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Reviewed by:
  • Better Off Forgetting? Essays on Archives, Public Policy and Collective Memory
  • T. Stephen Henderson
Better Off Forgetting? Essays on Archives, Public Policy and Collective Memory edited by Cheryl Avery and Mona Holmlund. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010, 240 pp. Paper $24.95, Cloth $55.00.

The topics covered in this book probably strike most people, even many academics, as dull and unimportant, yet some of the liveliest public debates in Canada in recent years revolve around records management and public access to government documents. Scandals over party kickbacks from government advertising and the alleged willful blindness of diplomats and military commanders to detainee abuse by Afghan security forces helped trigger federal elections; aboriginal land claims and treaty rights rely to a great extent on the interpretation of archival sources and have the potential to reorder economic and social relationships; and thousands of genealogists and academics joined forces to fight for access to century-old census forms. Archival issues are not as far removed from the public conscience as one might imagine. Cheryl Avery and Mona Holmlund present us with 11 essays on funding, privacy/access, digital media, accountability, and records management that suggest a field not at all rooted in “old dusty paper.” Indeed, the striking thing about this collection is the absence of “traditional” archival roles. None of the contributors gives much attention to questions of acquisition or description of materials, for example. This probably is a reflection of the new demands made of archivists, but one hopes that someone is still writing useful finding aids.

The collection begins, understandably, with two chapters on the chronic underfunding of government archives. Marion Beyea explores the recent history of Ottawa’s modest support for national and provincial archives ($2.8 million in 1986 and declining steadily in real terms). Shelley Sweeney examines archives’ share of public “Heritage” dollars, which also flow to libraries and museums. Sweeney and Beyea view the archives’ relationship with libraries and museums as adversarial yet it is governments, not other “cultural institutions,” that are the villains of the budget story.

Terry Eastwood argues that the job of keeping governments honest ought to fall, at least in part, to archivists. He approvingly cites a scholar who suggests that archivists need “investigative powers and a records audit role” (p. 152), though this may be the place of auditors and commissions of inquiry. Similarly, Tom Nesmith envisions archivists selecting and analyzing records and presenting their findings to policy-makers and the public. Surely these tasks are better performed by professional historians and public historians? Moreover, archives can present just a fraction of their holdings in sexy, decontextualized installations, either online or on site. Tom Adami and Martha Hunt’s chapter, based on their work preserving the evidence collected for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, should be read by archivists dealing with Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other such inquiries. Adami and Hunt caution against amalgamating evidence, for example, as incriminating testimony for one case might be exculpatory for another (pp. 209–10). Former journalist Robert Steiner closes the volume with a well-written but ultimately naïve piece, in which he argues that “greatness [in journalism or politics] is a matter to which the archivist—with her instincts for the qualities of an authentic source—is uniquely attuned” (p. 216). Steiner does not say what archivists should do with the merely average sources in their collections.

The issues of privacy, access, and the moving target of things digital are explored with greater success. Joann Munn Gafuik provides a useful discussion of access-to-information legislation and reminds us of bureaucrats’ ability to adapt to the new rules. Some, such the notorious Chuck Guité, may generate fewer sensitive documents, while others may articulate previously unspoken assumptions to justify policy decisions. Doug Surtees discusses privacy theory at length as it relates to generating records among those with mental and physical [End Page 578] incapacities, but the relevance for archives—even in their records management role—is difficult to locate.

The strongest chapter is archivist Terry Cook and historian Bill Waiser’s engaging account of “the census wars,” the decade-long battle over nominal (name...


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