Artificial collections are a unique facet of archival work. These collections exist when documents are collected by one or more persons; most often the original order and provenance are lost (sometimes purposefully, sometimes not). To learn more about original order and provenance, view my post, Organizing my First Archival Fonds.
I began working at the Centre for Canadian Historical Horticultural Studies at Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) in the summer of 2017. The Centre has a rich archive full of historical documents chronicling the history of Canadian horticulture. One portion of this collection has fonds with provenance and an original order. These collections were organized according to the Rules of Archival Description (RAD) by RBG's volunteer archivist, Marie Minaker. These collections include famous plant hybridizer Isabella Preston’s documents, as well as Bob Keith’s CBC radio scripts from his popular garden show. Several RBG volunteers organize and care for 30,000 trade seed catalogues, which make up the next portion of the collection. The last segment consists of documents sorted by subject heading in boxes and filing cabinets. Ina Vrugtman, RBG’s first librarian/archivist spent countless hours passionately collecting information about Canadian horticulture. These subject files provide information about prominent horticulturists, gardens, experimental farms, school programs, pesticides, garden pests, etc.
One of my major tasks has been making a project out of the artificial collection and organizing it in accordance (as much as possible) with RAD. I spent the first month of my job reading documents in the boxes and cabinets. Familiarizing myself with the documents gave me a crash course on Canadian horticultural history, allowing me to place individual documents in a larger context; it also revealed the extensive amount of information contained in our holdings. Afterward, I decided to organize a collection on Canadian Horticultural Education, given that we had numerous documents on this topic. Erin Aults, RBG’s Librarian and Archives Specialist, and Dr. David Galbraith, Head of the Science Department, suggested that I also organize a collection on horticultural societies. garden clubs, and flower societies.
*All photographs are courtesy of the Centre for Canadian Historical Horticultural Studies
I had never worked with an artificial collection before. Pulling documents from established folders meant disrupting the order that Ina had filled them in. Was it an archivally sound practice to break up an artificial collection? Since Ina was the person who put it together, would that mean she was the creator of this large collection? How would I re-arrange an already arranged collection? Did it matter that this material came from various unknown sources, rather than having one or more distinct donors? With all of these questions in mind I set to work. Erin and I poured over archival books and articles, asked lots of questions, and tried to create a system that worked. Ultimately we decided that researchers' access to our documents was the most important goal. Organizing documents in a logical, self-contained collection and uploading them online was going to be very useful to our users (and will hopefully attract new ones, too). Providing access is one of the most important steps an archive can do. If people do not know about the documents, then how will they be able to use them? Providing access to these collections became the driving force behind my work. Thus RAD became a guideline, rather than a rule. I adhered to it where I could but also acknowledged that my collection was not going to fit its model perfectly.
I pulled documents from boxes and folders to add to my new, artificial collection. Now, all of these documents are in one place and have a finding aid which easily points researchers to their location. The individual documents now relate directly to the others in the collection. In other words, if researchers want to study the history of Canadian horticulture, all the documents are in one place. They can compare how, for example, the history of the Ontario Agricultural College’s beginnings were similar or different to that of the Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture.
We had many interesting documents in the library serials, including horticultural society yearbooks, flower show programmes, and plant lists. Erin and I decided that some of these documents, some dating back to the early 20th century, should be seen as archival materials, rather than library materials. The difference is in how they are stored and preserved. I pulled large amounts of materials out of the serials shelves and placed them in acid-free folders, and then into acid-free boxes. Moving anything in a library or archives requires that that information be recorded. I consulted RBG’s library catalogue and added the new location to the notes, making it clear where the material is now stored.
As discussed earlier, these documents did not have a provenance or original order. I did my best to place documents in an order that could benefit researchers. In the case of the horticultural societies, I organized the series of societies alphabetically, and within those series documents were organized chronologically.The finding aids were then uploaded to Archeion, the Archives Association of Ontario’s public database of its members' collections.
The Completed Project
All of the projects turned out wonderfully. I arranged and described them, and then uploaded them online. If you are a researcher interested in learning more about the documents in the collections, please check out the finding aids of: Canadian horticultural societies collection; Canadian horticultural education collection; Canadian flower societies collection; and/or Canadian garden clubs collection. Each collection outlines very important parts of Canadian horticultural history. There are only a few scholars who have written about the history of gardening and horticulture in Canada, meaning that there are a plethora of original articles and books just waiting to be written!