What are the differences between archival culture in the U.S. and Canada?

I’ve been invited to give a short talk at an event in Canada and in thinking about what I want to say I am nervous that I may perhaps not have an accurate understanding of how things may differ for our archival colleagues to the north. I think I understand the differences in mechanics–about the words we use, the way we describe things, etc. What I’m not sure I have a good grasp on are the differences in what, for lack of a better term I’ve called “archival culture.” In other words, the ways in which archivists relate to each other, to historians, to patrons, to funders, etc. How are archival organizations in Canada viewed and valued by their society? In what key ways is this “archival culture” different from that of the U.S.? Or is it not so different?

I’d appreciate any thoughts or insights to help me from putting a foot wrong in my talk. And, of course, this may generate an interesting conversation that may help others and be of general interest to many. So, please, comment away and share your thoughts on the differences–or lack thereof–between archival culture in the U.S. and Canada.



Be Sociable, Share!

8 thoughts on “What are the differences between archival culture in the U.S. and Canada?”

  1. I’ve given a couple of talks in Toronto to the Archives Association of Ontario. You have nothing to fear. Canadians and Canadian Archivists are delightful people. It is vitally important that you do not make bad jokes about the War of 1812 this year.

  2. This observation may be reflective, perhaps, of the differences between Americans and Canadians in very general terms: american archivists appear to be more vocal and active than Canadians. The larger american archival institutions are much more visible than Canadian counterparts.

  3. James–yes, thanks, I’ve found them to be lovely when I’ve been to conferences there before. I’m worried about sweeping generalizations about archives in my talk that don’t hold true in this context. And thanks for the reminder to avoid references to the not-so-recent unpleasantness altogether!

  4. Thanks, rg. I also think there is a sense out there that historically (before this past year, anyway) that Canada’s government did a better job providing funding for archives, and that there was more support and appreciation generally than here in the U.S.

    I’ve also heard to said that the professional discourse among archivists is of a higher quality, perhaps reflecting in some way better–or more widespread–professional preparation. But this may just be a case of grass always appearing greener on the other side of the border.

  5. Under Stephen Harper, the Canadian government has literally gutted the Canadian national archives. They’ve stopped buying collections, tried to centralize material, and have encouraged senior archivists into retirement. They have also stopped interlibrary loan via the National Library. After having worked in both the US NARA and the Canadian NAC, as a Canadian, while I can stay that the staff of both are incredible, the commitment to archives and history is stronger in the US. Additionally, under Harper the only history in Canada is hockey and the war of 1812. As for private archives, there is nothing in Canada akin to the Morgan Library and Museum, to give one example, but this is also due to questions of the size and nature of the US economy. Haven’t worked much in civic or provincial archives so can’t comment on them. Cheers.

  6. As a Canadian who attended his first SAA meeting in New Orleans, this summer, one difference that you notice right away is size: there are just a lot more archives and archivists in the United States. Seeing the SAA in plenary is very impressive! But along with being a smaller body, the Association of Canadian Archivists is also a friendly, welcoming body, always happy to have new additions and to celebrate the accomplishments of its more seasoned members. And in addition to the panels and workshops of the annual conference, ACA always includes a good measure of goofy fun, such as the annual east vs. west softball game (all archivists, no ringers allowed – http://archivists.ca/content/annual-east-west-softball-game-results) and the closing banquet and dance (get ready to do the Time Warp). ACA is a very social experience!

  7. I went to archives school in Canada but most of my (still brief) work experience is in the US, so I don’t know how much my impressions reflect actual differences between archival culture in Canada and the US and how much they reflect the different stages of my career. But for what it’s worth, I think these are differences:

    1. Archives seems to be more of a distinct profession in Canada than in the US. There are standalone archives degrees, archives degrees in history departments and archives degrees in library/information schools, just like in the US, but it still seems like archivists are less closely connected to libraries in Canada than in the US. I’d be interested in what archivists who’ve worked in academic libraries in both countries would say about this.

    There’s also a separation from academic history, but I think that’s true in both countries, though the archivist-historian debate seems to have been more heated in the Archivarias of the 80s/90s than in the US journals.

    2. I think this is related to (1): archives and records management seem to be more closely related in Canada, and I think that focus on records is part of what gives the profession a distinct identity. But my program was very records-oriented (as opposed to say, heritage or culture-oriented) so that may be why I have this impression. It wasn’t at all unusual for people to go work for government departments (and not necessarily archives departments) after finishing the program.

    3. There seems to be more awareness of and engagement with other archival traditions. I know many Americans pay attention to what’s happening in other countries – particularly Canada, Australia, and the UK – but it somehow seems more integral to Canadian archival culture, or at least Canadian archival training. I think this stood out pretty clearly in Greg Bak’s and Kat Timms’ presentations at SAA this year. It could have been confirmation bias since I could see from the program that they are from Canada, but even without knowing that I think I’d have guessed that’s where they’re from. Although I suppose the references to fonds, RAD, and diplomatics clearly gave them away.

    (Incidentally, if the commenter above named Greg is Greg Bak, I still owe you a response to your presentation. Sorry I’ve taken so long!)

    4. I don’t know if the Canadian archival discourse is “higher” quality (someone would have to define dimensions for measuring this), but I think it can be more of an academic-type subject in Canada, at least if you compare Archivaria with American Archivist. I’m hesitant to use the theory/practice dichotomy here, but I think the difference is something like that. I also think Canadian archival writing may be assuming – and may be able to assume – more of a common background among its readership than American writing.

    5. Finally, as Greg writes above, the Canadian profession is smaller and as a result I think Canadian archivists probably get to know a larger proportion of their colleagues than Americans do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *