Total Archives is a documentation strategy developed in Canada as an attempt to document the political and social history of the country. Total archives emphasizes the collection of records, both public and private, in a wide range of media, including architectural drawings, cartographic material, audio-visual records, and microfilm. Although the strategy evolved over a period of more than one hundred years, the concept of Total Archives was not formally articulated until 1980 in a report to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Ottawa, 1980). The report explains Total Archives as an “attempt to document all aspects of historical development, seeking the records not just of officialdom or of a governing elite but of all segments of a community....” by “combining official administrative records and related private files, architectural drawings, maps, microfilm, and other documentary forms all touching on the development of the organization or region” (The Consultative Group on Canadian Archives, 63-64).
As a strategy, Total Archives developed alongside the evolution of the first public archives in Canada. The work of Thomas Beamish Akins of Halifax, Nova Scotia, had an indelible impact on the particularly Canadian image of archivist. As a young lawyer, Akins assisted Thomas Chandler Haliburton in the research for An historical and statistical account of Nova-Scotia. This experience heightened his interest in historical research and instilled in him a passion for preserving documentary heritage. He was particularly aware of the plight of public records that had been left to rot in colonial offices and acutely sensitive to the experiences of the Acadian, who had been expelled from Nova Scotia in 1755. In 1841, he wrote to the Halifax Mechanics’ Institute and proposed the foundation of a Depository of Colonial Records, but his plea went unanswered. He made a similar attempt in 1845, but again his proposal fell on deaf ears. Finally, in 1857, Akins appeared before a committee of the House of Assembly and urged officials to make arrangements for records of the public to be preserved for posterity. In April of that year, Joseph Howe, chair of the committee, moved a resolution in the house which led to the appointment Akins as Commissioner of the Public Records. Akins held this position until his death 34 years later. During his time as Commissioner, he established a provincial archives and published several volumes on the history of governance in Nova Scotia. Akins also began a search abroad for historical records relating to the history of Nova Scotia and its people. He copied documents from the British Museum, the Public Record Office, and the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London, and from the library of the Séminaire de Québec, the new dominion archives, and the Massachusetts Historical Society. He also travelled to Paris to obtain records related to Acadia. As a result of Akins’ tireless work, most of the public records of the government of Nova Scotia were collected, preserved, and catalogued well before any other province had established its own archival repository.
The first gesture toward building a national public archives occurred in 1864, shortly after confederation, when Henry James Morgan was appointed to the Department of State (Rose, 1886). In this capacity, Morgan was responsible for moving the State Records of Canada from the vaults of the old Government House at Montréal to the Department of State offices in Ottawa. On December 22nd, 1875, he was appointed Chief Clerk in Civil Service with the title of Keeper of the Records, the first to hold this office in Canada (Dent, 1881). Little has been written about Morgan; as a career civil servant, it seems that his work was mainly administrative in nature as he dutifully collected long-lost government records left lying at various locations across the country and in Europe. More has been written about the work of Douglas Brymner, a politician and journalist who in 1872 accepted an appointment to the Department of Agriculture as the clerk in charge of archives. An unsuccessful farmer, Brymner had moved his family to Montréal from Melbourne, Lower Canada, to assume editorship of the Presbyterian, a religious newsletter. At the same time, he joined the editorial staff at the Montréal Herald. Brymner’s interest in history was well known and he often wrote pamphlets and other publications related to the history of the church in Canada. When the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec successfully petitioned the government for the establishment of a national archives, Brymner was hired as Dominion Archivist and placed in charge of a small fund of $4,000 to develop a collection (Millar, 1998). Over the next 30 years, Brymner and his employees travelled extensively across Canada and Europe making copies of important records regarding Canada’s history. These records were brought back to Ottawa for safe-keeping in the archives.
According to Laura Millar (1998), the overlap between the responsibilities of the Dominion Archivist and Keeper of the Records caused considerable friction and confusion among government officials. The two officials often competed for a stake in building a repository of historical documents. Each perceived his duty to collect and preserve Canada’s documentary heritage, but neither collaborated with the other or worked in tandem to reduce redundancies. The conflict erupted several times in correspondence among Brymner, Morgan, and government officials. Brymner was keen to continue his work rescuing historical documents and collecting them in the archives. Morgan was increasingly concerned that the current records of government were not receiving adequate care. Following the lead of his counterpart in Britain, Morgan and his advocates agitated for the establishment of a Public Records Office that would acquire and preserve current records. Brymner, however, convinced government that it was in the best interest of historians and researchers to have Canada’s documentary heritage in one location. This single repository, he argued, would enable a one-stop-shop for historical information and encourage scholarship on the new nation. If the records were spread across the country, he argued, Canada’s vast geography would limit access to a cohesive narrative of Canada’s political and social past.
After Morgan was reappointed to another government office, plans were made to amalgamate the positions of Dominion Archivist and Keeper of the Records. Out of respect for Brymner’s long service, however, the merge did not occur until after his death in 1902. Brymner’s replacement, civil servant and amateur historian Arthur George Doughty was appointed Canda’s first Dominion Archivist and Keeper of the Records. Doughty assumed the role in 1904 and oversaw the Archives rapid growth until his retirement in 1935. Following the example of Doughlas Brymner, Doughty travelled extensively to Europe in search of important historical documentation regarding the history of Canada. He also met with archivists from Holland, Britain, and the United States during his tenure. Interestingly, Doughty did not adopt the same standards of archival management as had been established by professionals in other jurisdictions. The American tradition, for example, made a disctint separation between its historical manuscripts collections and the collectionand preservation of public records. Similarly, the British had founded the Public Records Office to collect current records and maintained museums, libraries and archives to collect and preserve private records and other artifacts of interest to historical research. In the absence of a national library or museum, however, Doughty saw it his responsibility to collect widely both public and private records and across all media type. His goal was to obtain a rich collection of historical material that documented all facets of Canadian society.
The spirit of Doughty’s documentation strategy continued to influence Canadian archivists and archives throughout the twentieth century. In 1949, the federal government appointed the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences to appraise Canada’s intellectual or cultural life. Archival activity fell within the scope of the Commission’s investigations, led by its chair, Vincent Massey, then chancellor of the University of Toronto. As a result, W. Kaye Lamb, who had taken up the role of Dominion Archivist in 1948, contributed to the Commissions research with a brief describing the role of the Public Archives. In this brief, Lamb defended the work of Brymner and Doughty to reclaim lost historical documentation and presented his ideas about appraisal that allowed the Archives to continue collecting private and public records across all media types. He also noted his critique of British archivist Hilary Jenkinson’s approach, which placed appraisal in the hands of records creators. Jenkinson, he argued, did not foresee the unmanageable glut of records created post-WWII, nor did he anticipate a need for records destruction. The final report of the Commission, commonly called the Massey Report, supported the Lamb’s approach to appraisal and reconfirmed the commitment to collecting a wide array of records to document all of Canadian society.
The Royal Commission on Government Organization again reaffirmed Canada’s documentation strategy and appraisal methodology in its 1960 report. The Commission was struck in the wake of a paper boom to investigate ways to improve office efficiencies, eliminate excess, reduce costs, and ensure government accountability. According to Laura Millar (1998), the report brought attention to records management methodology as a critical factor in effective organizational management. This new emphasis on records management did not, however, detract from the work of the Public Archives to collect and preserve records of historical value. Rather, the Commission agreed that the Archives should continue to collect private and public records across all media type. A strong records management program would ensure that current records with any archival potential were not neglected and that the Archives would have access to these records at the end of their administrative and operational use.
Wilfred I. Smith was the first to summarize the three tenets of Canadian archival philosophy in his introduction to Archives: Mirror of Canada Past, a publication produced by the Public Archives upon its 1972 centennial celebration. Smith stated that it is a “basic obligation of every civilized community to preserve for posterity the records of its past” (Smith, 10).
The Public Archives of Canada, he proclaimed, achieved this responsibility in three ways. First, the Archives emphasized a dual responsibility to acquire and preserve both government (public) records and the (private) records of citizens who had contributed to the intellectual and cultural history of the country. Second, the archives collected across all media type. For example, maps, drawings, artwork, and microfilm were equally important in providing historians and other researchers with a complete understanding of Canada’s rich and nuanced past. Third, the Archives supported the concept of a records life cycle in which records management and archival management was integrated. Records managers are stewards of current records and help organizations ensure that records of historical value are deposited with the Archives once they had achieved their administrative and operational purposes. Smith called this philosophy ‘Total Archives’, a term that has been repeated in archival literature and is now used to describe the uniquely ‘Canadian’ approach to archival management.
Despite his enthusiasm for Total Archives, Smith was also keenly aware that the philosophy was difficult to apply in practice. On July 1, 1972, Professor T.H.B. Symons, inaugural President of Trent University, took up the role of chairmen for the newly struck Commission on Canadian Studies. Although archives were not officially under investigation, the final report contained several references to the role of archives and the impossibility of creating a Total Archives. In response, Smith and his assistant, Bernard Weilbrenner, wrote to the Commission on behalf of the Public Archives of Canada. They urged the Commission to recognize the legacy of Douglas Brymner and Sir Arthur Doughty’s vision of a single archival repository that would provide historians with the ‘raw ingredients’ for writing Canada’s history. They also acknowledged that changes to the national intellectual and cultural landscape, as well as the paper boom and changes to government administration, meant that application of Total Archives was no longer possible. As a compromise, they suggested the establishment of stronger network among archives at the university, municipal, provincial and national levels. Smith and Weilbrenner also proclaimed that local archives should have the responsibility for preserving records of local interest. The idea of an archival network has since been identified as a fourth tenet of Total Archives.
In summary, the philosophy (or principle) of Total Archives is a uniquely Canadian practice with four tenets: (1) archivists should document the history of all Canadian society, not just the elite; (2) archivists should acquire all kinds of archival materials regardless of their medium or form; (3) archivists should control the entire life cycle of records from their creation to disposition; and (4) archivists should create archival networks.
The principle of Total Archives is not without its critics. Terry Cook suggested in his 1978 article, The Tyranny of the Medium, that the principle was infeasible in a modern archival repository. In practice, the Pubic Archives of Canada had been fractured into separate and distinct units, each charged with preserving a particular media type. Units acquired, appraised, and catalogued records on their own, often with conflicting and competing interests. As Cook proclaimed, the fragmented units also threatened the preservation of provenance because fonds were not kept as holistic or organic wholes.
The concept of Total Archives also placed control of society’s records and recordkeeping activities in the hands of one central ‘gatekeeper’. This assumes that the Pubic Archives is able to acquire records that document all aspects of society and that all communities trust the archives with their records. It also presupposes archival appraisal as an objective process uncompromised by archivists personal bias and opinions about the importance of records and record creators. While Total Archives may have been created with good intentions, it is not a realistic strategy for capturing memories of minority groups, activist communities, marginalized populations, or social outcasts. Nor is it able to ensure the preservation of records that document the every day lives of all Canadian citizens in an increasingly diverse society.
Archivists such as Laura Millar (1998) and Ian Wilson (1986) have placed Total Archives into historical context, claiming that the principle evolved at a time when Canada was taking its first strides as an independent country and needed to craft a historical narrative of its own, distinct from its colonizers. In the absence of a national library, museum or gallery, early archivists Akins, Brymner and Doughty took it upon themselves to become ‘rescuer-historians’. However, both Millar acknowledges that the principle is no longer possible to apply in practice, if it ever really were.
The spirit of Total Archives lives on in the work of modern archivists and the new conception of the Canadian ‘archival system’. The archival system builds on the fourth tenet of Total Archives and emphasizes the importance of building networks among archives. The philosophy of an archival system also places more trust in records creators to preserve their own records collections and stresses the importance of keeping records of local interest close to their communities. In 1978, however, a full portrait of Canada’s archival activities was still unavailable. In the years following the publication of the Massey Report, in the wake of Canada’s 1967 centennial celebrations, the number of archival repositories in the country grew exponentially as more communities established their own archives (Millar 1998). The Consultative Group on Canadian Archives was established in 1978 to find ways to coordinate the myriad archival activities appearing across the country.
The Consultative Group’s report, published in 1980, prompted a variety of archival and government initiatives to establish a formal archival network. It also led to changes in the Public Archives of Canada, to the emergence of yet more community archives, and to the development of educational programmes for archivists. The 1980s saw the first steps toward a Canadian archival system (171).
This process also led to the founding of the Canada Council of Archives (CCA) and other provincial councils that, together, represent the shared concerns of university, government, religious and community archives. A decade later, the adoption of Rules of Archival Description (RAD), a new Canadian standard for archival arrangement and description, also improved access to records by ensuring crosswalks between records with shared provenance divided across geographic and institutional barriers. More recently, the proliferation of the Internet has allowed the CCA and provincial councils to develop online hubs that bridge collections for better access across these barriers.