New Brunswick

New Brunswick archives head not worried about getting through backlog

Fred Farrell, the director of the provincial archives, says the archives can't estimate the size of the backlog because new material arrivesevery day.

'I would argue that any archives in Canada has a backlog,' says Fred Farrell

Fred Farrell, the director of the Provincial Archives, says an archives without a backlog may be processing records quickly at the expense of helping the public access them. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

The head of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick isn't concerned about a backlog in the system and expects there will always be one if things are run properly.

During a recent meeting of a legislative committee, Jordan OBrien, former premier Brian Gallant's chief of staff during the previous government, testified the archives are six to eight years behind sorting government emails and recordings.

Fred Farrell, the director of the provincial archives, said Wednesday that he couldn't estimate the size of the backlog because new material arrives every day.

But he sees a backlog in a positive light, not a negative one.

"I would argue that any archives in Canada has a backlog," said Farrell. 

Archives without backlogs suggest different things, including the possibility staff are focused on processing records quickly at the expense of providing public access to the records.

When archives claim not to have backlogs, it could also mean they aren't acquiring records, he said. 

"Or it means they're lying."

Triage system

Farrell said the Provincial Archives receives a lot of government documents, and while historically these have been on paper, there has been a shift to electronic versions.

Under the triage system, there is an order to the filing of documentation, with documents from the premier's office at the top of the list.

While there is a backlog at the archives, which are housed on the University of Brunswick campus, Farrell said there have been more extreme cases.

"I was at a presentation at the national archival convention and it was mentioned that the national archives, Library and Archives Canada, only in the 1980s did they catalog material that was received in the First World War," said Farrell. 

"I'm not really too worried."

Specialized job

Contributing to the backlog is a difficulty recruiting archivists. The field is a specialized one, with courses offered at only a few Canadian universities. In Atlantic Canada, Dalhousie University in Halifax offers courses in archives as part of its master of library and information studies program. 

The Public Archives of New Brunswick is housed on the campus of the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. (Google Maps)

Farrell said the Provincial Archives has been able to pick up some of the slack with student projects and grants.

Some students who have worked with the archives had no idea that archives could offer a career.

"We've almost on an annual basis now somebody who's worked with us has gone on to either a master's in library science or master's in archives or some similar type of program," said Farrell.

Keeping people in school, out of jail

Farrell said the archives have resources in a variety of formats, including paper, VHS tapes, and glass negatives.

And they can have real-world benefits for many people.

He cited the example of parents from New Brunswick living in Quebec. If they want their children to go to an English school in Quebec they need to prove they went to an English school in New Brunswick, something the archives can help with.

In some cases, the archives have even kept people out of jail.

"We had another case where a fellow was going to be a witness at a court case and when the sheriff called him to arrange it, he told them, 'By the way we're going to arrest you when you come here because according to our records, you didn't pay a fine back in the 1990s,'" said Farrell.

"And so [he] came to us looking for proof that actually that he had paid that fine, which he had."

With files from Information Morning Fredericton

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