Broken Records

Saturday Night, November 2000

Millions of precious photographs, letters, documents, and files sit in the National Archives. The pile is growing, but already, parts of it are falling apart. Is this the future of Canada’s past?

ONE DAY IN THE SPRING OF 1990, a crowd was milling about by a third-floor office in the West Memorial Building in Canada’s National Archives complex, which sits along a strip mall of national institutions —Parliament Hill, the Confederation Building, the Department of Justice, the Supreme Court — on the west end of Ottawa’s Wellington Street. The archivists were peering over one another’s shoulders at a New York Times article taped to the office door. The headline read, “Lost on Earth: Wealth of Data Found in Space.” The accompanying photograph showed a storage room stacked with rows and rows of steel-canistered computer tapes, and a prim-looking woman sitting at a table, cataloguing the tapes, one at a time, with a pencil. Why, these archivists wondered, was NASA, with its reputation for cutting-edge technology, sorting through data using such crude nineteenth-century methods?

 The article explained that NASA had “lost” a treasure of data gathered over thirty years of space flight. Technically, most of it still existed, but it was on thousands of uncatalogued or poorly catalogued tapes. Sorting through them would require years of ingenious detective work. Many of the tapes were so old that their programming was indecipherable to computer experts, or the machines that ran them no longer existed. Some of the data had already begun to disintegrate. NASA had managed to get astronauts to the moon and back, but it had neglected to set up a proper archival program to make sure that what they found would be accessible to posterity.

At the time, Terry Cook was a department head at the National Archives. “We were all shocked that the most advanced scientific organization in the world should have done this to itself,” he recalls. Then, moments later, he remembered that the Archives was guilty of the same kind of negligence. The Archives is Canada’s official historian, the place where the country’s public records reside for safekeeping. But throughout the seventies and eighties, truckloads of old government documents and unlabelled tapes and disks had frequently arrived there in such a state of disarray that they had been turned away or thrown out. Masses of other records, including data for major scientific studies, were still being lost simply because they didn’t explicitly fall within the Archives’s mandate, and no one else had assumed the responsibility to save them. “With very, very few exceptions,” Cook says, “no Canadian scientific data had been acquired by the National Archives.” Somewhere out there was a big black hole: years’ and years’ worth of studies on wildlife herds in the north, for instance, water purity, and climate patterns. Where exactly was it? Nobody knew.

TERRY COOK IS NOT THE DIMINUTIVE, dusty-fusty person you might expect an archivist to be. A bearded man, six-foot-two and 250 pounds, he is known by his colleagues as “the archival giant.” He has a collection of nearly 1,000 forty-fives, 1,500 LPs, and almost as many CDs, all lovingly chosen, numbered, labelled, catalogued by computer, and, of course, ready to be listened to via his state-of-the-art sound system. A huge Elvis Presley fan, he jokes that “Don’t Be Cruel” was what originally got him interested in “records.”

Cook is, as well, a star in the international archives community, credited with developing a revolutionary method of organizing records that has captured the attention of archivists on all six continents. What pushed him to develop it was another case of missing records. In 1985, in what Cook calls one of his “concentrating moments,” he found himself testifying before the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada. The federal government was starting to move against suspected Nazi war criminals in this country. Cook was called to explain how the Archives could have destroyed almost all remaining immigration records relevant to the investigation. It was seen by the RCMP as a monumental blunder, and by some as a secret conspiracy to thwart the administration of justice. Cook and his colleagues spent an entire day before the Commission, most of it explaining to the judge what seemed to be a paradox: that the regular destruction of such files was — and continued to be — part of the ordinary course of business at the Archives.

For Cook, the Nazi record fiasco, together with the NASA debacle, brought into focus two major problems that face any archives in the modern age, and particularly those, like the National Archives, with dwindling resources. First, how can shrinking numbers of archivists whittle down growing masses of documentation to a small but representative sample that captures the life of a nation, without losing any vital information? Second, how should these records be saved physically to ensure they are accessible not only today—a source of concern, and sometimes frustration, for researchers who depend on National Archives material—but in the future as well? “The archivist’s dilemma is easily stated,” Cook wrote after the inquiry in an op-ed piece for The Globe and Mail. “Destroy the wrong records and you jeopardize the rights of citizens to redress, the need of government to consult records on a recurring basis, the demands of . . . researchers to unravel the past and the cravings of a nation to understand itself. Keep too many records and you create a paper haystack in which few needles can ever be found.”

THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES BILLS ITSELF in its promotional brochures as “Canada’s collective memory,” although most citizens are only faintly, if at all, aware of its existence. Still, without the Archives, a large portion of the country’s culture wouldn’t be quite the same. Pierre Berton’s forty-seven historical titles leave a trail of footnotes leading to the National Archives. “I couldn’t have written The National Dream or The Last Spike, or any of my other history books, without [it],” Berton says. “I spent time there late at night, transcribing original letters by John A. Macdonald, William Van Horne—and in their own handwriting . . . just as they had been written.” The CBC, in producing its thirty-hour dramatic series Canada: A People’s History set up a research office just down the hall from the head national archivist’s. And the Archives was where Margaret Atwood went when she was researching her best-seller Alias Grace (a fictional story set in reallife nineteenth-century Canada)—although, according to Atwood, one collection of letters that would have been particularly useful had actually been thrown out. (“They didn’t know I was going to write a novel,” she says wryly.) It’s not only writers and academics who contribute to the constant but quiet hum of activity. The Archives is used by legal researchers to find documents on Native land claims and treaty negotiations. And every year, 16,000 Canadians make requests to the genealogy department in efforts to trace their family histories. The wartime records are the most frequently accessed, by families wanting to know where and how kin lived and died, or by veterans trying to reconstruct their past.

The Archives was established in 1872 by the government of Sir John A. Macdonald. It began with three empty rooms in a government building, very vague instructions, and a budget of $4,000 (allotted from the Department of Agriculture, which in those days was responsible for “the arts”). Getting the collection started was a slow, piece-by-piece process. Hundreds of letters went out to families across Canada, asking for anything that documented the colony’s evolution into a country. Copies of papers were gathered from the Hudson’s Bay Company archive in London. British War Office records relating to colonial Canada were intercepted in Halifax, en route to Britain. Within ten years the Archives had a clear mandate: “to obtain from all sources, private as well as public, such documents as may throw light on social, commercial, municipal, as well as purely political history.” By the time Arthur G. Doughty became Dominion Archivist and Keeper of the Public Records in 1904, the institution had gained such a fine reputation that American historians trying to set up a national archives in Washington often came to Ottawa to learn from the Canadian example.

Sir Arthur Doughty (he was knighted upon retirement in 1936) became a mythical figure at the Archives. He was the self-published author of six volumes on the colonial wars and of a version of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King—in shorthand, which he thought to be the language of the future. Legend has it he possessed both the virtues and the vices of a born collector, with an acquisitive prowess that bordered on the predatory. He obtained, from Prince Philip’s military alma mater, a room-size model of the fortifications surrounding the battle of the Plains of Abraham. After being presented to Queen Mary in 1923, Doughty wrote in his diary that she mentioned “she had been warned not to leave any loose things about.” Doughty’s insatiable ambition for squirreling away all things significant to Canadian history evolved into a full-scale acquisition program, with a network of regional offices and acquisitions agents actively pursuing leads. He laid the foundation of the Archives’s vast holdings, which include not only written records, but also such artifacts as fiags, medals, uniforms, and an impressive collection of early Canadian art, which, rumour has it, the National Gallery of Canada has coveted, and regretted not acquiring for itself.

At last count, the collections of the National Archives boasted about 330,000 pieces of art, 22 million photographs, and 270,000 hours of film, video, and sound recordings; it held over 10,000 private collections as well as massive amounts of government records. And, by Terry Cook’s estimates, each year the government alone generates enough new paper documents to stretch 144 times around the Earth’s equator, or the distance of eight return trips to the moon. Electronic records, such as computer tapes and disks, exceed paper by a factor of one hundred. So make that 800 times to the moon and back each year, in records that the Archives has to consider for its collections. It would seem an impossible task.

The crisis the National Archives is grappling with is this: not only does it have to continue with its more traditional functions—deciding which older records, such as immigration files, are still useful; making sure mildew doesn’t invade George Back’s sketchbooks from the Franklin Expedition; building from nuts and bolts a projector for viewing unique paper filmstrips taken by Canadian soldiers serving in the Boer War; or restoring the vandalized copy of the Constitution signed by Queen Elizabeth in 1982. (A visitor squirted it with red ink in protest against cruise-missile testing over Canada.) The Archives also has to figure out how to deal with the notoriously fragile and short-lived computer record, which, archivists and computer geeks alike often joke, “lasts forever, or five years, whichever comes first.”

Paul Conway, a librarian at Yale University, calls this problem “the dilemma of modern media.” He has charted a graph going back 4,500 years showing that while our capacity to record information has increased over the years, the lifespan of this information has decreased. Egyptian papyrus fragments from several thousand years ago are fragile but still legible. Parchment manuscripts produced by monks in medieval times remain durable enough to be studied for centuries to come. The situation begins to change, however, in the twelfth century, when parchment was replaced by paper. Papermaking initially used recycled old rags but then switched to wood pulp (mostly pine and spruce), which made for cheap and acidic paper, in turn causing the lifespan of recorded information to start on its precipitous decline. First editions of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, published in 1851, are disintegrating on bookshelves today. And those 150 years are practically an eternity compared with twentieth-century media such as magnetic tapes, fioppy disks, and hard drives, which become unreadable in as little as thirty years. Records stored in the latest electronic, digital, and optical formats may last a little longer, an estimated 100 years, but in that time, the hardware necessary to read those formats will be long obsolete.

TERRY COOK WORRIES about implications of all this. “Without proper care of [records], the planet itself will not survive—the human race,” he says. “You can’t have democracy without good record-keeping and good archives.” How do we know if government was acting high-handedly in the recent Human Resources grants debacle, the apec or Somalia or blood scandals? In every case, the answer is, “Table the records.” If the records haven’t been properly saved, the country, in effect, doesn’t have a memory. And history cannot exist without memory.

The great insight Cook had while defending the destruction of immigration records in the inquiry into Nazi war criminals in Canada, however, was that there was a fundamental misunderstanding about the way an archives goes about its mission to save history. “Most people have the notion that the archivist’s job is all about saving the past,” he says. “Actually, archivists are as much about destroying as they are about preserving. Of the one hundred percent of records out there,” he explains, “the archives saves one, maybe two, percent.”

The tricky part is deciding what to destroy, and when. And for nearly 100 years, that burden has fallen largely on the Archives. According to the National Archives of Canada Act, “no record under the control of a government institution . . . shall be destroyed or disposed of without the consent of the [National] Archivist.” The Archives wants to avoid situations like the time Harry Swaine, deputy minister of Indian and Northern Affairs (1987-1992), returned from a three-week holiday,telephoned the national archivist, and said, “I’m looking at eight hundred e-mails here, and I’m hitting delete, delete, delete, delete, delete. And I wondered, Is this stuff a record?” Of course it was. (At the time there was no explicit directive to save e-mails; today, government e-mail software prompts the user to archive appropriate messages.) “[Government departments] are breaking the law if they destroy a record without our authorization,” says Cook. “The Act imposes a severe burden. So unless we can give them an authorization quickly, we are going to have boxes and boxes piling up in the warehouse.”

This line of thinking was what motivated Cook to develop a more efficient and effective model of how to deal with archives. He calls it the “macro-appraisal approach.” The old approach, Cook explains, was like peeling an onion. The “onion” was a load of documents dumped off at the Archives—the end of the line—and the archivist would peel away one painstaking layer at a time, deciding what should be saved. The macro-appraisal approach, in contrast, takes the onion and bores straight through to the centre and looks at each layer in context with the next and how it relates to the core. Here, the archivist sees a cross-section of information and considers all of it as a whole. In this way, Cook figures, the archivist can determine much more easily which 1 or 2 percent of records is the most relevant and representative sample worth saving.

Rather than being radically new, this is a process that Cook came up with by looking back in history and borrowing from a pre-industrial model of recordkeeping. In the Industrial Age, archivists became lowly clerks, filing records away in basement offices. The information they saved—factory orders and shipping schedules— was a by-product of the manufacturing process, the engine that drove society. Cook recognized that our Information Age is more like the Renaissance and Middle Ages, when information was valued as the key to knowledge. The people in charge of information were Secretaries with a capital “S”—literally, the keepers of secrets who directly served the king or the cabinet. (In the American political system, the president’s chief officers still carry this designation, such as the Secretary of State.) Going back further in time, Cook points out that the ancient Egyptians even had a god of archives, Thoth, who was depicted with the head of a bird, and carrying papyrus scrolls and a pen. He was the symbol of wisdom, the keeper and recorder of all knowledge, and he was always shown sitting directly at the side of the pharaohs. This, Cook argues, is a good analogy for the status archivists should have today. They should be moved, he says, “from the basements [back] to the boardroom,” and returned to a prominent position alongside ceos and government ministers, with a place at the table where the important decisions are made. In the Information Age, information should no longer be treated as a leftover, but rather as a valuable resource to be saved.

Cook’s vision— which has now been adopted by most government departments in Canada, as well as in other countries—transforms the role of the archivist. Archivists now routinely visit government departments and identify which processes they need to document. Often this occurs even before these records are produced ? at the very front end of a record’s life cycle. An archivist tries to enter the minds of the people creating the records by asking questions such as, What’s the main purpose of your job? What kind of records do you create? Why are they organized this way? Where does the information come from and where does it go? Once the archivists understand how a department works, they can decide which samples to save—and authorize departmental records managers to destroy the rest. “That’s their prize for cooperating,” says Cook. “They get to destroy the ninety-eight percent we don’t want.”

When this approach was applied to the first twenty of 150 government departments and agencies, neatly organized collections began coming in, as scheduled, and with detailed indexes, rather than in a mess years after the fact. All the Archives had to do was organize the items into the appropriate containers, slap on a bar code, and put them in storage. This didn’t solve every problem facing the Archives, but it turned at least one mountain they had to climb into a more manageable molehill. In fact, the model was successful enough to have since been adopted by the South African, Australian, and Japanese archives, and studied by the official archives in the U.S. and the U.K.—all of which are in the same predicament as our National Archives. Cook’s model was stalled, however, by federal downsizing in the mid-1990s, when the Archives’s budget was reduced from a peak of $66 million in 1990-91 to $49 million in 1997-98. The number of full-time employees dropped from approximately 800 to 633. Meanwhile, staff cutbacks in the government were inundating the Archives further with records from departments that had been shut down. Terry Cook was among the losses of that period. He couldn’t stand to see the Archives bled of resources and morale, so he left in 1998 to become a freelance consultant to archives around the world. He admits, though, that he keeps in touch with his former colleagues in Ottawa with as many as fifteen e-mails per day. The word there now, he says, is that the newly appointed national archivist, Ian Wilson, is the Archives’s chance to turn things around.

IAN WILSON IS CANADA’S seventh national archivist. He took office in July, 1999, and soon after called an “All-Staff Meeting,” with everyone from the Archives’s nine branches across the country present via video conferencing. The meeting was intended as a pep talk of sorts, because in addition to the funding and staff cutbacks, a not-so-fiattering report on the archives had just been published — the results of a study commissioned by Sheila Copps, the Minister of Canadian Heritage.

The commission’s chair, John English, a history professor from the University of Waterloo, had conducted public and private hearings across the country, and taken submissions by e-mail and on an electronic bulletin board on the Internet. His report, since dubbed the “English Report,” cited major concerns from groups such as Heritage Research Associates, freelance researchers described as “heavy users” of the Archives. They said it was often impossible to obtain material from the Archives in time for their intended use. (University students sometimes didn’t get research results within the span of an academic term.) The Canadian Council of Archives argued that the National Archives was lagging behind the times in making collections available in digital formats. And the Canadian Historical Association complained about “fruitless searches through incomplete electronic finding aids.” But as Wilson pointed out, not far into his ninety-minute speech, the English Report was more than a list of problems. Close to 250 organizations and individuals across Canada had taken the time to contribute to the study, which he felt indicated that there was “a strong level of support for the Archives—that it is still a highly relevant institution, and that people are concerned if it isn’t working properly.” Trying to boost morale, Wilson cited—as he often does— the fine example of Sir Arthur Doughty, the only civil servant for whom there is an official statue. (It stands on the Archives’s back terrace facing the Ottawa River.) Engraved on the statue’s base, and emblazoned on Archives mugs and T-shirts, is a famous Doughty motto: “Of all national assets, archives are the most precious. They are the gift of one generation to another and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization.”

Wilson’s promotional pitch these days also includes the fact that for the first time in history, the National Archives was mentioned, albeit briefly, in the Speech from the Throne delivered last October by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. “The Government will bring Canadian culture into the digital age,” Clarkson said. “[It] will put the collections from the National Archives . . . and other key institutions online.” To be accurate, the Archives has already put a small portion of its collection online—at—an accomplishment that is gushed about like a baby’s first steps. Ideally, each of the hundreds of thousands of items in its collection would be available digitally, and accessible, via the Internet, to classrooms everywhere, from Hairy Hill, Alberta, to Foam Lake, Saskatchewan, and Twillingate, Newfoundland. Despite increased funding in the recent federal budget, however, that ideal may be realized only in the distant future.

But in another sense, strangely, the Archives is actually ahead of its time. It has a new preservation and storage site that opened in 1997, thirty kilometres across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec. Unlike the Archives’s box-like headquarters on Wellington, the Gatineau facility is a futuristic construction that looks like a huge airplane hangar but is made from concrete and steel, with an exterior wall of glass (intended, symbolically, to make the Archives more inviting and accessible to the public). It is an “intelligent building” with computer-monitored temperature- , humidity-, and contaminant-control, and a natural-disaster fail-safe system that weathered the great Canadian ice storm without a flicker. All the machinery that makes this possible is located outside the building, in a visible tangle of pipes and ducts, to provide easy access for repairs and upgrades in decades to come. The site has been designed to last for at least the next 500 years.

Of course, the Archives’s contents—the tapes and disks and cd-roms saved in its storage vaults —may not last nearly that long. Cook’s model helps whittle down the vast universes of information into what’s important to save, but the dilemma of how to deal with modern media with short lifespans remains, to date, unsolved. One proposed solution, not popular among archivists, is to transform the Archives into a cyber museum with working models of every piece of obsolete computer hardware and software. That way, old files could be continually updated on their original technology and accessed in the future. The upkeep for all these systems, however, would be far too expensive, and the space required could eventually leave less room at the Archives for archives. Another option is to dump electronic information worth saving onto high-density cd-roms with sophisticated textretrieval programs (although the cd-roms would themselves need to be upgraded, with the arrival of newer technologies). But test drives of this scheme have called up masses of extraneous and unrelated information. One researcher at the Archives searched records from the now defunct Canada/U.S. Trade Negotiations Office for anything pertaining to the sale of Canadian fresh water to the United States. The over 600 search results obtained with the keyword “water” included notes that said, “Meet me at the water cooler,” and “My report was sure watered down by the boss.” Other items that might have detailed crucial policy decisions didn’t make the search results because they didn’t contain the keyword “water” at all: “About that matter we discussed this morning, the Prime Minister instructs me to tell you that under no circumstances shall we bargain it away unless the United States makes major concessions in agricultural products.”

With these imperfect solutions, the crudest of methods continues—as witnessed by a scene deep inside the world-class Gatineau site that is remarkably similar to that anachronistic NASA situation in the photograph from The New York Times. In the Archives’s storage vault, the walls are lined with rows upon rows of clear-plastic computer-tape canisters, part of a collection of nearly 10,000 nine-track magnetic computer tapes containing data on subjects such as the effects of smoking marijuana, women in the workplace in the 1960s, and patterns of ice movement in the north. Over time, an estimated 5 percent of the information on these tapes either has been destroyed or is disintegrating. Today, an electronic-records archivist is saving what information can be saved and transferring it, one tape at a time, to a more stable digital format. She sits and executes one tape, one transfer. Another tape, another transfer. By the time the migration of data is complete, it will almost be time to start again. This is the future of the Archives. As technology advances, the Archives is frozen in time. It is trapped by the ultimate irony of the information revolution: at the turn of the twenty-first century we may be producing more information than any era before us, but unless we find a way to save it so it lasts, all the future will be left with is the most poorly documented period in history.