Selection in theory and practice at the Public Archives of Canada (Jacques Gagné)

When one considers the ravages inflicted upon the archives of all societies by natural and human disasters such as fire, earthquakes, war, poverty and perhaps the most insidious and destructive of all - neglect, selection appears as but another means to thin out the historical record. Most archivists tend to view selection policies with reticence, suspicion even: why should we, of all people, wilfully partake in the universal devastation?

On the other hand all documents were certainly not created equal and one may wonder whether blind accumulation is not, in the end, more destructive than careful and systematic selection. The archivist’s job is to reconcile the immensity of the task with the meagreness of the resources. This paper examines the numerous factors and circumstances that have shaped the selection policies at the Sound Archives Selection of the Public Archives of Canada; it relates how and why choices were made as the issue grew more and more in complexity and urgency.

The Public Archives of Canada (PAC) was established in 1872 by the Federal Government to document the history and culture of Canada. To fulfil this very broad, all-encompassing mandate, the PAC acquires and preserves all types of historical documents: manuscripts, photographs, maps, paintings, films, computer tapes, and other materials. These documents are acquired on the one hand from the various departments, corporations and commissions of the federal government and on the other hand from the individuals, companies and organizations of the private sector.

The Sound Archives Section was created in 1967 and is now part of the larger Film, Television and Sound Archives Division, one of eight media-orientated divisions. The section’s holdings have increased considerably from literally, a handful of recordings to roughly twenty-five thousand transcription discs and forty thousand magnetic tapes. Initially the guiding selection principle was to concentrate on the spoken-word and unique recordings as opposed to the musical and commercial ones. Actually the criteria were quite traditional and restrictive: speeches by public figures and recordings of official events were considered much more valuable than other types of recordings such as radio or advertisement productions, which were often ignored or discarded. But under the leadership of Leo LaClare, the Section grew in staff, resources and experience; by 1974-1975 the strengths and gaps of the collection were becoming apparent and the time was ripe to broaden the horizons. To capture the essence of the sounds of Canadian history, a more comprehensive approach had to develop, and it did.

At the same time the difficult search for old recordings came as a useful lesson for the present: lest all be irretrievably lost, selection had to be prompt, and almost immediate. It is not necessary to dwell on the Section’s involvement with oral history interviews except to mention that it was and still is actively involved in fostering the oral history movement through the Canadian Oral History Association, in acquiring collections of interviews and in offering financial and technical assistance to several projects.

The main field to be explored was the radio industry. The problems in that area were and remain formidable: it is a most diversified industry with over 750 AM and FM radio stations spread out across the vast expanses of our land in a mixed system of public and private ownership. How were we to record the numerous voices that were speaking to Canadians day and night only to disappear into the ether? For private radio the answer was sampling; for the government-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or Radio-Canada, as it is known in French, it was co-operation. Let us deal with the private broadcasters first. It is a rare private station that will keep its own archives: radio is a very dynamic business with all the energy turned towards the future leaving the past behind, where broadcasters think it belongs. This is not to say that all the production has been lost: collections turn up in the most unlikely locations and some are very important, especially for the 1940s and 1950s when private radio produced more original programming than it now does.

For contemporary programming the Canadian Association of Broadcasters fortunately operates a programme exchange service to which various stations contribute original productions. From this collection we select twenty or thirty percent. The industry also holds annual awards; winning entries are now deposited with the Archives as a matter of routine. In 1981 a monitoring project of contemporary private radio was established: fifteen stations from different regions and programming formats were recorded for a full day on the same date. This project will continue on a yearly basis and eventually a faithful portrait of the industry’s nature and evolution should form.

Finally, in the field of radio journalism other initiatives have been taken. For example, the daily news bulletins prepared by the two private radio news agencies Newsradio and Broadcast News have been recorded, in turns, over the last six years. The purpose was to create a sound newspaper of the only medium that can spread information almost simultaneously. In another instance, all press conferences held at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa where the major federal political decisions are announced are also recorded over a telephone line.

Such are the various ways in which private radio is now being preserved; they remain modest in scope but we are reasonably confident that they are adequate.

The archival situation in public radio is much different and brighter than that in the private sector. With four national radio networks (one each on the AM and FM bands in French and English) that broadcast several hundred hours of original programs each week, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produces the most important body of historical recordings in the country. In the 1960s the CBC established two archives in the production centres of Montreal and Toronto where approximately one hundred and sixty hours of original and varied programming are selected each week for archival preservation. For the past seven years the PAC and the CBC have developed a complex and close relationship based on co-operation. It is quite a unique, symbiotic arrangement in many ways.

At first the PAC took a very practical role. There were in the CBC program archives roughly twenty thousand transcription discs from the 1940s to the 1960s that had not been identified. The PAC offered to acquire and catalogue this material which it would then make available to the CBC. Much of the work has now been completed and the relationship has taken on new dimensions as the two organizations defined their role ever more precisely.

The CBC is still building up its collection as a production resource while the PAC can select from the older programmes those it wishes to acquire for its own collection. More importantly the PAC is now providing public access to this rich collection, a collection which had until now been confined to the use of CBC production personnel.

There are many other aspects to the co-operation. Information, sound recordings and other types of archives constantly flow between the two organizations. Oral history interviews with pioneers of the CBC have been launched in co-operation with Carleton University in Ottawa. We are also encouraging other provincial or university archives to participate in the conservation of CBC material that is produced in the different regions of the country where it should remain, close to the potential users.

The selection criteria for the productions of the CBC are much more comprehensive than those applied to private radio. The sampling is more thorough and rightly so. The purpose of the agreement between the Public Archives and the CBC, and eventually with provincial partners, is to make sure that what is theoretically desirable is effectively achieved.

All in all our work is concentrated mostly in these three areas of oral history and public and private radio. But I should also point out that a large proportion of our holdings, between fifteen and twenty percent, consists of recordings that are part of larger collections acquired by other divisions of the PAC. Their origins and nature vary considerably from political parties to photographers, cultural organizations to companies. From the government records there are documentaries, proceedings of royal commissions and, since 1969, the debates of the House of Commons. Thus our selection is not only determined internally; the contribution of other media-archivists, each with their own orientation, is substantial. And it is welcome.

Another consideration that is of paramount importance is that the PAC’s sound archives was never built or evaluated in isolation from other Canadian archives. There are other very specialized collections in university and provincial archives. Laval University in Quebec City and Memorial University in St John’s house large collections of folklore recordings. So does the Museum of Man in Ottawa. Consequently, folklore never was a high priority in our minds since the field was being explored by other institutions. Similarly with music which is the province of libraries and universities such as the National Library in Ottawa. Certain provincial archives, Nova Scotia and British Columbia for instance, have established audiovisual divisions in the last few years. The main concern is to avoid duplication and to maintain a constant flow of information and documents between the various institutions.

Finally and most importantly, selection is not a question that can ever be solved once and for all. The variables by which it is presently defined - Canadian, spoken-word, unique, comprehensive, immediate, complementary, flexible - bespeak our fundamental generalistic attitude. To be serious and effective, a generalist must also be willing to make precise and narrow - one could say specialized - choices. To use a biblical image, archivists are spiritual descendants of Noah, torn between the desire to save as much as possible from the wrath of Time and the inevitable constraints of the frail ark they have been able to build.

Noah had a bit of an edge though: his ark had been completed before the flood occurred. Selection has ultimately to do with the flood from within...

Jacques Gagne is with the National film, Television and Sound Archives of the Public Archives of Canada, Ottawa.
Paper first delivered at the IASA conference in Brussels, 1981.