do with Montreal, or Canada in general, I definitely suggest checking out McGill archives. 

HC: Why did you get interested in archives?

TL: When I was an undergraduate student, my original field of study was Political Science and I had a labour union focus. I was alerted by one of my close friends that there was a labour union archive housed within my old university. My friend recommended me for a job there, and, luckily, I got it. While I was working there as the archivist’s assistant (helping him with the data entry, with looking through the things that had been donated, describing them) listening to him talk about the significance of archiving for labour history specifically, I realized that’s something I really wanted to do, that archiving is a field where I can make some kind of difference. 

HC: Final message for people interested in going into an archive? 

TL: Remember that when you go into an archive, the content you request will not be ordered usually in a way that you expect it to be ordered because a lot of archivists will keep documents in the original order the donor kept them in whenever they receive files. Be ready to do a little bit of searching! 



Image by Alexa Cárdenas.


Lexie is a 22-year-old undergraduate student from Panama. She is majoring in Honours English Literature and minoring in Japanese. She is very passionate about social activism, especially within LGBTQ+ and ethnic minority communities, as well as feminist post-colonial literature. In the future, she would like to open a publishing house that focuses on authors of colour.