One of the regular features of each ASA conference and annual general meeting is the ASA Institutional Forum, an opportunity for representatives of member archives to discuss matters of mutual concern. At this year's meeting, representatives agreed that the ASA Grants Committee be charged with determining a penalty for applications from institutions with access fees for researchers. This decision was prompted by the Glenbow Museum's new daily entrance fee for access to the Library and Archives ($11.00; $8.50 seniors), to be charged except in cases of museum membership, first-time use, examination of one's own records, or First Nations/Metis visitors (the latter two groups being paid this year by Shell Canada Ltd.).
The ASA's decision was not a pleasant one to make, but it was the right one. We believe, and have incorporated into policy, that free access is a basic professional and institutional requirement. Paying to examine records entrusted to public institutions is seen as an unnecessary impediment. Status as a public institution is not governed soley upon the majority source of operating funds. Some time ago the Canadian Council of Archives determined that records with restrictions are not eligible for Control of Holdings Programme funding. That policy was extended to the ASA Access to Holding Programme, hence the Institutional Forum's decision.
The ASA is not alone in its belief. Following the formal announcement of Glenbow's "pilot project" on May 22, a predictable professional outcry arose on the ARCAN-L listserv, prompting the distribution of a background document from Glenbow. Significant public debate in the Calgary press has included a series of letters prompted by a blunt commentary by historian David Finch, a defensive reaction from Glenbow CEO Michael Robinson, and a column by historian Donald Smith speculating on more suitable ways to solve budgetary problems. There was also a satirical commentary in FFWD. It is unlikely that either side of the debate will be swayed by the other's arguments, but ASA is obliged to register its disapproval and has wisely chosen to focus attention on the pivotal point: restricted access.
The Institutional Forum did not hesitate in making its decision on philosophical grounds; however, there was discomfort in imposing a penalty in front of our Glenbow colleagues. These archivists, our peers, have made countless contributions to the ASA over the years and all ASA members have benefited. Just as other individuals and institutions contribute to this society, the Glenbow contribution has been made unselfishly because it is the right thing to do. Now, the ASA has made a stand, also because it is the right thing to do, regardless of the high esteem we have for our Glenbow colleagues' contributions and professionalism.
Some might argue that by our action, we are telling an organization how to conduct its business. Glenbow's CEO made it clear to the ASA executive that he holds this view. If the ASA and its member organizations operated in isolation, only responsible to our directors and boards, we could all do as we pleased. However, as a provincial professional organization of individuals and organizations, we have a duty to the public and the right to act against a precedent action that affects us all. As an organization entrusted with the public's archival record, the Glenbow Museum also has a duty to the public and to this profession.
Professional principles aside, Alberta's archives would do well to look at the practical side of this issue. Those favouring access fees should weigh the amount they might likely raise through admissions against the valuable funds received, especially in the last year, through CCA, CAIN and ASA programmes. There are alternate sources of income besides fees. Recently a woman dropped into the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies with a card of thanks and a cheque of over $8000.00 for the Archives and Library. She made this gracious gesture out of appreciation for what we do day-in and day-out. Many will remember when Michael Dawe at the Red Deer and District Archives received an unsolicited cheque for $45000.00 several years ago and more recently, two producing oil wells for the same reason. We could all more actively use the good will we have fostered to help raise funds. Levying access fees will generate paltry sums compared to gifts, to grant funds and in relation to the headaches involved.
That said, we should continue to encourage new memberships. Glenbow has repeatedly encouraged Library and Archives users to take out memberships, apparently with little result. Perhaps there are better ways to solicit memberships. No doubt some Glenbow users still harbor a reluctance to embrace Museum membership as a consequence of the last assault on the Glenbow library programme. Following library staff cuts, I used every opportunity to return the Glenbow membership appeal to the CEO with a note that I would not be renewing until such time as the library staff members were reinstated.
I was interested to note on a recent research trip to Philadelphia visiting several not-for-profit archival and library member-based organizations that no access fees were involved. These organizations were financed more like the Glenbow Museum than most other Canadian archives, yet all provided archives access without charge. Even in the august Athenaeum of Philadelphia, where there is a spectacular neo-classical members' reading room, there is also a free visiting scholars room. No doubt, "membership has its privileges," but exclusive access is not one of them. I can only hope that, like the ASA, Alberta's archives will continue to do the right thing by rejecting access fees.