Born and raised in Brandon, Tom Mitchell studied at Brandon University and played hockey for the Bobcats while he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree. He obtained a Masters in Canadian History at the University of Manitoba, and following certification at BU, he spent a decade teaching in the Brandon School Division. But Brandon University beckoned again, and he returned there as a learning skills assistant. He was dean of student services for five years, then registrar for the same length of time. In 1995, he became the university archivist. Although retired for a year, he’s still a fervent archivist and continues to identify himself with the S.J. McKee Archives. (BRUCE BUMSTEAD)
With history as your major focus of study and interest, I can only presume that becoming the university’s archivist was an exciting move for you!
Yes! It’s great fun. And when I went into the archives, I also got back into teaching, because I started teaching for the history department. So I taught history courses through the history department from 1996 until I retired in August, 2011. So I was writing, teaching, doing the archives.
Now you called archiving ‘fun.’ Why is it fun?
Well! History as a sort of generic topic can be divided up some. And universities are mostly identified with academic history the kind you find in textbooks and hear in lectures and so on. It’s an academic discourse, rooted in rationality.
Public history, the broader field, incorporates academic history to some degree, but it’s the kind of history that you find in the public sphere. That is to say, it’s everywhere. It’s in photographs, it’s in furniture, it’s in cairns, it’s in songs. And archives, of course, collect mostly photographs and textual material, but increasingly we’re also collecting audio. So all of this falls into the realm of social memory as well as academic history. So you get to work with academics, but you also get to work with people doing every kind of historical work, from community histories to family histories to popular histories of labour to young women trying out for the role of Tommy Douglas’ wife on a CBC drama. And so it’s great fun because it’s a new challenge all the time.
The complexities of it are a crucial part of what makes it interesting and fun to do. Karl Marx tended to see the past as a kind of burden he talked about the working class burdened with the past, and that was part of their imprisonment because they were tied down by ideas from the past, either ideas that had been stuffed down their throats by feudal lords or bourgeois businessmen or whatever.
But I take a really different view of that. The past and all of its manifestations presents all kinds of openings unsolved business or unfinished business, scores to be settled, directions for people who have no direction. The past is essentially the present, and helps us shape the future.
You’ve outlined why it’s important to preserve our past, and that immediately makes me think of the CKX-TV archives, which have been a concern because of the closure of the station. The CKX archives are owned by CTV because CTV was CKX’s last parent company. But having them inaccessible to the public seems counterproductive. Those tapes are a visual, moving-picture history of our community, and it’s frightening to think that things like that can fall by the wayside.
It certainly is. If you think about archives and you think about social memory, social memory is rooted in organizations, businesses, law firms, universities. It’s rooted in the family. And most crucially, memory, for human beings, doesn’t exist outside of social context. We NEED other people to have memory, or it passes away from us. So CKX is crucial to this civic memory that concerns the public sphere within the community politics and public events. So for CTV, or whoever is responsible for these records, to deny the community access to those records is tantamount to denying the community access to its social memory. So the fact that we don’t have access to this part of the public record undermines the civic culture.
Perhaps CTV feels that the CKX material still has, or still could have, some monetary value to it that they don’t want to just give away?
Well, the way archives work I could, or you could, donate your records to an archives, and impose whatever conditions you wish to their access. So for example, we acquired Lee Clark’s parliamentary records 60 boxes. But the rule on parliamentary correspondence is that no researcher can have access to correspondence between the MP and a constituent for 30 years. The reason is that the constituent reasonably could anticipate that there would be confidentiality. But there is a public interest to be served as well. So that correspondence will sit in the archives for 30 years.
My records, for example I’ve got about 20 boxes of archival records I could donate the stuff to the archives, if they wanted to take it, and I could say, ‘No one can look at this stuff without my written permission.’ What that allows is I can restrict access to my records to serious researchers.
So CTV could say, ‘All right we’ve donated this stuff, we’re going to sign off, but here are the conditions: The material can be used only by students for projects relative to their program. Any use by commercial vendors must be approved by us and we will negotiate the contract for its use.’ That’s all they need to do.
Is a lot of the material archives contain these days in digital form? Or in the process of being converted? Otherwise how does one manage this massive amount of material?
A small fraction would be digitized. This is one of the serious sort of grievances the archival community has with the Library of National Archives, because their claim whoever is running those institutions is that people can access what they need online because the stuff is digitized. The National Archives will never have more than a small fraction of the material that they have in their holdings digitized. Nor should they! Because it’s not sensible to digitize everything in terms of the cost of doing it, the cost of maintaining it on a system and so on.
What we do here is try to digitize high-use things. So it’s a gradual process. But it’s very expensive, and it’s labour intensive. So in some cases it’s sensible, but in many cases, it’s not sensible.
What sorts of materials do you collect?
Correspondence, photographs, negatives, and increasingly, digitally born material. It’s a very complex business in terms of handling different kinds of media.
So how do archives differ from museums?
Museums deal with artifacts. In many respects, museums are kind of a history of consumption. In other words, people did this with this and it cost that and so on. Archives, on the other hand, surround the document or the photograph with historical narratives, because the only way you can make sense of the document or the photograph is context. So you have to be a historian to be a good archivist.
The thing about archives is, oftentimes the sort of haphazard nature on the one hand, or the very focused nature of archives on the other, means that archives are often gatekeepers to the past. And one of the things that I’ve been trying to get for the S.J. McKee Archives, because our holdings are very limited, are primary sources correspondence and so on from World War II veterans. Because I know that, generationally, we’re at a time when a lot of World War II veterans are dying. So we have acquired some records of that.
But if you don’t take the initiative to do that, these things end up in the landfill. So the fact that this archives exists here, and the initiatives we’ve taken and the profile we’ve developed, means that records that would have been thrown out are at least examined, appraised and considered for retention. And the tragedy of the federal government’s attack on archival institutions across the country is that that job of helping to maintain healthy societies through a vital social memory has been terribly undermined, because they have no interest, apparently, in supporting cultural institutions that are concerned with social memory. And social memory is so crucial, not just to the public sphere, but to individuals, and also helping new Canadians develop an understanding of where this country came from.
If people have journals and records or old letters, do you have the staff, do you have the capacity, to handle this stuff, to have someone look at it, to see if there’s a connection to the war or to something that’s maybe vital to public knowledge?
The short answer is ‘no’ because only one person works in the archives. But what I always ask people to give serious thought to, if they have any collectibles, any archival records that they think might be of value written things or photographs is to put them in their will. So they put in their will, ‘If no member of the family wishes to retain my personal records, including Grandpa George’s whatever, these records should be donated to the S.J. McKee Archives.’ Then the executor is duty-bound to ask the archives if they are interested in those papers. So that way, those records will be taken care of.
The other thing that archives do is, if you showed up with photographic albums of hockey teams from Fort Frances, we’d say, ‘Well, the first rule about archival material is that it’s more valuable closer to home. So what we’d recommend you do is talk to the archives in Fort Frances. Here’s their contact information. If they’re not interested, come back and talk to us.’
The code of ethics for archives is you never, never, never compete for archival materials from another region or another institution. Because if you don’t have that context, you don’t have a social memory, and you’re not really human you’re a void. And archives are a small part of that force for good mental health, good social health. If you don’t have an archives in your community, you’re asking for trouble. You really are.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 20, 2012