An archival backlog is a reality for all archivists. At some point or another, a backlog will exist — this is inevitable. But, as we’ll soon discover, that can be addressed, and to great effect.
For the past few months, myself and our amazing Archives volunteer, Andy Resto (an Archival Studies graduate student at the University of British Columbia) have been working on a major archival processing project here at the Diocesan Archives. In this project, we aimed to completely clean up the primary/main section for materials we’ve received but haven’t yet processed/arranged. Andy and I went box-by-box, unpacking them, properly arranging them in new, specially-designed archival folders, labeling said folders and then their new boxes, and then — finally — storing them in the vault for permanent storage.
To start off, we had about 150 – 200 boxes to deal with in the primary unprocessed materials storage section. At first, Andy was in two days a week (a four hour shift each day), and together we would complete work on a varying number of boxes across each week, but consistently making steady progress.
In the span of two to three months, we made significant progress, cutting the amount of unprocessed diocesan materials by two thirds. For this project, Andy and I focused on the Banker Boxes, given that — due to their size and thus the increased number of records in them — we’d get the most reward for our effort that way. In the end, it proved correct — while there was a very small number of boxes we didn’t manage to get to in the end, we cleared up a backlog that went back over two decades. As a result, the diocese has active access to many records and materials previously unprocessed.
This project was a delight in many ways. To start with, making substantive progress in a backlog is always a feather in any archival worker’s cap. We accomplished an enormous workload and vastly decreased the amount of unprocessed diocesan materials. In addition, I was able to offer Andy training and practical experience in processing and describing (in the Archival Studies sense) archival material.
But ultimately, this project gave me — and I’m sure the same is true for Andy — a special insight into the history and life of our diocese and the movements that have coursed across it in its time. Matters such as the debate over Same-Sex Unions were monumental in the life of our diocese; the crisis of the schism regarding the dissident parishes; the various activities and legacies of so many parishes over so many years. Looking into this momentous base of material, one truly got a picture for how alive, vibrant, and diverse the diocese of New Westminster has been over its now 142 years. The Anglican Church in the Lower Mainland has grown from an initial, small parish in the tiny settlement of Derby in 1859, (that parish presently known as St. John the Divine in Maple Ridge, for the history aficionados) to the growing, thriving collection of parishes and Anglican worshipping communities that now make up our diocese.
The project’s success has dramatically changed the outlook of my work for the months to come throughout 2021. In 2019 and 2020, a large part of my workload was, in some way or another, focused on the totality of our backlog. That work has been greatly shaped and changed because of this reduction. Consequently, the Diocesan Archives will be able to focus more on projects that have been sitting on the backburner, with more thought directed to what other kinds of activities and ventures to which we may direct our skills and energy (in particular I’m pondering in the “Outreach” category of things).
I do think this project will be seen as a notable moment in the history of the Archives. An enormous portion of our total backlog was cleared away, and thus more room for newer, different projects to take the fore.
What’s the future of the Archives past this project? Well, lots of things! In the planning stages are proposals for outreach programs, along with internal policies and programs we could implement to improve overall functionality. With the backlog cut down to nearly nil, my volunteers and I will be able to move much more swiftly on processing new arrivals of material.
Above all else, however, is the bigger picture, that every diocesan archivist must strive to keep in sight at all times (it’s just that important!), and that is the vision of the Diocesan Archives as the institutional history, and lifeblood, of the diocese. Here is where the records are kept — of diocesan operations; of parish operations and activities; of the lives that have passed through our parishes and the lives of those parishes, in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, marriage and burial; and so much more. All these records, all of them strands of a grand tapestry illustrating the love and worship of God across so many lives, communities, and decades.
That’s the vision all Diocesan Archivists — and their volunteers — must keep in mind. It is indeed a special work to engage in.
Marché Riley stands in the row in the Archives at Nanton Avenue with the newly organized backlog (Now, no longer a backlog)