FBCA Statement on the Closure of the BC Archives until 2021

A PDF version of this statement can be found here: FBCA Statement_BC Archives Closure.

May 29th, 2020

The Friends of the British Columbia Archives (FBCA) is deeply concerned about the recent decision made by the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives (RBCM&A) to close the Reference Room of the BC Archives until an undetermined date in 2021.

The BC Archives holds the documentary heritage of BC and the Reference Room is its public access point. Archives are public institutions of the utmost importance – they hold critical evidence of our past, for use in the present and into the future. Archival documents and research support countless aspects of society; from First Nations treaty negotiations to property development applications, genealogy, student projects, legal proceedings, local history books, and filmmaking – to name just a few.

The FBCA is now in its twentieth year supporting the BC Archives. As such, we were disappointed to learn of this closure through social media. The BC Archives is the official repository for BC government and court records, as well as many other significant records documenting the history of this land and peoples. Given the importance of this institution, the FBCA is surprised that a more consultative process did not precede this decision.

The FBCA believes that it is important to take the time needed to prioritize public health; the wellbeing of staff and users must be the first priority. We note that a re-open plan for museum operations has already been developed – in fact, the RBCM&A has indicated that exhibition spaces will begin welcoming visitors as early as June 19, and the IMAX theatre is tentatively scheduled to open later this summer.

Closing the Reference Room for half a year, or more, will negatively impact the livelihoods of many people, as well as the ability of communities across the province to tell their stories. As we look to past pandemics to understand our present situation, access to records should be a top priority. Records in the BC Archives connect the past to the present, something that is crucial as we seek to understand public health, racism, and societal response.

While some archival records can be accessed online, like most archives the vast majority of documents are not available digitally. For example, the BC Archives holds approximately 5 million photographs, but only about 100,000 or 2% are digitized. Existing licensing and reproduction fees render even these inaccessible to many users.

There are many examples of national, provincial/state, and municipal archives re-opening; guidelines and procedures are being shared and implemented to ensure the well-being of staff and users. The FBCA believes that there are also options for re-opening the Reference Room that can protect the health and safety of staff and users. As one example, the Reference Room already has a system whereby archival records are reserved in lockers – users are then permitted to consult records “after hours” and without the presence of archives staff. This service could be continued safely, in adherence with other public health measures.

We appreciate this is a challenging and concerning time, yet this is an opportunity to innovate to provide public access. The FBCA is open to working with the RBCM&A to engage and consult users of the BC Archives. We urge the RBCM&A to reconsider its decision to close the Reference Room until 2021 and prioritize the development of a plan that allows users to access the archives in a timely manner. This plan should reflect provincial health directives and the archives’ status as an essential public service.

A PDF version of this statement can be found here: FBCA Statement_BC Archives Closure.

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