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Preservation and Copying
at the National Archives of Canada

by Ellen Desmarais

I am pleased to represent the National Archives of Canada in this discussion. My background is in book conservation and I am responsible for conservation treatment of the National Library collections. However, the mandate of the National Archives and my responsibilities encompass all types of traditional archives and library materials. Therefore, my remarks apply to a wide range of materials, including books.

Mandate of the National Archives of Canada

The mission of the National Archives of Canada has its roots in the 1987 Act of Parliament which transformed the Public Archives into the National Archives. That mission is to preserve the collective memory of the nation and of the Gov-ernment of Canada; to contribute to the protection rights and the enhancement of a sense of national identity. It does this by acquiring, conserving and providing access to private and public records of national significance, and by serving as the permanent repository of records of federal government institutions and of ministerial records.

Preserving the memory

The National Archives, along with either Canadian heritage institutions, seeks to house the memory of the nation. Its collections document the diversity, richness and complex historical evolution of our country, its peoples and its institutions. It assists in identifying the origins of individuals and of the various groups that have settled in Canada. As well, it documents land claims and treaties of Aboriginal peoples. This documentary memory helps shed light upon important events, regional and national collective symbols, and upon the distinctive elements of our diverse cultures, helping us to understand, share and assume a national identity.

As an arm of the government, the National Archives ensures the preservation of important recorded information relating to the activities of Canadian society and of the Government of Canada. In this role, it guards against any irretrievable loss of important historical records, which would result in gaps in the collective memory of Canadians.

Preserving Original Records

Loss of original materials would, in very many cases, result in a loss of valuable information and understanding of the past. Physical evidence in manuscripts and printed matter provides valuable clues to its production, importance and the treatment it has received since its creation. Analytical bibliographers find significant evidence for understanding book history and the social influence of books from the original format and binding; document specialists identify valuable information from the physical evidence in manuscripts, legal documents, maps and charts, blueprints, etc. about the record and the time in which it was produced. Furthermore, while performing conservation treatment - particularly documenting the condition, recommending treatment options, and recording treatment performed – conservators are able to identify important information about the history of the book or document. In recent years, as the significance of this fact has become more widely appreciated, the importance of the conservators’ contribution to the study of the origins and significance of materials has become more highly valued.

Preserving of Original - Special Collections

The National Archives of Canada holds a considerable collection of documentary fine art material which makes up a very rich visual record of the development of Canada in all aspects of economic and social development. These encompass a wide range of historic artistic and graphic material, such as medals, miniatures on ivory, pastels, watercolours, exquisite artists’ sketch books, charcoal drawings and oil paintings as well as photograph albums. At the Archives, the original of this material is understood to be essential for scholarship and research. Some reproduction processes will result in a representation of the image, but it is generally felt by art historians that intellectual content alone is inadequate and that they cannot successfully achieve their goals if the original is not preserved and accessible.

The Impact of Technology and Recent Trends in Preservation

Quite often the high cost associated with complex conservative treatment is given as the reason for not preserving original material. Two trends in recent years are helping to overcome this excuse:

1) The first relates closely to the theme of modern technologies : the research and development of new processes and equipment which make it easier for conservators to preserve more items or perform consistent treatments more efficiently and more economically, and with less risk than ever before. Mass de-acidification, while it has not been widely applied, in the last 20 years has contributed to the long-term preservation of over 2 million books of national significance in the National Library of Canada; Leaf casting equipment, suction tables, and ultra-sonic humidifiers are but three of the most useful and practical aids to preservation of original library and archives materials to be developed since the 1970’s.

Materials used in conservation have also benefited from technological developments. The most significant of these for long-term preservation of documentary heritage is the production of acid-free paper. This is widely available now because pulp and paper mills have converted their production to meet the requirements of government legislation and the demands of the marketplace. Many times, the conservation profession has benefited from the development of products designed for other applications.

2) The second trend which I think has been significant is a change in expectations of collection curators : a decade ago, curators quite often wanted conservation treatment to produce a result which fitted their image of what the item should look like – beautiful and pristine- with no evidence that it had been used or had any history. This seems no longer to be the case, and curators or custodians frequently request the least possible interference with the condition of an item so as to preserve its integrity and historical significance. The only conservation treatment may be to provide a storage box of good quality.

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