Collaboration – Libraries, Archives and Museums

OLA 2013 Thursday Jan. 31, 2013 – Session 606 – The Library, Archives, Museum Collaboration

The afternoon session on archives expanded on the morning session by delving into broader issues of collaboration between the institutions with often common missions—libraries, archives and museums.

Jennifer Weymark of Oshawa Community Museum & Archives led off with a list of the negatives of not collaborating. In Oshawa at one point three different institutions acted as a repository of Oshawa’s history. All three institutions were actively collecting, but there was no collection agreement between these institutions.

The three institutions were the Oshawa Public Library, the Oshawa Community Museum & Archives (founded by the Oshawa Historical Society in 1957), and the Robert McLaughlin Gallery. In 1985, the Gallery had acquired a large historical photograph collection by the former city archivist Thomas Bouckley. The Community Museum & Archives also collected photographs taken by Thomas Bouckley. In 2010, the three institutions collaborated by republishing a book that showcased the photographs of Thomas Bouckley.

In 2012 the Durham Region Area Archives Group (DRAAG) was formed, with the Oshawa Community Archives, the Oshawa Public Library and the Robert McLaughlin Gallery as founding members. DRAAG is also a chapter of the Archives Association of Ontario. Members of DRAAG include institutions from Ajax, Markham, Pickering, Uxbridge and Whitby.

Collection development of archival material is very different from collection development in libraries. Different public libraries may have similar collections, but because archives deal with primary sources only a single archives institution should focus on the development of a collection by one individual, family or organization. Overlapping primary source collections without collaboration leads to many problems, and DRAAG was formed to prevent those problems.

Researchers often face a challenge in understanding the connections between the different archives and where to find information for their research. The Durham Region Area Archives Group serves to establish better connections between the archives and so improve archive services in general.

Whitby Public Library maintains an archives in the main library building (

Whitby Public Library took over the Whitby Archives from the municipal government in 2005, and incorporated the archives into the new main library building. Complete integration is to be done in 2013.

When the library took over the archives they found a mess. There had been little understanding and communication in the community about the archives. The archivist who had been hired by the city was not given the authority to organize the collection—he was just expected to be a packrat, collecting material without guidelines.

For archive finding aid records, the Whitby Public Library decided to leverage the existing library catalogue software, Bibliocommons. Adding archival material to such a catalogue meant adding them like books and this meant using barcodes. Fortunately the barcodes were put on the archival boxes not on the archival resources directly. However, for individual items not in boxes, barcodes are a problem. There was dissatisfaction expressed at the use of Bibliocommons because library catalogue software is not well-suited to the metadata for the archives. In addition, searching the archives means filtering results in Bibliocommons so as to remove book results when looking for purely archival material.

An alternative is being sought by Whitby Public Library for the archive finding aids. Microsoft Access was suggested for a database, but this ideas received strong disapproval from the audience at the OLA session. There are better options, and I was impressed with some endorsements of the open source software, ICA-Atom.

The original rationale Whitby Public Library had for using library catalogue software like Bibliocommons still seems to hold some merit. Library catalogue software can be very powerful, with many search and report options, and is able to scale to support millions of items. However, proper archive management software has support for a range of functions unique to archives, such as support for legal forms like deeds of gifts.

In summing up, the speaker from Whitby Public Library, Sarah Ferencz, indicated the lessons learned in putting an archives in a library were:

  • Compromise
  • Share knowledge
  • Carve your niche
  • Recognize the differences

Reporting from Simcoe County Museum, Kelley Swift Jones, spoke about the problems with the lack of collaboration in the past between the museum, archives and library. There were limited resources and similar collections mandates. Today there is much better co-ordination between the institutions. The acquisitions process allows the three institutions to determine the best location for objects that have been collected. Archives staff provide historical research to support museum educational programs, exhibits and the collections database. The library offers staffing resources to catalogue and maintain the museum’s research library. The library also shares resources like for museum and archives staff to conduct research, which avoid the duplication of resources.

A highlight of this presentation was the cultural places pass, which was created in collaboration between the libraries in Simcoe County and Sumac, a network of fifteen heritage sites, art galleries, archives and museums in the county. Further collaboration is being planned for exhibition development, research, community programming, and shared storage and collection resources.

“Growth and success is possible through collaboration, not isolation.”

The final part of the session saw a return of Erika Heesen who had helped developed the archives for Leeds and the Thousand Islands. The archives had been founded in June 2010 as a partnership of the municipal heritage committee, the local history society, and the public library board, and was supported by an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant as well as local lecture series on archives. As in Durham Region, there is now a network of heritage organizations that shares knowledge, including news about funding opportunities. The Leeds County Heritage Network was set up in 2011. The common thread running through all the presentations was to avoid the silos where heritage institutions work in isolation, resulting in inefficiencies, lack of knowledge and understanding, and overlapping mandates.

Erika Heesen provided a useful quick chart of the different roles played by the three main types of institutions that should be collaborating:

– lends books and resources
– programming aimed towards learning and literacy
– local history collections

– repository for original records (for an organization, region, theme, etc.)
– a place for researching those records

– collects artifacts that tell a story of a particular organization, region or them
– programming aimed at telling that story through living history, tours, etc.

After the presentations there was extensive discussions with the audience, and several points stood out for me:

  1. Archives are about original records. Despite the recent efforts in collaboration in Oshawa there is still disagreement over which institution should curate a particular collection. Both the archives and art gallery house photographs by Thomas Bouckley, but technically the original photographs fall under the mandate of the archives.
  2. For an archives, documentation of ownership is very important. There should be signed donation forms. Related to that is the importance and complexity of copyright.
  3. A catalogue or set of finding aids are more than just simple inventory tools. Without a catalogue the institution has little intellectual control over the collection. The catalogue is the main pathway to access. It was quite an eye-opener to have seen in these presentations examples of collections at points where there were no finding aids—the utility of a collection diminishes rapidly without cataloguing.
  4. Libraries can form a natural partnership with archives over shared access to local history publications and genealogical resources.
  5. Researchers who use archives should be asked to donate to the archives.
  6. Reproduction of items can form a revenue stream.
  7. Photograph contests where the archives scans the photos brought in by the public have been done at several institutions. Generally these have been small projects that stir interest in the archives and allow the archives to add a bit to the collection, although only in an indirect way as the scanned images are not original records.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway point for me was the frequent references to the Archives Association of Ontario. Membership in this association was seen as critical to the success of the archive’s development in each of these communities. The development of policies and procedures were greatly eased by the support of the association. Ongoing benefits include disaster preparedness. In case of a disaster, membership in the association will trigger the AAO’s Archives Emergency Response Network (AERN).

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