Interview with Anna Gibson Hollow, University Archivist
Interviewed by Maryna Chernyavska
Anna Gibson Hollow, University Archivist at the University of Alberta
M: Let’s start with the basics. What’s your personal journey to archives? How did you become an archivist?
A: Many-many years ago, I had completed my bachelor of arts degree in classics, I studied Greek, Latin and all of those fun things. And I was working as a receptionist for an organization that happened to have an archives attached to it. I started volunteering at this archives and developed an interest in it, because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my undergraduate degree. I met someone who introduced me to the different [archival] schools that were available, and I went to the University of British Columbia (UBC), their archives program. When I graduated from there in 2001, I was very fortunate to get a position at the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA). It started as a contract position, then I moved to full time permanent work. So, I worked there for a number of years, and then I took a little departure – did some information management, data management, records management work for different organizations. I was able to get some management skills, actually managing teams. I worked at the University of Alberta in the Office of Advancement managing a records group there for 6 years. I was very-very happy working there, but the University Archivist position came up. I remember years before jokingly saying to my boss: “The only job I would leave this one for is the university archivist.” And it happened. So, I am very pleased to be here.
M: Well, it sounds like a great fit with all the different experiences that you have.
A: I think so. I think me actually leaving archives for a while and getting other experiences made me better prepared for this role.
The new Research & Collections Resource Facility contains environmentally controlled storage spaces to maintain the highest standards for preservation of the Archives collections.
M: Can you tell me a bit about your involvement in professional associations on local, national and international levels?
A: When I was an archivist at the Provincial Archives, I was very involved in the Archives Society of Alberta (ASA).
M: When Michael Gourlie was the Archives Advisor?
A: Yes, Michael was actually the one I met when I was volunteering. And he was the one who told me about all the archival schools. So, I was involved with the ASA on the Communications Committee. I was also involved with a group of Government Records Archivists who formed the Government Records Special Interest Section for the Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA). That was back in early 2000s.
M: So, at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, was your position related to government records?
A: It was at the time, yes. So, I chaired that [group] for a year. Then I was also on the ACA Code of Conduct subcommittee. We were responsible for doing a provisional code for the ACA 2017 conference in Ottawa because we didn’t have one going in. So, I was on that subcommittee as well. I haven’t been involved in any international organizations though, so I am curious about that.
M: Tell me about the archives here at the University of Alberta.
A: It’s a wonderful place to work. I am really enjoying it. We are a lean team. We are the second largest archives in Alberta after the Provincial Archives and we have a staff of three full time positions (including myself) and one sessional, contract position.
M: And your position is a new one, isn’t it?
A: Not exactly. We had a University Archivist until about 10 years ago and so it’s been vacant for quite some time. It’s been pretty lean for a while, but we are looking for creative ways to do things. We have some great students who work for us part-time. They have been wonderful. I don’t know what we would do without our students.
We have a variety of holdings. We are the institutional repository, so of course, any of the records of faculties, departments, university related records come here. We also get private donations from different faculty who have retired, some notable alumni, like Anne Wheeler, she’s got her films here. We’ve also got some of Peter Lougheed’s records here as well. So, it’s pretty great, it’s a very enjoyable place to work.
M: How do you see your role, the main things that you are doing here?
A: As I said, there was a university archivist many years ago, Bryan Corbett, so there was structure already in place. So, it’s not like I am starting from scratch. One of the things that I am trying to do is get the University Archives more involved with the broader archival community again. I think it has been a little bit quiet on that front. So, going to institutional forums, trying to get us involved again in the ASA, the ACA. One of the things that we are also working on with other institutions is our response to the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). I think there is a lot of work that needs to be done here. We don’t know what that looks like just yet, but I am reaching out to other organizations like the City of Edmonton Archives, the Provincial Archives of Alberta, we are all working together to try and figure that out, and ensure we have the right engagement with various communities. We are also looking to the ACA for guidance, specifically the TRC Taskforce and their recommendations.
The other thing that we are looking at is filling our vacant Digital Archivist position. Our previous Digital Archivist left in March, so that’s currently vacant, and I am hoping that we will be able to recruit to that some time soon. That would be wonderful to get that going. We actually have many departments with a lot of digital content that they need to transfer to us.
M: You are saying that you worked in different contexts, in different archival institutions. How is working in academia in a research institution archives different from working in other types of archives?
A: That’s a really good question. One of the differences I have noticed between the Provincial Archives and the University Archives is that the Provincial Archives on the government side, actually on all fronts, it was very structured. And because there was legislation actually requiring government departments to transfer records to the archives, there was a very defined process. And I am finding that on the university side, that process is not quite as defined. We have a university records archivist, Jim Franks, who has been very good at going out to the departments when called and acquiring records, but there is no formal trigger process that dictates when departments need to transfer records to us. We do work with the Records Office, but it’s not like in the government where it is very regimented: ok, it’s time, these records have to go, their final disposition is met, they have to go to the archives. Here it may be that way for some departments, but for a lot of them it’s more like: hey, we ran out of space. Let’s call the archives and see what they will take. Which is great, because then we can get in there, and we can get the records over here. So, it’s different.
One of the positive things that has happened since I came on board, and it’s not because of me, it’s just the stars happened to align, is that the University Records Office, the Information and Privacy Office, the Chief Information Security Office, and the Archives are all working together to train areas on proper information management, on what different areas do, and what services all of us provide. We are all working very closely. So, the Records Office, if they hear from a department that they have got a bunch of stuff they want to destroy, they say: “Let’s call the Archives first, let’s get them in there.”
University of Alberta Archives is located in the Research & Collections Resource Facility
M: It’s great to see there is a vision.
A: Yes, it’s largely driven by the University Records Office but, of course, the Information and Privacy Office was very involved at the very start, because they deal with the fallout from poor records management. When they get an access request and they receive thousands and thousands of pages of records when they really only needed twenty because people are not managing information properly and not destroying it when it should be destroyed.
M: The University Archives is part of the library system at the University of Alberta. What benefits do you see in such a setup? Do you as the university archivist benefit from being part of the bigger team?
A: Absolutely! I think there are huge benefits to being part of the Libraries. I’ve heard this from some of my colleagues at other institutions that one of the benefits is that the libraries are very, very advanced in terms of digital strategies. So, we can draw off of that expertise, certainly bringing in our archival expertise, but also working with these experts in the Libraries who are very tuned into digital. So, that’s a huge benefit. The Library is also a very large department, so when it comes to funding, it is really a benefit for us to be part of it rather than being on our own.
M: Do you use their IT people?
M: Are there any bigger projects or initiatives that the Archives is working on at the moment?
A: One of the things I’ve been tasked with is looking at our private records acquisitions and coming up with a strategy for that, coming up with some broader acquisition themes that could guide what private records we acquire. Also, assessing our holdings for any content that may involve Indigenous communities. We receive research papers from a variety of faculty, some who may be anthropologists, or medical researchers, for example. So, there may be content in our holdings involving subjects from different Indigenous communities. So, actually getting a handle on what we have, figuring that out, trying to decolonize our holdings and our descriptive practices. It’s a big job, so that will be long term.
The Archives preserves over 9,000 linear metres and 30,000 boxes of records. This includes textual records, photographs, audio and video recordings, film, microforms, architectural drawings, and maps.
M: Do you have any short-term projects or goals that you are trying to achieve in the Archives?
A: For myself, it is just trying to get a handle on what we do, and our place within the university. I am trying to identify how we can serve the university, our communities, our students, our researchers. I would really like to know what the users want from us. It would be great if we could do user studies to just find out what our users are looking for in terms of their research, access to our holdings. Because we often make an assumption that if we digitize it all, then people will come. It’s not always the case. I’d really like to find out what it is our users want from us.
M: And our users have changed.
A: Yes. One of the things that I am trying to do is to offer more information sessions for students in different areas on how to use the archives, why are we here, what do we have, how can you use us, how can you engage with us. So, this is one of the things I wouldn’t mind doing in the future having those kinds of workshops. We do it already with different groups ad hoc. But I would like to put a little bit more of a formal structure around it.
I am doing a presentation for a first year Native Studies class. It’s a research class taught by Dr. Paul Gareau, he is wonderful. He is bringing the students to the libraries and the archives and telling them: “These are the resources that are out there and this is how you can use them.” I am going to do a presentation on the archives. And they may not use it in their undergraduate work and that’s fine, but you never know why you might use us, or how you might engage us.
M: I think it’s very important what you are doing. It all leads to raising awareness of archives, of importance of archives. What is the general awareness about archives in Canadian society? How do you see it?
A: It’s a tough one. I think many people have misconceptions about what an archives is. They associate “archiving” with emails or they have a romantic vision of archives as shown in movies – dusty, old, or we have these fabulous holdings that people are trying to steal from us. I remember when I got this job, my 14 year old nephew congratulated me and said: “You are the “National Treasure” lady!” That’s sweet, but no, my job is not that exciting.
M: I remember a presentation at the ASA conference in Canmore a couple of years ago on depiction of archives and archivists, I think, in movies.
A: I’ve seen a similar presentation. I don’t know if it was that same one. It was at a different conference. Have you noticed, we are either really-really nerdy and in the shadows, in the basement, or really-really cool? One or the other, never in between. So, I think there is a lot of misconception of what an archives actually is.
M: What can we do about it?
A: What can we do? I know that me, for the University Archives, I’ve been trying really hard to engage with not just the public, but with some of our donors, and we are talking our monetary donors. After years in Advancement, I see the value of that. Certainly, there is a concern, you don’t want the donors to influence what you do [in archives] but I work closely with our Advancement person in the department. One of the things that she and I did together is we volunteered for Alumni Weekend. Because who are some of the supporters? They are former students, who are now alumni. They are coming back for Alumni Weekend, they have fond memories of their time here. So, just trying to meet with them and say: “Hey, we are here. This is the archives. This is what we do.” There were two alumni who came with their teenage son whom they referred to as a “Future alum.” So, we were chatting and talking about libraries, and the father made a comment about how kids don’t know how to check out books nowadays. They think everything is online. And I said, “I work at the archives. I can tell you, not everything is online.”
M: And neither it should be.
A: Exactly. Both parents looked at the son and said: “Remember that.”
M: Is there a favourite part in your day working here?
A: This is going to sound so cheesy, but my favourite part is coming here. I love working here. For one thing, the space is beautiful. Coming here and seeing a rabbit outside of my window or hearing frogs outside in the spring is really uplifting and I really love it. I can ride my bike here in twenty minutes through the River Valley. I love it. I think one of the things that I also love about my day is actually getting into the records. Archivists don’t always get to do it… I don’t know. I don’t have a favourite. I like it all. We had a meeting here with all of the staff, and as an icebreaker, there were three questions we had to answer and one of them was: what is your dream job? They got to me, and I said, “This is going to sound cheesy, but I mean it. This is my dream job.”
A rabbit outside Anna’s office window
More on the UAlberta Archives: https://www.library.ualberta.ca/archives/history