Volume 29 - Number 12 - Thursday, March 13, 1997

Ready, willing and very able:
Archives staff want to be used

Johanne Pelletier, new director of McGill Archives

by Daniel McCabe

Leading a guest on a short tour through some of the McGill Archives' storage facilities, Johanne Pelletier points out the cramped conditions in the room where new arrivals are first sorted and catalogued, the ominous water pipes in the area where some of the University's most precious records are stored and the threatening chill in another storage area.

Her department is quickly running out of room and deciding where to store the archives is becoming an increasing challenge. So of course Pelletier is hoping that McGill departments will send her office even more material to store away.

"We need to do something about our facilities--no question," says Pelletier, McGill's new director of archives. "But my top priority is making sure that the University community knows about us and uses our services."

Don't get her wrong, Pelletier will do what she can to get more space. However, if other departments aren't working with the archives, the point of getting more space might be moot.

"I think there's some confusion out there about what we do," says Pelletier. "I want to increase our visibility and make a pitch for our records management system to the different departments."

Pelletier's new job marks her return to Montreal after 10 years away. She did a BA in psychology at McGill, before moving on to the University of Toronto where she completed the coursework for an MA in history. As her studies progressed, Pelletier came to a realization--history wasn't her calling. But a job as a database administrator at around the same time sparked a new interest in how information was managed.

After stints as an archivist for the Salvation Army of Canada and the United Church of Canada, Pelletier became the archives advisor for the province of Ontario--providing assistance to a wide range of government departments, agencies, universities and hospitals.

Pelletier knows that most don't share her enthusiasm for what archives represents--"dusty bins filled with old stuff" is how she sums up the popular perception of archives.

"For any organization, but especially for a place like McGill, the archives serves as an institutional memory," says Pelletier. "We're the source of information about what the University does. The history of this place and the history of the individuals associated with McGill are stored here. This is where you'll see how the administrative functioning of McGill has evolved and the sorts of interactions that have taken place between faculty, students and the community outside. The foundation for how we do business is documented in the records we keep."

Last year, archives dealt with just under 3,000 requests for records management assistance, but Pelletier says she thinks some departments might still be shy about turning to archives. "They might wonder, 'If I hand over my records to them, will they disappear into an abyss?'

"Departments often end up with a better description of what they had than they did before they came to see us in the first place," says Pelletier. And once archives does take possession of a document, future access to it for former owners isn't a problem. "We guarantee you'll have it within 48 hours of a request and we aim to do it more quickly than that.

"People's filing cabinets are very personal--even when the material inside them is all administrative. It's important that archives is seen as a trusted resource and as a place of integrity. We're not some big hand coming down into your office to wrench away your records. I'm lucky in that my staff works well as a team and they're very service oriented."

Pelletier says records fall into three general categories: "Things we'll keep forever--like student records, minutes of important meetings, items with administrative and/or legal importance, things we'll keep for a little while until we decide they're no longer relevant, and stuff we destroy.

"You're not always going to make the perfect decision--sometimes it's extremely difficult to gauge the historical importance of a document. But we're not making grossly arbitrary decisions; they result from dialogues with the administration and with the different departments we work with."

There's another important--if not widely known--factor involved. McGill has to carefully keep track of its records--it's the law. As befits a province which sports "Je me souviens" on its licence plates, Quebec is the only province in Canada that requires its institutions to have records management programs in place.

The archives have a good reputation as a research resource--students use the records for term papers and authors use them for their books. Last year, almost 1,000 researchers of various stripes visited or telephoned the department in search of documents relevant to their work. "The core administrative function is to help the University manage its records," posits Pelletier. "That's our primary responsibility to McGill, but we try to strike a careful balance."

Pelletier hopes to jazz up the department's Web site to make it more comprehensive and easier to use for researchers interested in McGill's archival holdings.

"I would like to make it a bit more user friendly, with a better search engine, so folks can get a better taste of what we have."

In general, Pelletier has mixed feelings about the impact the digital age is having on her profession. She's not ready to leap aboard the technology bandwagon just yet.

"It is a whole new ball game with technology," says Pelletier. Together with the Secretary General's office and the experts in Information Systems Resources, archives is looking into the sorts of technologies it will need in the future, as well as examining strategies for making the electronic communication of information more secure.

"We don't want material that's on software we no longer have access to, there is no purpose in that. We don't want to be a museum for out-of-date hardware or software. Some people argue that electronic documents are so much easier to store, but I'm not quite convinced. They're still susceptible to temperature changes, to dust, to humidity. And I have concerns about whether they can be tampered with."

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