Lois Yorke reflects on her time as Provincial Archivist
When we sat down with recently-retired Provincial Archivist Lois Yorke, we were hoping for insight into the history of our beloved institution and into Lois’s long career. We got that and more! Lois is well-known and respected in the archives world and it is a treat (for this archives-nerd) to hear her reflections on our Archives, the profession, and her plans for retirement.
What was your first job or project at Nova Scotia Archives?
My very first task was to work through the pre-1800 Crown land grants to intending settlers, folder-by-folder and box-by-box, to make sure the contents were in order by year, and then within each year alphabetically by the name of the grantee. After that I had to write the name and year in pencil on each document, in the upper right-hand corner. I think they wanted to make sure I knew and understood the alphabet, could sort chronologically and write legibly, and didn’t get bored easily. Then again, maybe they were trying to break me….
What are some of the biggest changes that you’ve witnessed in your career?
Two inter-related changes have entirely changed the world of archives in the last 25 years. The first is the professionalization of archival work. When I first began, archivists were ‘handmaidens of history’ – we stepped and fetched for academics, historians and researchers, but otherwise we hovered in the background. Standards and best practices were few and far between, and were usually grounded in individual ‘house styles’ which differed widely from archives to archives.
Early in my career I stepped away for several years to raise a family. When I returned, it was a shock to find that the archival endeavour had grown up overnight, with its own professional framework, language and methodology, all supported by academic training and development, networking, and formal associations.
Suddenly, archivists were visible and vocal, and everyone was approaching their work in the same way, whether they were at the provincial institution in Nova Scotia, or a community archives in rural Saskatchewan.
The second change was the explosion of the Internet and the movement towards online archives in the early 2000’s, with the parallel ability to reach out to anyone, anywhere. Almost overnight, it didn’t seem to matter anymore where the records came from, or how they were identified and arranged – ‘just digitize it all’ was the mantra….and the sooner the better.
A decade later, we’ve found a balance, sometimes precarious, by emphasizing context and integrity – it does matter where the archival material is held, and how it’s arranged, described and presented online, because otherwise, ‘garbage in is garbage out.’ Quality visitor experiences – whether visitors realize it or not – are built on demonstrating that archival records are ‘living’ documents with a past that informs the present.
What project or accomplishment are you most proud of?
A challenging question – many to choose from! – but I consider the two Archives’ websites to be my real legacy. I didn’t begin either of them, but I was the midwife during both births (1997 and 2007) and the ‘nanny’ while they were growing up. Now they’re both young adults, big and unwieldy, going off in all directions and sometimes barely under control – social media, crowdsourced transcription, e-business solutions, international partners – more than enough to keep someone awake at night.
Other highlights? Developing the Vital Statistics website (3.5 years, 7 corporate partners, 4 teams, 60 people, and the Canada-US border); successfully completing several ‘projects from hell’ (which shall remain unnamed….); digitizing 55 years of Le Courrier, Nova Scotia’s French-language weekly newspaper; seeing the revised Public Archives Act pass in the Nova Scotia Legislature last spring; sharing the Treaties of Peace and Friendship with today’s Mi’kmaq Nation; and learning that just about everything in life involves the ‘First Rule of Archives’ – namely, if you think it looks simple, you haven’t looked hard enough.
What advice would you give to the incoming Provincial Archivist?
Strive to keep the Nova Scotia Archives visible and relevant, build strong teams to support the endeavour, celebrate their successes, don’t lose sight of researchers and what’s important to them, either onsite or online….and don’t forget to take your multi-vitamins. Putting everything into perspective with a glass of wine at 5 p.m. every day doesn’t hurt either!
What are you most looking forward to in retirement?
Being Provincial Archivist is a challenge, and to do it even reasonably well requires time, energy, patience and commitment. I’m looking forward to regaining large chunks of my personal life that have slipped away in recent years, and which I’ve missed greatly. I’m also looking forward to resuming several research projects set aside over the last decade. And for the immediate future, I’m looking forward to catching up on lost sleep!