Saturday, February 27, 2010

Archivists cast wide net for collecting Games history

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 25, 2010

This is how the archivist Courtney Mumma spent her summer.

She hung out at a company's office, listened in on meetings, watched staff play volleyball after eating lunch outdoors at picnic tables.

She peppered them with hundreds of questions, polite but incisive. She wanted to know how the project and information management team handled their records. What did they keep? How did they store it? Where was it all logged?

When the Olympics come to an end, when the Games' organizing committee (VANOC) has completed its work, its voluminous records - minutes, memos, e-mails - will wind up in the hands of the City of Vancouver Archives.

Ms. Mumma, 34, who graduated with a masters degree less than a year ago, was invited by VANOC to study the organization.

It is believed to be the first time Olympic planners and the future repository of their records have worked together.

Thrilled though they are to handle the records, the staff at the Vancouver Archives know the official papers will tell only part of the story.

So, they've put out a call for any group affected by the Games to consider donating their records to the archives, too.

"We're casting a really wide net," Ms. Mumma said. "At this point, we're open to everyone."

Archivists take a neutral position on controversial issues. They are interested in facts. They love primary material. They are masters of metadata.

Their lives are such that phrases like "large event methodology" and "controlled environment storage areas" pepper ordinary conversation.

Guided by a code of ethics, they value objectivity to such a degree it would shame all but a handful of journalists.

Archivists solve mysteries, says archives manager Heather Gordon. "It's like playing detective all day long," she added.

While the call for donations to the Olympic archive does not encourage any specific group to contribute, it is easy to imagine a wish list for future researchers - documents from media outlets, tourism groups, hotel and restaurant associations, as well as advocates for the poor and the homeless.

Sensitive information can even be restricted for a period of time.

Few will be aware of the city archives' success in handling the records of Vancouver community groups.

It has papers from the Downtown Business Association; the Gay Alliance Towards Equality; the committee organizing celebrations for the city's diamond jubilee in 1946; from the citizens who opposed urban renewal in Strathcona, saving Chinatown from the wrecking ball; and, the group that stopped development at the entrance to Stanley Park.

It also has the earliest documents from the Don't Make A Wave Committee, which became Greenpeace.

The archives in Vanier Park include a large storage area not open to the public. An entire aisle of shelving has been left open for Olympic records.

On her first visit to the archives, as a graduate student, Ms. Mumma noticed the empty shelves, which, as it turned out, she has since been hired to fill.

There's plenty of space for community group contributions, since most of the VANOC records will be digital.

Ms. Mumma, who describes herself as an army brat, was born at Cape May Court House, N.J., but grew up in Texas. She graduated from the University of British Columbia last May.

She's enjoyed the happy crowds downtown, marvels at the spirit of the city.

Her big Olympic event so far involved riding the zipline across Robson Square the other morning. She arrived at 8 a.m. The reward for three hours of queueing: "Eighteen seconds of bliss."

It was a rare moment of derring-do for someone whose work day involves the preservation of records for future generations.

That might seem a dry occupation. Those who do it do so because they believe in an informed citizenry.

"I became an archivist," Ms.Mumma said, "because I want to be a part of a society that doesn't forget."

As if any of us - pro or con, thrilled or disgusted - could forget the events of the past month. Thanks to the archivists, we will have a fuller understanding in future of what we're experiencing.

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