A Lesson from the Archives
From the Desk of the Archives Advisor : Michael Gourlie,
Archives Society of Alberta
The wealth of online digitized archival content makes complex (or perhaps frivolous) research possible with a few keystrokes. While our own ANA database is a national leader in providing access to a province's documentary heritage, one of the most interesting online resources is the William Lyon Mackenzie King diaries site, available via the ArchiviaNet research tool at www.archives.ca. The fifty-year span of the diaries, combined with King's experiences and position in Canadian society, ensures that a keyword search can turn up unexpected results. For archivists, one of the most interesting searches surrounds King's relationship with Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty.
The relationship between King and Doughty is well-known, primarily though the ongoing research interests of National Archivist Ian Wilson. But, reading the original entries written by King provides a unique insight into a relationship between archivist and researcher, donor and, ultimately, close friend. When they first met in January 1906, King referred to Doughty as "the most interesting man I have met in Ottawa." King's opinion soured briefly in 1912 during legal wrangling over the portrayal of his grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie. Researching at the archives, King observed Doughty removing a typescript copy from a file, concluding Doughty was "a bit of a sneak" and colluding with others to injure his grandfather's reputation. But this incident soon passed, and Doughty's name appears frequently in the diaries for the next thirty years in both professional and personal contexts. King found Doughty invaluable for gathering information for speeches, finding books, and arranging for bookbinding. They became close friends and kindred spirits, with Doughty and his wife frequently in attendance for dinner with King and other dignitaries.
A meeting in December 1922 seemed to influence King's view of archives. Picking up some newly bound books at the archives, Doughty gave King a tour, showing him not only the overcrowded conditions but also Sir John A. Macdonald's records as they were being "sorted & bound, boxes full of them." King remarked, "It is sort of a solemn business to realize one is a part of one's country's history & for good or ill be so counted. It places a very great obligation on one." Doughty made an impression on King in terms of how posterity might view him, and the resources that historians would need to study his impact on Canadian society. It also demonstrated how archives fit with Canadian national identity, a strong interest of King's.
King and Doughty kept in contact after the latter's retirement in 1935, although King's busy schedule often left him little time. According to the diary, King was meeting with someone expressing interest in being appointed Dominion Archivist when he received word that Doughty had died in December 1936. In eulogizing Doughty to federal cabinet ministers, King stated, "I do not know of another man in the Public Service who had made so important a contribution to national life." King proposed to cabinet that a bust be created to commemorate his contributions to the preservation of Canadian history, and they readily agreed. The statue, the only monument to a Canadian civil servant, stands behind the Library and Archives of Canada building on Wellington Street.
In the years before his own death, King still referred to Doughty frequently. He noted that Doughty had initiated the system by which the National Archives assists retired prime ministers with the processing of their papers. In 1949, King wrote, "I had been influenced by Doughty's suggestion of preserving everything" and even worried that there "would be a lot that was trivial and not worth bothering about." The richness of his records and their value to Canadian studies prove that his fears are groundless. While the controversy of how King's records were received at the National
Archives is another story, clearly the origins of how King viewed archives and his records lies in his relationship with Doughty.
What does this relationship tell us, and are there any lessons for modern archivists to be learned from the interactions of two national figures? The principle of equal access to documents avoids disgruntled researchers. It is useful to cultivate donors over time, reiterate to them the value of their records, and explain the process of what archivists do. Demonstrating how your program's goals align with the overall vision of your organization demonstrates relevance and
related to archival work, finding an angle within an organization or interpersonal relationship and pursuing it successfully can pay dividends in the future. To culminate these initiatives, use strategic opportunities, such as building tours and networks of relationships, to push your program's agenda for the better.
But above all, the relationship between King and Doughty shows that the work of archivists is valued and remembered for years afterward. No statues will be built to commemorate our work, but, even on our most stressed and burnt-out day, the archival community can take pride in its efforts to preserve Alberta's documentary heritage and bring its riches to light.