Wednesday, 27 April 2016

“Do You Know Your Winnipeg?” Whither the City Archives?


Guest Post written by Tom Nesmith, Archival Studies M.A. Program, Department of History, University of Manitoba
Edited by Laura McKay, Heritage Officer and Laura Wiens, Creative Communications Intern.
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director. 

City of Winnipeg Archives Myrtle Street Building. Image courtesy of the author.
“Do You Know Your Winnipeg?” is a popular feature of local morning CBC radio. Listeners are asked to identify places and buildings pictured at the CBC website. But if the building pictured above was featured, I expect the mystery would go unsolved.

This is where your City of Winnipeg Archives is now located -- in an obscure building in an industrial park on Myrtle Street. Why, you might well ask? Wasn’t it in the Carnegie Library building on William Avenue? Well, yes it was until June 2013 when a freakish set of circumstances forced it lock, stock, and white gloves from the Carnegie building to the industrial park.

This is a tale of great hope, misfortune, and now I fear neglect that could do great harm to a vital community and city government Archives service and place a superb heritage building in jeopardy. Unless, of course, enough Winnipeggers care enough to prevent it.
The Carnegie Library at 380 William Avenue, ca. 1905, shortly after completion. Image courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The City of Winnipeg is to be commended for establishing a professionally staffed archival service in the late 1990s and then beginning the task of renovating the Carnegie building as its home. Things were going very well. Money was spent on much needed work on the grounds and exterior of the building. Designated a municipal historic site in 1984, the Carnegie building was finally receiving its due. It was being transformed from a mere (and decaying) warehouse for old records into a living archives.

The Archives was getting on its feet in its new home. Its vast holdings of city government records going back to the late nineteenth century were being featured in media reports. Its website gave new life to historical information about Winnipeg’s history that had long been kept out of sight. Students, teachers, writers, filmmakers, and family, neighbourhood, and city historians were beginning to hear about this marvelous new Archives and make their way to it. Historical groups were beginning to meet for conferences there. The potential of the Archives to be a unique community service and meeting place was becoming apparent. Indeed, the Carnegie archives building actually ‘starred’ in the 2009 Lionsgate movie The Haunting in Connecticut, which was made in Winnipeg by using archival records. And the work on the building was recognized by a conservation award from Heritage Winnipeg in 2012.
The Carnegie Library/City of Winnipeg Archives Building on William Avenue Image courtesy of "Pathways to Winnipeg History": http://www.winnipeg.ca/clerks/archives/pathways/.
Then disaster struck. Construction work was being done in June 2013 on the roof of the Carnegie building when a torrential rainstorm hit the city and tore through the roof. Records were soaked. The city is suing the contractor. The building could not be used. After only just setting up shop, the Archives had to face the enormous task of relocating. The staff, led by City Archivist Jody Baltessen, has soldiered on despite it all.

But where are we now – nearly three years later? Alas, there is no progress to report. There is only the crushing disappointment that the city budget again made no provision at all for completing the renovation and reopening of the Carnegie building. There is no public record of a word being spoken about it. There is no media attention or outcry by anyone. In a city abuzz with justifiable pride in its architectural achievements and prospects, our City Archives languishes, seemingly forgotten. While we celebrate the new Millennium Library, Inuit Art Centre at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Upper Fort Garry provincial park, the rebirth of Dalnavert Museum, beautifully renovated older theatres, the spectacular Canadian Museum for Human Rights, ambitious plans for downtown high rise towers, and the $400 million True North Square, our City Archives, and one of the finest and iconic heritage buildings we have, damaged by rain, now seem ready to drown in indifference.

Why should you care? Why should all Winnipeggers care, whether they use the Archives directly or not?

Archives often fly under the radar of public awareness, even though they play a crucial and distinct role in good governance and community development. Under their governing legislation, in our case the City of Winnipeg Charter and the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, government-run archives such as our City Archives are legally responsible for the management, preservation and accessibility of vast amounts of documentation created by city officials and other citizens over very long periods of our history.
A view of the second floor interior ca. 1912. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report and the Provincial Archives of Manitoba, N233.
These records are the underlying infrastructure of knowledge of how our city has been governed, the issues that it faces today, and for countless other purposes. City officials have used the Archives to examine various land use issues, such as to verify that there are likely no environmental contaminants on a particular piece of land. They have done research in the Archives when selection of or changes to the names of streets and facilities have been considered so that proposals are historically appropriate. And archival photographs of Portage and Main just prior to its closure to pedestrian traffic have contributed to that lively current discussion.

Contemporary public affairs have been informed by the City Archives in other ways too. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the construction of St. Vital Bridge. The City Archives participated with an exhibit of its records that was displayed at the ceremony marking the occasion and that reminds us of the challenges city officials and Winnipeggers faced when sorting out this key infrastructure issue. Councilor Brian Mayes writes that this history shows that the bridge can be a symbol of inter-neighbourhood cooperation whose spirit remains essential to the city today. He also notes that a location proposed in 1963 for the bridge and rejected then was recently suggested as a spot for a pedestrian/bike bridge, a project that would also help stabilize riverbanks there. Mayes concludes that the bridge anniversary project “showed that by studying history, old ideas can sometimes re-emerge in a new light.”

Many of our more visible sources of knowledge have their origin in consultation of archival records. Books and publications of all kinds in our libraries, exhibits in our museums, knowledge about our historic sites, the restoration of older buildings and heritage precincts, and production of  television programs, documentaries, novels, plays, dance, and music are often based on archival research, as well as information we obtain through the Internet.

We are all therefore users and beneficiaries of archives, often without even knowing it, unless we read the fine print that sometimes credits an archives for source material in the news media, the footnotes in a book, or the fast scrolling credits after a film or television program. 
 
1969 photo of the front entrance to the library/City Archives. Image courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Manitoba Architectural Survey and the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
Our City Archives holds a unique Winnipeg body of records. No other archives, library, or museum has legal jurisdiction to acquire or maintain these records. No other archives has these records or would take them even if offered. Thus no other city has responsibility for them but the City of Winnipeg, its Mayor and Council. If we do not complete the renovation of the Carnegie building, these invaluable records will be far less readily accessible in the much less than adequate storage many are now in on Myrtle St.

At long last, some 125 years after its incorporation, Winnipeg joined other major cities in Canada and the world by creating an archives worthy of our city’s stature in Canadian history. When the storm hit, however, much yet remained to do to make the interior of the building truly accessible and optimally functional. It had remained in many ways unchanged since it opened in 1905. It now required an inviting and modernized space for users of the records and their digital tools, suitable office, meeting, and work space for staff members, an area for public gatherings, group visits by school children and others, and exhibits of records, as well as convenient onsite storage for many highly specialized record formats such as the Archives extraordinary architectural documents and maps.


Architect S. Hooper's drawing of the William Avenue facade of the Carnegie Library. Image courtesy of the City Archives and the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
Unlike our libraries, museums, galleries, historic sites, and other archives, only the City Archives holds the voluminous unpublished documentary record of the particular story of Winnipeg and its people. It is the only archives dedicated to documenting and telling that story. The City Archives, above all these others, tells us of our distinct community identity, our achievements together, and where we have fallen short.

The Archives' ability to make this unique contribution to effective and transparent civic administration and community well-being was dealt a terrible blow by the rainstorm. I urge the Winnipeg heritage community not to allow the large and far-sighted investment that the city has made so far in the City Archives and Carnegie building to be imperilled by failure to complete this essential city project. Since archives usually fly under the radar it is all the more important that public officials be constantly reminded of the City Archives’ foundational role in public and community life. Let them and others in our community know that a purpose-built home for the City Archives is vital to its success as a municipal and community service.

(For more information on the Carnegie Library building, see History of Winnipeg Carnegie Library.)

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. So much outcry and controversy about tearing down the Public Safety Building, yet no money for the Archives!

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