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Archivist eyes new space in Riddell Library & Learning Centre

Mount Royal University’s new Archivist and Special Collections Librarian Peter Houston has played a role in building, preserving and presenting special collections across Canada. His experience has set him up for his move back west to become MRU’s second formally trained archivist, and prepared him to blaze a trail and improve how the University presents, shares and strategically grows its archived collection at the new Riddell Library & Learning Centre (RLLC).

Mount Royal’s institutional archivist, Peter Houston

Mount Royal’s institutional archivist, Peter Houston.

~Photo by Lauren Ladd

After graduating from the University of British Columbia with a Masters of Archival Studies, Houston began a migration east to support organizations such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) in Winnipeg, and Nipissing University in North Bay.

Houston’s role at the TRC offered him valuable experience with non-traditional tasks for an archivist, and he sees some similarities on the horizon at the RLLC, which is set to open in the summer of 2017.

“At the TRC, we were building archives by recording the oral history of residential school survivors, family members of residential school survivors, and with former staff of residential schools from all over Canada,” says Houston.

“Statement gathering teams would send us hard drives with digital recordings, which we then uploaded to our servers and made backups, and finally tagged the recordings with descriptive, searchable meta-data, which made the recordings searchable and accessible for researchers. We were managing terabytes of data,” says Houston.

Currently, Houston’s work is split between managing the archives, working as a liaison librarian for Art History and leading Library instructional sessions. However, with the RLLC nearing completion, Houston will add to his responsibilities by strategizing how to best relocate the archives to the fourth floor of the new building, as well as make the archives an accessible resource.

Houston’s vision for improving and sharing MRU’s archives will be guided by its role.

“The role of the archives is two-fold … providing access for our students, faculty and the general public and preserving records of enduring value,” says Houston.

Professor Jarett Henderson, PhD, is supportive of the idea of increasing access to the archives.

“Increasing access democratizes the information that is contained in an archives — making it available to the public and students alike so they too can understand the processes by which our lives and societies are shaped,” says Henderson.

Archives onlineDue to the lack of search tools, Houston admits that at the moment, “The archives are a little hard to use.”

“There are no finding aids, which are tools used to identify items within a collection; however, we are working to improve access by establishing an archival descriptive database, which is essentially an online database so anyone can come to our website and search across all the finding aids.”

Additionally, there is a strategy in the works that will provide online access to select parts of the MRU collection, which will increase the ability to make use of the collection.

Deciding what artifacts to digitize will be a major project, with a fundamental question that must be addressed: “What to digitize and why?” asks Henderson.

“Digitization privileges texts and the voices captured in those texts. It also fundamentally alters that nature of the work that we do as historians and too often replaces the experience of putting on those white cotton archival gloves, writing with only a pencil, and rifling through pages of dusty documents that defines the work of the historian,” says Henderson.

That said, some pieces from the collection just make sense to present online.

“The MRU archives has a rich collection of photographs that stretch all the way back to the creation of this institution in 1910, so making those available would certainly be an asset and presumably of interest to many both at the University and the various communities across Calgary that our institution serves,” says Henderson.

Senior and Junior Executive Committees of the Literary Society pose for a photo on the steps of the original Mount Royal College building, known as "The Barn" near the Mewata Armoury in the 1920s.

~Photo courtesy Mount Royal University Archives

In the meantime, providing helpful information for individuals in advance of visiting the MRU archives will be an asset.

“Besides the database, I want to improve our web presence and put resources in place describing how to conduct archival research, why conduct archival research, and what to expect when you come into our archives,” says Houston.

“It is a different experience than taking books off the shelf.”

Acquisitions policyMount Royal’s archives consist primarily of items from the history of the College and University.

Houston’s goal is to strategically expand the collection so it fulfills the teaching and learning needs of the intuition. Houston says that “an important part of our acquisition strategy will be consulting with current and future stakeholders to determine what kind of archival resources will be most useful.”

Looking at the archival landscape in Calgary will further support in the strategy development.

“Making sure our scope of acquisition does not overlap with what the Glenbow or The Military Museums is important so we don’t duplicate efforts,” say Houston. When asked if there are any artifacts that he would personally like to see part of the MRU archives, Houston paused and said, “If it fits with the base mission to support teaching and research, I would consider it.”

The University archives are open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. or by appointment.

Dec. 6, 2016 – Rob Petrollini