Last winter I organized an archival fonds consisting of forty years of documentation produced by Quetico Centre, a conference and education centre in Northwestern Ontario. This was a joint project for Athabasca University and the Atikokan Centennial Museum. This post describes my experiences organizing the project- my first attempt to create a fonds. Archival work requires both practical and theoretical knowledge to ensure that the documents are well cared for and properly organized. I ensured that all materials were handled in a way that complied with conservation and collection standards; however, this post will focus on the theoretical framework I used to complete the project.
Creating the Fonds
The Quetico Centre Fonds project was completed in compliance with RAD, a standardized process of arranging and describing documentary heritage used in archival science. This method uses the principles of provenance, original order, and respect des fonds to dictate how documents are arranged. Provenance refers to the individual, family or corporate/administrative body that produced the materials being archived. In this case, Quetico Centre was a corporation that produced the documentation. Original order and respect des fonds are important archival considerations which state that documents must be kept in the order in which their creator originally kept them. This method of arrangement provides a context used for better understanding the documents' meaning, both individually and in relation to the others in the collection. Throughout the project the original order of the documents, if it could be established, was kept. For instance, the board of director materials were kept in the order in which Quetico Centre administrators originally filed them. However, it is not always possible/most beneficial to keep the original order. For example, there was a box of various newsletters where it was apparent that an order was never established; they were just thrown together. In this instance, to better assist researchers, I decided to create an order, putting each newsletter in chronological order. This way the evolution of the Centre could be traced through the examination of developments over time.
Prior to arranging materials, I examined how the archival field had evolved over time to determine how archivists ascribed meaning to documents. This decision was particularly important because, in some cases, I had to make decisions about which materials to keep and which ones to discard. The Atikokan Centennial Museum has limited storage space, thus not all materials could be kept (a decision which was reached by the Curator, myself and our donors.)
Hans Boom, in his article, "Society and the Formation of a Documentary Heritage: Issues in the Appraisal of Archival Studies," shed light on this complex matter. His article outlined archival historiography and displayed how the field has evolved by showing the attempted creation of guidelines for accepting and rejecting archival documentation. The earliest assumptions were that a decision about what was to be kept or thrown away could be made on a case-by-case basis. As the need for archives increased, this was no longer a viable solution. Scholars attempted to create formal guidelines for creating a documentary heritage. Wilhelm Rohr, for example, introduced a hierarchical gradation, meaning that the producers of documentation were placed on a hierarchical scale in order to determine the value of the documents. Meinert took this idea a step further by stating that only the creator of the document could give it meaning. Meanwhile, Fritz Zimmerman proposed that the value of archival documentation is derived from human interest and need; therefore, human demand gives documents their value. Boom argued that this could not be possible because it would be too difficult to predict what historians would want to use in the future. According to Boom, there has not been a suitable answer to the problem of how to properly form a documentary heritage. He provided his own solution, stating that the value of a document can only be determined by a comprehensive view of society. In other words, archivists cannot use contemporary value systems to judge documentation. Rather, they need to adopt the value systems of the time period in question to properly determine what documents to accept or reject.
I decided to use Hans Boom’s theory as the foundation of my project. To accomplish this, I read several books about education during the time period in which Quetico Centre operated, as well as books about Northern Ontario education. This research helped to place Quetico Centre’s history within the larger adult education narrative, as well as geographic place. I also read local history books which provided me with nuanced details about the Centre’s operations. This information gave me a better understanding of the Centre’s values and philosophies.
The information acquired from these readings provided me a context in which to judge the collection's documentation. I felt more confident in making decisions about which documents to keep. For example, several pamphlets discussing adult education in Mexico were disposed of. The information in these pamphlets may have influenced Quetico Centre’s philosophy; however, they were never alluded to in any of its Director's speeches or writings. There were several other pamphlets that included information on broader adult education topics that seemed to be more pertinent to the collection. It should be noted that all documentation, before its removal was checked with one of the collection's donors (the Director's widow). She provided her opinion about the materials and verified if their removal seemed appropriate. This practice was done out of respect for our donor, who lived the history we were organizing and was an invaluable resource throughout the project.
After organizing the fonds I created a finding aid. The aid's purpose was to assist both researchers and museum staff by providing easy access to the collection. RAD-compliant descriptions were used to ensure an easy to use, standardized document was produced. These descriptions help users gain a better idea of what the collection encompasses so that they can make decisions about what documents will be useful for their research. The fonds's description gives documents context by providing historical details about Quetico Centre's establishment, its key players and educational vision. Good descriptions mean that researchers can search for documents in a more independent manner. Thus, museum staff can spend less time helping the researcher, and more time on other museum duties, like cataloguing.
To further assist future researchers I created several documents to accompany the finding aid, including: a time line of important dates, biographies of people involved with the Centre’s activities, and a booklet entitled, Quetico Centre: Learning Through Discovery. This booklet places the Centre within the context of adult education in Canada. It will be sold to visitors in the museum's gift shop and handed out at the Quetico Centre exhibit opening in June.
The Final Product: Images and Finding Aid
I feel that the project was a success. I can say with absolute certainty that I have a new appreciation for the amount of work archivists undertake to organize collections. It consists of many hours of unseen and rigorous labour. As a researcher I feel I have a better appreciation of the work involved.
If you are a researcher interested in Canadian adult education, education in northern Ontario, or Atikokan history, check out the finding aid below.
Jean Dryden and Kent M. Haworth. Developing Descriptive Standards: A Call to Action. Occasional Paper No. 1. Ottawa: Bureau of Canadian Archivists, 1987, 1-15., 1.
 Wendy M. Duff and Marlene Van Ballegooie. “The Foundations of RAD.” In RAD Revealed: A Basic Primer on the Rules for Archival Description. Canadian Council of Archives, 2001., 2.
 Ibid., 3.
 Hans Boom. “Society and the Formation of a Documentary Heritage: Issues in the Appraisal of Archival Science.” Archivaria 24, 1987., 90.
 Ibid., 95-96.
 Ibid., 91.
 Wendy M. Duff and Marlene Van Ballegooie. “The Foundations of RAD.” In RAD Revealed: A Basic Primer on the Rules for Archival Description. Canadian Council of Archives, 2001, 2.