Not just a collection: the mission behind Chilliwack’s archives

A 21st Century archive has a purpose beyond collecting and organizing documents. It needs to have a mission.

By Tyler Olsen | March 31, 2022 |5:00 am

This is a primary source about a facility almost wholly dedicated to primary sources.

History relies on such primary sources: memories, images, documents (including, sometimes, journalism), and objects created contemporaneously to the moment under examination. Our view of history is inevitably filtered by time. Primary sources allow historians and people to travel back through time, to the moment when something (be it a war, an event, or just a life-lived) happened.

On Feb. 2, 2022, reporter Tyler Olsen walked into Evergreen Hall in Chilliwack, through a pair of doors, and into the Chilliwack Archives. What follows is the result of information collected during that visit. You’ll learn about Chilliwack history, how that history is collected, and about what makes a primary source particularly valuable to historians with limited space and time to collect and process a world’s worth of information.

So this story will be a primary source about an institution (as it existed on Feb. 2, 2022) built on the idea that primary sources have value, and that collecting those sources must be done carefully, with discretion, to accurately portray the past.

This is a story about the Chilliwack Archives.

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Archivist Tristan Evans is currently looking for a home for the Hope Standard's archive. 📷 Tyler Olsen
Archivist Tristan Evans is currently looking for a home for the Hope Standard’s archive. 📷 Tyler Olsen

A collection with a reason

A 21st Century archive has a purpose beyond collecting and organizing documents. It needs to have a mission: there is a lot of stuff to collect and a very real limit on how much room an archive has. (The Internet doesn’t magically solve this limitation, for reasons to be explained later.)

The Chilliwack Museum & Archives are two sides of the same coin. The goal of both is not just to preserve history for the sake of preserving it, but to find, organize, and keep material that can inform the community about its history. The end result can be a museum exhibit, a community program, or a researcher’s book or pamphlet on their family history.

The Chilliwack archives are located a couple blocks west of the museum in an inviting, decade-old space at Evergreen Hall. The only barrier to entry is knowing the archives are there.

A large, open research room greets those who walk through the archive’s double doors. It feels like a library. And, in part, it is a library: one wholly devoted to Chilliwack’s past. On the left side of the room are bookshelves with dozens of books about the area’s history. There are phone books. There is a microfiche. There is a cabinet with ancient films. There are directories, and local biographies, and local atlases and much, much more.

Because an archive is not just a fancy, funded, and welcoming storage locker, to get the most out of it, you need an archivist—a guide like Tristan Evans, who knows the collection inside and out—to show you the way.

Evans can point out the community directories that live inconspicuously on a shelf near the microfiche machine. Such directories were the Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn of the mid-20th century—without some of the privacy settings. In a world with very complex feelings about privacy, a community directory seems very strange.

“If in the 1950s, 1960s, you show up to a community—you don’t have a cell phone and you’re looking for your grandparents’ place—you [could] go and grab the city directory. You look up their name; it tells you their address and you can go find their place.”

The directories weren’t just like a phone book with addresses. You could also search in reverse, by property location, and find out who lives in any given home on a street.

Today, they are among the most used resources in the archives, frequented both by people trying to piece together their family histories and developers wondering if that attractive corner plot might still bear the hidden environmental scars of a long-gone gas station.

Across the room from the directories are the maps: hundreds of them, large and small, filed away in two massive cabinets. The value of most of the maps, like much else in the archives’ contents, is highly dependent on what an individual researcher is looking for. But, like much else in the archives, each map is just waiting for someone to ask the right question.

Evans pulls out a series of maps created by a university researcher. Donated two decades ago, the carefully drawn maps show exactly when various parcels of farmland around the community were handed out between 1871 and 1900.

Nearby there are film reels, including those that show the devastating flood of 1948. Through another set of doors is the bulk of the archival collection.

Rows of shelves are stacked with documents and other primary sources in various mediums and formats. When a collection is donated (and accepted) into the archives, it is stored as a whole, rather than being split apart. So there is no section for, say, flooding. Similarly, organizational methods within collections are preserved in their original state. That maintains the integrity of various sub-collections, but it can make things a little tricky to find without a guide.

Luckily, anyone who enters the facility has just such a person at their disposal. They won’t do your research for you, but they’ll help you get started. You don’t need to know precisely what you’re looking for, just what you want to learn about, or a gap in a story that you hope to fill in.

There is so much in the archives that even those tasked with organizing and overseeing it can feel a rush of discovery when a new question is asked and answered.

“I learn new things we have every week,” Evans said. “The best part is when … we have a record and find something that solves a missing piece.”

The Archives has a significant collection of films. 📷 Tyler Olsen
The Archives has a significant collection of films. 📷 Tyler Olsen

A new home for old things

When the archives moved into its new, larger home a decade ago, it was able to significantly increase its holdings. But now, space is again becoming more limited, and that is changing how Evans and the archives decide to acquire new documents. The archives doesn’t have the room to take everything that is offered to it. Everything takes space to store, and time to catalogue, so it falls to Evans to decide what material is valuable enough to deserve a precious spot.

One long row of shelves contains more than 60 years of portrait photographs taken of residents in the latter half of the 21st Century through Norm Williams local photo shop.

“If you were in Chilliwack between 1948 and 2012, there’s a very good chance you had your photo taken by Norm Williams,” Evans said. (To access individual photos, you need to be in a photo or related to someone.)

Today, with space again at a premium, the archives might balk at accepting such a collection. For Evans, a key deciding factor is now whether and how potential acquisitions will allow the museum and researchers to tell new stories about Chilliwack’s past. Some material from some sources is harder to find than others, both because of how it is preserved and the factors that go into creating the document in the first place.

The archives has, for instance, a deep and useful repository of documents, images, and objects relating to the farmers and families who moved from Europe or Eastern Canada into the region at the end of the 1800s. But it has far fewer documents on more transitory labourers, and on people from non-European countries. So the hope is to fill the precious remaining space with archival material that can reveal untold aspects of Chilliwack’s history.

“It’s not that other stories aren’t worth it, it’s just that this is it,” Evans said, waving a hand in the direction of a series of occupied shelves.

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Archivist Tristan Evans says the local works of photographer James Booen are among the Archives' most valuable collections. 📷 Tyler Olsen
Archivist Tristan Evans says the local works of photographer James Booen are among the Archives’ most valuable collections. 📷 Tyler Olsen

A collection of small boxes sits at the bottom of one narrow shelf. Inside are dozens of glass-plate negatives of photos taken between 1895 and 1897. The pictures, taken by James Booen, depicted life around the community and subjects beyond those who could afford to have their photos taken.

While the media of the day was largely focused on the lives, work, and priorities of recent arrivals from Europe, Booen captured a broader reflection of the people who lived in the Chilliwack area at the turn of the 21st century.

“He would go to the hops fields and take photographs of Indigenous workers, he would take photographs of domestic Chinese servants; people who we know were in Chilliwack, but they’re not in the community directory,” Evans said. “Their records weren’t recorded, and now we have some sort of photographic evidence of that.”

Among those captured in photos were Chief William Sepass (K’HHalserten) and his wife Rose. Sepass was a legendary Skokale chief known both for his leadership skills and his contributions preserving Stó:lō oral history.

The Booen collection of photographs isn’t new to the archives—the photos were donated nearly 60 years ago and have been featured in countless exhibits since. But they serve as precisely the type of material that the archive wants more of as its shelf space shrinks.

“What makes it special isn’t that it’s old,” Evans said. It’s the people, rather than the age, that makes Booen’s pictures so valuable. “Like most travelling photographers, he made a living by taking portrait photographs, but he also had his own interests. What you have here is a photographic record of a lot of people who don’t normally have a photographic record in Chilliwack.”

Elsewhere, the archives building also holds the museum’s various object collections. Whereas documents in the archives are selected and valued because of the information they provide, objects are kept for their visual qualities and how they allow the museum to tell stories through programs and exhibits. Shelves are given over to clothes, pins, and hats. Elsewhere, pianos rest near old farm equipment. In the centre of the room, one can find the now-gone Paramount Theatre’s old film projector, popcorn-maker, and its popcorn warmer.

Even for such treasures, Evans and other museum staff must consider the space trade-off. And those decisions and factors change over time, depending on trends, tastes, space, and the stories that need telling.

“First you figure out what’s our mission, what’s our mandate?” he said. “Is it related to Chilliwack? What’s the story? Is it unique? Do we have similar things? Can we preserve it, what’s the size? If it’s really big—this is particularly true with objects—we’re probably not going to bring it in, but if it’s a small pin, it doesn’t have to have as big a significance because it’s easy for us to store.”

The Archives shares space with the Chilliwack Museum's collection of objects. 📷 Tyler Olsen
The Archives shares space with the Chilliwack Museum’s collection of objects. 📷 Tyler Olsen

Archives and museums occasionally swap material (after much consideration by each) if something has more relevance to one community than another. The Chilliwack Museum & Archives has also repatriated objects to First Nations and now have a process whereby new objects are checked to try to ensure they end up in the hands of their rightful owners.

At the moment, Evans figures the collection has room for another decade of new material. But that also depends on the size of any new collection that comes in. And technology can only solve so much.

The archives is continuously cataloguing to create a searchable computer collection that can tell an archivist just what is in the stacks, where it can be found, and what questions about Chilliwack’s history it may answer. They also digitize media and documents. But sometimes, that process works in reverse.

“Digitization is a terrible form of preservation,” he said. So, sometimes, Evans makes an interesting choice. A piece of digitized memory—maybe a flash drive, maybe a floppy disk—is donated. It’s small. It’s compact. In 10 years, it may be useless. So Evans will go to a computer, open and file, and print it out. The piece of paper goes into a folder and a box.

A computer file will record its location. But it can’t be trusted. Technology can come and go, wiping away years of memory. But a piece of paper has patience: it can wait for its turn to add to Chilliwack’s story.

The archives hosts monthly free tours for the public. The next tour takes place April 29 at 3pm.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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