Provincial Archives of Alberta: the art of preservation, acquisition and conservation

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Tin type of a cute little dog found in a new acquisition of old family photos

Whether it’s a piece of music, a photograph or a short film, the ‘records’ that we own, view or create are mostly electronic today: nothing more than ones and zeros, bits and bytes, digital representations of objects that used to exist only in the physical world.

As physicality becomes secondary to electronic, it’s up to an essential system of preservation to ensure the physical objects in our lives are maintained for future generations. In our province, it’s the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA) helping to lead the charge.

The PAA acquires, preserves and makes available records from government, individuals and organizations for researchers of all ages. This facility is free and open to the public.

To ensure that those records indeed are accessible to the public, the PAA employs a team of archivists, archival technicians, and conservators. One person on that team is conservator Alison Freake, who has been with the PAA for 16 years. Her role is to work with other staff to determine which items need conservation treatment and how and when this should be done.

Freake’s day-to-day work includes answering questions from the public, working with professional conservation associations and monitoring the environmental conditions within the Archives. She’s also involved when a crisis hits: namely, the devastating flood of southern Alberta in 2013.

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During her internship with the PAA, former Assistant Conservator of Paper and Archival Records Kaslyne O’Connor repaired over 40 glass plate negatives, along with conducting book repair and fixing stain glass.

Working with the Archives Society of Alberta (ASA), she helped develop capacity to address emergency situations like the 2013 flood. “The ASA Lead Conservator worked on a large number of photographic prints and negatives from the Museum of the Highwood (High River) in the PAA conservation lab,” said Freake. “Given that these objects had been frozen since 2013, I was happily surprised at the results and learned a lot about the resilience of archival photographs and our expectations for recovery.  I hope that I can use what I learned during that process to help other institutions in future emergency response situations.”

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O’Connor works to stabilize the emulsion on a glass plate negative

This year, the PAA is celebrating its 50th anniversary. With this milestone, as well as the year-long celebration of Canada 150, it’s a perfect time to commemorate and reflect on the past, present and future. Asked about the role the PAA and other archival facilities plays (and will play) in society, Freake says:

“The PAA documents the lives of all Albertans, not only the socially prominent or wealthy or powerful.  We hold evidence of the best and worst days of people’s lives, their successes and their embarrassments, and, more broadly, our society’s changes and adaptations.  Around the world, archival institutions support transparency and accountability.  As often as we hear the adage ‘those who forget history are doomed to repeat it,’ I think a more accurate version is, ‘those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.’  Just as conservators need to know how an object was made before they can understand how to fix it, archives can help us understand how we got here and how to get to where we need to be.”

For information on the programs and services available at the PAA, as well as info on 50th anniversary celebrations and exhibits, visit http://provincialarchives.alberta.ca/

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