Finding the Lakehead University Archives

In the past month we’ve made some significant strides in making the Lakehead University Archives and our records more findable and easier to connect with.

The Archives is also having regular open hours through the Fall 2016 semester.

I’m looking forward to seeing how all of these different outreach channels work: to date it’s all quite experimental, but as the months go by, how will people want to connect with us? What content will be the most popular, and through which tools? So far I’m finding Instagram (the one I don’t use in my personal life) the most challenging to do a good job with — I like to put together my posts on the computer, using whatever images and links I think will be most relevant.

Other challenge: comparing apples to oranges to cupcakes to pencils when it comes to usage information generated from all the different sites.

SAA 2016: Evaluating Outreach Activities at a Municipal Archives

I presented this past Saturday at SAA 2016, as part of Panel 704: Assessing Archives – Case Studies in Using Data as an Advocacy Tool. It was my first time attending SAA, and it was pretty amazing to see just how many archivists could be in one place at one time. The week+ in Atlanta heat was an issue but I did make it out alive :)

It’ll be obvious that this talk is a revision/update of one I gave at ACA in 2014. I haven’t done much with the data analysis since that time, but have reflected a fair bit on what it means. The discoveries from that work have impacted my strategy in outreach projects as well — particularly in thinking about the value of comprehensive web exhibits.


Evaluating Outreach Activities at a Municipal Archives


This presentation is based largely on research that I did while I was the lead person for outreach at a municipal archives. Since the proposal went through, I switched jobs, so I’m now considering how to apply my findings in a role where I’m starting outreach work completely from scratch.

I’m going to talk today about the data I gathered, and the conclusions I was able draw from that data, about how well outreach projects were actually working. Then I’ll reflect a little at the end on how I’ve been able to respond to those findings, and what things I have been able to actually do differently in my work.


For a bit of context: Thunder Bay has a population of just over 100,000 people, and we’re on the northwest shore of Lake Superior. Our land has been inhabited by and a meeting place among the Anishinaabe people for thousands of years. It became an important site for the fur trade in the early 19th century, and then was settled along with industrial booms in mining, then logging, then shipping. Although we are a small city, we also serve as a de facto regional capital for Northwestern Ontario, an area of over 200,000 square miles, smaller than Texas but bigger than California.

Thunder Bay’s municipal and settled history is less than 150 years old. Archival records of this history are held by a handful of institutions, including the City Archives, where I did this research; and my new employer Lakehead University.


I started work at the City Archives in 2008. As an institutional archives with responsibility for records management, most of the focus had been serving internal rather than external customers. We wanted to shift that over time, grow and strengthen community connections, and provide more service to the public, of course without neglecting the needs of City administration.

Over the years we started doing a lot of new things for the first time: building web exhibits, holding public tours, bringing our materials out to other public spaces, using social media, and posting large numbers of photos online.


All of this was done with the sort of basic assumption that I think a lot of us make in outreach. We will engage in a variety of projects, including public events, educational programs, and exhibits, which will presumably lead to an increase in traffic on our website, which will presumably lead to an increase in in­person visits and substantive research, which will lead to increased public support, which will lead to increased funding, which allows us to do even more of all of the above.

Once we get started on this cycle it will all keep building into a massive success.

But there are a lot of assumptions being made in this model. That one thing reliably leads to another, and that if the input is sufficient, the output will be rewarding. This idea that you’ll get results back proportionally to how hard you worked. I assumed these things at first, but each time I looked more closely at what was going on, I realized they weren’t accurate.

We need to look more closely at the connections between each of those steps, and I only cover some of them today, but each of those connections should be questioned and looked at critically.


The analysis I’ll be presenting is based on:

● In­-person visitor statistics and retrieval statistics going back to 1996
● Website visits, going back to 2009
● Flickr views, starting November 2012
● Varied data from other institutions, as far back as 1985, most mid­2000s

I won’t be talking methods today but I’m happy to discuss data gathering and analysis, and the results that didn’t make it into this presentation, with anyone afterwards.

As a side note, I was pretty excited to read the work done on new standards and metrics for archival access. I plan to incorporate that work into my assessment work in the future.

Okay, so what are some of the trends we are seeing? What do these numbers actually say?

In-­person visits are declining somewhat over time, though this decline is gradual. This is monthly data from 1996 to the end of 2015.

This is supported by what’s going in other archives: most frequently but not always a slight decrease in in-­person visits over the years.

On the other hand, there is an overall increase in distance research. While fewer people are attending in person, more are doing research over the phone or by email or on the web.

Website traffic shows an increase over time. That trend is small compared to the weekly variation, though, and some of that variation is seasonal, and some is due to spikes in interest resulting from outreach efforts. This graph shows seven years of traffic for the City Archives website. That big spike in the middle was from an exhibit launch that did very well.

Can the increase in web traffic over time be said to be due to increased outreach efforts, or is it just the side effect of a general increase in use of web resources by people in our community?

Well, here’s the Archives web traffic as a percentage of total City website traffic, 2009 to 2014. It’s pretty constant. The absolute numbers of people viewing archival documents online is increasing, no doubt. But this indicates that it might be driven by the web habits of the public, rather than being a triumph of archival outreach.

How about people viewing digitized photos on Flickr? The most obvious result is that the bulk of views are coming on days when the traffic just absolutely spikes. Those kinds of spikes are definitely event-­driven: either a bunch of new photos are added, and all the new photos get checked out by our followers; or a link gets shared by someone influential, for example the Public Library or a local reporter, and that gets us new viewers and new followers.

Outside of those busy days there is a baseline, which has been slowly increasing over time as more photos are added. That baseline is mostly made up of people searching for particular types of images, much more so than people drawn to look at City Archives photographs specifically.

In fact, we’ve found that there’s very, very little cross­-traffic between our website and our Flickr account. Few referrals, and busy days on Flickr don’t match the busy days on our website. Most people who visit our website don’t visit in person, and many of our in-­person visitors haven’t looked at our website. These are mostly separate sets of people engaging with us in separate ways.

Web exhibit launches, especially when they are supported by media or public attention, lead to significant increases in web visitors. We find this is not just due to people viewing the exhibit itself, but then also viewing other exhibits, looking at the landing page, basically everything else. People who come to see the exhibit stay for other things. (However, they aren’t then spending time on Flickr, or coming in to visit us that week.)

The impact of all this, though, is very short term. We’re looking at one week, two weeks, of popularity before things go back to normal.

This type of pattern lets us determine a baseline, for what “normal” traffic would be. If outside of the initial launch, and outside of any special events, there’s a fairly stable rate of access, then you can measure the impact of special events on top of it. So in this case, this exhibit about former Mayors, has a baseline of between 75 and 150 views per week. So the launch of the exhibit, with over 3500 views, represents that much additional traffic, caused by novelty and by media attention.

One more interesting finding from things I’ve been working on: the average in­person visits for an archival institution are much more dependent on the population of the municipality in which they’re located than on the size of their collections. This slide has got the data from the other institutions I heard from.

It seems that: the more people who can get to the reading room without expense, the more people who will do so. This sounds obvious. But this is another way of finding a baseline against

which to measure success.

There are factors affecting your usage numbers that no amount of outreach activities can shift. How large a community you are working in. The materials you have in your collection: some documents will always attract more popular interest than others.

When you’re judging the success of a project, it’s important to judge it against your baseline or recent trends, and say “Are these results significant, for us? Did this project make a difference in how people found or used our archives?”


Once you can determine what the actual results of that outreach project were, what sorts of responses you got that you wouldn’t have otherwise, you can also contrast that with the amount of time, money, and effort that went into the project.

Evaluating the results of outreach allows us to look at projects and programs through the lens of cost versus results. And that’s kind of a scary thought in some ways, because it seems really wrong to base archival work primarily on financial priorities. But: there are costs to doing any outreach projects. Staff time and staff energy are the biggest asset we have, and should be spent wisely.

While nowhere I’ve worked has gone so far as to assign monetary value to visitors, we do pay attention to the amount of time it takes to, say, post 10 pictures on Flickr, or prepare a major exhibit, including supervision, editing, and dealing with systems. Online exhibits are not cheap to put together!

If that exhibit is seen by 400 people in the first month, but it cost $5000 in total staff time to prepare, then we’ve got a cost of $12.50 per viewer. If we reach 1000 people, then it’s $5 per viewer. So the larger the impact, the more cost effective we can say it was.

Providing access to historical records is our mandate, and we don’t ever expect to be a profit centre, so this seems fair. But what if it worked out to a cost of $50 per viewer, or even higher? Would you be comfortable investing in a project at that sort of cost? Would it be the best use of resources, when there’s so much else to do? At some point, you have to decide that the chosen strategy isn’t working, and try something else.

On the other hand, using Flickr to share images is averaging less than one penny per view. No infrastructure development, minimal staff time. Maybe the total impact is less, and some context is lost, but it’s hard to argue against that sort of efficiency.


So, what does this all mean for developing a good outreach strategy? There are implications for that “Master Plan” discussed earlier, mostly that it’s an incomplete way of looking at things. Doing more projects online doesn’t mean we’re necessarily increasing how much reference service we provide. Flickr traffic doesn’t drive web traffic, or vice versa, and neither of those is a driver for in-person visits, which are actually declining over time. And so far we have no way of knowing whether an increased public profile results in more public support.

The problem with what I was expecting when I started looking at all these results, was in assuming that outreach and access are one single, massive pipeline delivering records to people.

Thinking of everything as “access” oversimplifies what’s really going on. We’re actually dealing with multiple, very separate channels. Very different ways of approaching the archives, of learning about the archives, of accessing archival material.

There is next to no overlap between in-­person visitors (many will check hours online but will not view either finding aids or web exhibits); many distance researchers (again, they find contact information but generally don’t check anything else); the people who spend time on the City Archives’ website (whoever they are, they are not the people visiting!); and the people viewing photographs on Flickr (they’re mostly coming from within Flickr, occasionally from social media, almost never from the website.)

It’s not that useful to think of outreach as increasing the total homogenous volume of people accessing archival records, even though if you add each of those separate numbers together that’s what it could look like. Instead we’re adding new channels, new types of access, that are bringing in different people, and the nature of those interactions is different.

We can take on projects that lead to more interactions with members of the public. We can do work that creates more diverse interactions with members of the public. We can dedicate our efforts to developing high-­quality and meaningful interactions with members of the public. But outreach is not one big homogenous program which is leading us constantly to bigger and better things.


So, since I did a lot of this analysis in 2014, how has it been put to use?

Well, the cost­-result calculation got some attention. That led us to focus less on complex and comprehensive exhibit building, and more on providing straightforward online access to commonly used records, like maps and bylaws.

Also, it was a great demonstration that even in a small institution, where our research visits number in the hundreds per year rather than month, keeping and understanding user data is still worthwhile.

And now I’ve been starting all this over again in a new job, one where there’s again no recent history of outreach work, and in this case very little measurement of use as well. We’ve started measuring and tracking access now, and we’ll be able to use metrics to evaluate projects going forward. I’m also approaching work with exhibits and social media with the same pragmatic perspective.

Most importantly, I’m keeping in mind that outreach speaks to different audiences through different projects, and I’m very aware that we can’t expect a one-­size-­fits-­all approach to work.


I’ve spent a lot of time playing with numbers and graphs. That isn’t for everyone. If we look too closely at the numbers, get caught up in the ups and downs and final scores, there’s also a risk of losing track of what it is we really want to achieve.

Is outreach a means to an end, or an end in itself? Access to archival records is an end in itself. Outreach as a means of improving and increasing that access is a fundamental good. Outreach projects, especially tangible things that are created and have been seen by a measurable number of people, are a demonstration that we are present in the community and doing our work with a focus towards public service.

But we have to focus on the end result, increased access to archival records, and not on the projects themselves. Pointing to a display or a brochure or a Facebook page as a success in itself is not a good strategy. Instead, we need to point to the results of those projects, the increase in access, the quantity and quality of interactions. The evaluation we do tells us what’s working and what’s not. And we owe it to ourselves to look critically at our own work, our successes and failures, in order to learn and be better at all this in the future.

Slides (PDF): SAA2016Powerpoint_SJ

Useful References:

Using Google Analytics Data to Expand Discovery and Use of Digital Archival Content
Michael Szajewski
Practical Technology for Archives
Talks about using Google Analytics to see how digital content is being discovered, and thereby get a better impression of who is actually using your site, and what they are interested in.

Considering Outreach Assessment: Strategies, Sample Scenarios, and a Call to Action
Shannon L. Farrell and Kristen Mastel
In The Library With The Lead Pipe
Discusses strategies for evaluating in­-person events, focusing on goals and not just how many people showed up.

The Records We Are Not Proud Of at AAO/AMA 2016

Just earlier in May Thunder Bay and the Northwestern Ontario Archivists’ Association hosted a joint conference of the Archives Association of Ontario and the Association for Manitoba Archives. Papers will be posted on the AAO’s site soon, and until then you can also check out #aaoama16 on Twitter.

I put together a panel session called “The Records We Are Not Proud Of: a discussion of outreach and controversial materials” where four of us talked about different challenges we had in sharing and promoting records and photographs that showed our home institutions in a bad light. The other speakers were: Sean Hayes, John D. Lund, and Rebecka Sheffield.

My speaking note for the session are below. I also wrote about this project for Off The Record last year.


“The Playground Indians Problem”

  • This is a case study from my work at the City of Thunder Bay Archives, but I’ve already got a follow-up example from Lakehead University as well
  • City of Thunder Bay Archives produced a major web exhibit in 2014, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the municipal playgrounds program
    • Significant part of community recreation — free, services to all, integration (language, country of origin, economic status, ages, gender (later), dis/ability (later))
    • Exhibit included photographs and documents showing how the Playgrounds were formed and changed over time
    • Collaborated on events with Recreation Division — talk about recreation history to lots of people
  • Chose not to include significant amount of material from 1950s and 1960s because of racism and cultural appropriation
    • Songs and rhymes using nonsense syllables and relying on Hollywood Indian stereotypes
    • Photos of children, all of whom are white, dressed as those “Indians” with imitation construction-paper headdresses and face paint
    • Especially painful since those photographs were taken at Chippewa Park: named after the Ojibwe people whose land it was constructed on
      • Park lands appropriated/stolen from the Fort William First Nation only 50 years previously
      • Had been part of larger Mission Site, with homes, church, cemeteries that needed to be relocated as part of an earlier appropriation
      • Park was constructed in the 1920s as site for summer camps, amusement park, and day camp programs related to the playgrounds
      • Appropriated indigenous imagery while excluding actual indigenous people from their land
  • These are valuable records, important records. What do we learn from these photographs?
    • Part of a tradition of cultural appropriation for recreation and municipal self-marketing
    • Indigenous people of this region having their images, and a distorted version of their culture, used for white peoples’ profit and entertainment, and not enjoying the results
      • Playgrounds example: program was very progressive in including children speaking different languages, different immigrant backgrounds, across economic status → ex music night in east end praised in press → but not inclusive of indigenous people  
  • This is an important part of the story (playgrounds, recreation, this city’s problem with race). So then why choose to leave the materials out?
    • Context and framing. Nature of the exhibit as celebrating an anniversary. Intent to make the City look good, proud of all the good that was accomplished.
    • Including images in that context would be callous to the indigenous people in our community today, not to mention historically ignorant
  • Is this censorship? Is this filtering the historical record so that one story is told and not another?
    • I’m sure it can be argued either way and some of you might disagree with me on this decision
    • Images are still available on request
    • May be included in public access that is less loaded with celebratory context
  • Just as I was starting to put together material for this presentation I went & changed jobs. Started work a couple months ago at Lakehead University.
  • Lakehead is known for having one of the largest collections of records related to Finnish-Canadians and Finnish immigrants to Canada. Records donated by the Thunder Bay Finnish Canadian Historical Society document the strong performing arts traditions among the local Finnish community. And this, it turns out, includes photographs of Finnish-Canadian amateur actors in blackface.
    • Differences in the situation, but also could be the same challenge over again
    • In early 20th century, Finns were treated and saw themselves as a racialized minority group, separate from English-speaking dominant culture
    • These photographs are part of the documentation that shows the strength and achievements of the local Finnish community in politics, labour, arts, and sport. These records, collected and donated by the historical society, very much assembled in the context of celebrating this past. It is not a neutral collection.
    • This summer starting a photograph description & digitization project, and will eventually be concerned about where & how we publish the images, and what context they are put in
  • This is all possibly unsatisfying as a case study:
    • Identified material that we chose not to use in outreach projects
    • In effect, set aside the most challenging aspects for another day
    • We talked during the session this morning about the sneaky strategy of just not describing in depth the records that we don’t want to draw attention to, so this seems to be a shared strategy
  • Want to end by telling a story about this photograph
    • Load high-res image – rollercoaster at Chippewa Park
    • This photo was taken some time in the 1960s. It shows the roller coaster at Chippewa Park, which was recently torn down because of safety concerns.
    • The people riding this roller coaster: most of them are indigenous children. They’re accompanied by a white woman in a religious habit, and two slightly older white children.
    • It seems likely that these are children from the St Joseph’s Boarding School, which operated as an Indian Residential School from 1936 to 1964. These kids would be some of the last to be in that school. But we don’t know for certain that’s who they are, and so the City Archives is reluctant to make that identification officially
    • This is I believe the earliest photograph the City has showing indigenous, or any non-European, children engaging in municipal recreation. It’s the only one I know of until the 1980s. We have to remember that people from Fort William First Nation and other First Nations have been living and working in Fort William and Port Arthur since those towns were established, sometimes by choice and sometimes not, yet they have been excluded in many ways from the official record, and are completely invisible in feel-good historical projects
    • I’ve been thinking about how to point out absences in the record, what’s the best way to approach this, and I don’t have a good answer today
    • Can’t end without mentioning something else, you might have noticed, the front roller coaster car, painted in a cartoon blackface image. (ask who noticed?) What to say about this? Do we ignore it? Call it out? Does this aspect affect how people perceive and understand the significance of the rest of the photo?
  • The impact that archival images and other records have on people is worth thinking about deeply and slowly
    • Especially when records don’t just document the past treatment of minority groups by a dominant culture, but are or contain symbols that are actively hurtful today
    • We are responsible for preserving and presenting historical truth, the complete record, but also are responsible for making access to our archival records available and welcoming to everyone, and that requires an active stance against the racism and other injustices represented in our collections

“Records Lifecycle”

This has been bugging me for a long while now.

Why do we persist in calling it a records “lifecycle”?

There’s no cycle involved. It can be termed a lifespan, perhaps: creation, use, inactive, disposition. But there’s no reproduction. There’s no cycling. (Unless you want to term it all in terms of paper products recycling, which is not helpful.)

Yes, the metaphor is already overused in so many fields — but at least in many of those, there is a process of cycling back.

One reason, though not the most important reason, to talk about the continuum instead.

Archives Awareness Week at Lakehead University

Being in the job for only 5 weeks it seemed an appropriate time to hold an open house, right?

Last week I took part in Ontario’s Archives Awareness Week, the themed week for outreach projects and events. I think the benefit of the Official Week is not that it has much meaning in itself, but that it reminds archives to get at least something together, and sets up an annual tradition that can sink in with the public over time.

(Ideally, we’d be working on Archives Awareness however you might define that every week of the year, but the Official Week serves as a prompt and this year came with a nice customizable poster that I just couldn’t say no to.)

I’ve spent my first month at Lakehead furiously getting control over the collections. Got a reliable shelf list, a fairly accurate summary of all fonds, and an internally-functional AtoM database now. It seemed like enough to begin talking to people about the records that we have and the records we’d like to acquire.

It took an afternoon to go through some of the existing finding aids and inventories and pick out some individual items that I thought would be interesting. Doing this was a great excuse to open up some of the boxes, flip through, get a better understanding of the records beyond their catalogue listings. I also thought about trying to balance out what was being displayed: by genre or medium, by time period, by source. It seemed harder to find appropriate university records, though that may also be because of differences in description.

Promotion was pretty limited. I didn’t want to push for massive crowds, so just put out a notice in the University’s internal communications, and shared it with a few people I knew were interested. It became a good excuse for people in the university community who had been meaning to contact me to stop by. In all, I spoke with and showed records to 15 people over 4 hours, better than I’d expected, with very little effort on my part.

Back to Academic

For the past 8 years I’ve been working with government records. First with the Province of Ontario, and then with the City of Thunder Bay. Now I’m moving into an academic library. The way I cope with any change is to over-research: so I’ve been reading as much as possible about university archives, and the current state of higher ed in general. (More links and resources are always welcome!)

My LIS career started in an academic library, though. It’s something I don’t mention much as it’s dropped off the bottom of my CV, but the time I spent working circulation at the Graham Library at the University of Toronto is what got me into this field in the first place.

Back in 2002 I was going into my second year of a physics undergraduate degree. I had lived the year before in a residence across the street from the Graham Library, and it was a wonderful place to study — if for no other reason than it smelled really, really good. (I haven’t been back for years, so I don’t know if it still smells so good in there. Really, that was a motivator.)

Because I just wanted to soak up that environment, whether I was studying or not, I applied for a student circulation job. Qualifications: you can show up for your shift on time, pretty much. But I did well. I genuinely enjoyed the work, whether it was shelving, or fixing the printer, or providing basic after-hours reference service. (I googled things for people. Not everyone knew about Google yet.)

All this time I was doing well & loving my library job, I was having a rough time with classes. The field I’d chosen to go into was not loving me back. I had spent so long being fascinated with learning about science, and better than average at math, that it was painful when I hit a wall. I was finding the work very, very difficult and that, with the anxiety and hit to my self-esteem, was making me miserable. A shift on circulation was a refuge from all of that. In my last year, I moved around a bunch of classes, and ended up with a minor in the history of science — taking classes that were fun and fascinating and felt achievable again.

People who knew me could see that working in the library made me happy, and working in the physical sciences did the opposite, and finally someone suggested that I try an MLIS degree.

Even after I was accepted at GSLIS at McGill, I noticed that they were offering an archives specialization. “That sounds neat,” I thought. And signed up. After 2 weeks, I was sure I’d made the right choice, and I’ve been working in archives ever since.

(Okay, it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that: those 2 years at McGill are a story in themselves. For another time, perhaps.)

Switching Jobs

I’m happy to announce that starting March 1 I will be working as Lakehead University’s Archivist. I’ll be the first person to hold the position full time, and the first archivist there in a number of years.

There’s a lot of work to do at Lakehead: basically, all the work of getting a full archives program up and running. The records that are in the archives have been accessible over the years, to people who know about them, and are in reasonable shape. There’s a really strong local history collection, as well as some invaluable records of the university’s history.

I’m looking forward to getting it started, making the collection more available to the public, and getting regular acquisitions under way again.

Meanwhile, this is my last week at the City Archives. There are of course some projects left unfinished (particularly work with electronic records — though I have to be pleased at the progress we’ve made over the years without any additional financial resources.) We’ve made huge progress with sharing the photograph collection, and getting the finding aids more available (and now searchable!) In the past few months, I’ve worked a lot with the records of the two closing Homes for the Aged, and much of those will be available to researchers soon.

I’ve been clearing out and de-personalizing my workspace, and wrapping up everything I can. There are definitely projects I feel ownership of, and it’s a bit weird to turn those over to someone else. Also, this plant that I keep at work because otherwise the cats would be chewing on it 24/7…

Upcoming: AAO/AMA Joint Conference

Things are coming together well for the planned Archives Association of Ontario / Association for Manitoba Archives joint conference in Thunder Bay. The conference will be May 11-13. The program hasn’t been released yet, but I got to peek at it, and it looks really exciting!

I’m reminded to mention the conference as the program committee has just released a call for posters. Students and new professionals are particularly invited to submit posters, and have a chance to share their work with those who have been around a little longer. More information can be found on the AAO’s website.

I’ll share more updates as they’re officially announced as well.