Written by Ally Forand
In 2019, I started my current position as Archivist at the Government House Historical Society (GHHS) in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. The GHHS is located within the government House of Saskatchewan, it is a charitable not-for-profit organization founded in 1981. The mission of the GHHS is to preserve, promote and enhance Government house as public heritage site. Government House of Saskatchewan is the office of the Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan, home to the Amedee Forget Museum, the J.E.N. Wiebe Interpretive Centre, Edwardian Gardens and Queen Elizabeth II Art Gallery.
My day to day activities consist of cataloguing and digitizing photographs and documentary materials related to the Government house, GHHS, and the Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan (In Canada, it is pronounced Lefttenant Governor, instead of the American pronunciations of Lootenant. Cool, eh?). I also work with the different stake holders to create policies and procedures in accordance with best practises, while also considering access for the general public. Lastly, and potentially my favorite part of the job, is research, because there are so many mysteries when working in the archives. You never know what you’ll uncover! Almost every day I utilize research skills I learned while attending university.
Originally, I did not start my studies as a history major, but as a nutrition major in the college of pharmacy and nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan. Throughout my schooling, I always took a history class as an elective each year. I thoroughly enjoyed the history classes, but I could not convince myself to leave a relatively stable career path for the unknown, no matter how much I enjoyed the topics I was learning in my history classes and hated thermodynamic chemistry.
In my third year of University, I finally decided to make the switch from a BSc. to a B.A. I started taking history classes full time and was interested In taking all kinds of courses. For the most part, I took thematic course, which essentially traced a topic or place for a chunk of time. For instance, HIST 272: Human rights in history, HIST 365: Recipes for a Nation Food History in Canada, and HIST 388: Mass Killings and Genocide in the Twentieth Century, were a few of my favorite courses. As you can surmise from the list above, I never was able to focus on just one topic, but enjoyed learning about different times, places, and themes. These classes asked me to think critically, understand cause and effect, and write cohesively and eloquently for an academic and public audience (skills I utilized to this day!)
I also took classes during my undergraduate degree that challenged me on what it means to “do history.” During my time at the University of Saskatchewan these classes were HIST 396: Digital History and HIST 397: Approaches to history, but the university has since added more classes like this to the course and program catalogues. These classes tended to take a different approach, asking me to do archival work in the special collections and provincial archives, build and utilise digital tools such as timelines and maps, and exhibit information online on digital content management systems software.
The skills I learned in these classes affected how I saw myself in the historical field. I realised there was not one topic that inspired me enough to pursue a masters or PhD. This was a shocking realisation, because most of my collogues were planning to do post graduate work on really interesting topics, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around this. I didn’t see a future for myself in academia, but I didn’t see an alternative. I realised I was passionate about communicating history and social topics to the general public. This led me to a career in the Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museum sector (GLAM, for short!) Here, I was able to focus on caring for historical collections and communicating their importance. I carved out a spot for myself within the historical field that I didn’t know existed when I entered my degree program.
I outlined my job to you, dear reader, the same way it was pitched to me in the job posting, and interview, and while that is what I do as an archivist throughout my day, it’s not the only thing I do in my position. You see, not only do I “do history,” I “make history.” This concept sound a bit strange and narcissistic, but I alone decide what is saved, digitized, catalogued and accessed by the public and what is merely recycled (literally!) and forgotten. I shape the archive by my own inherent biases and if someone else was in the position they would shape it in a different way according to their biases. What I am describing is called “the hidden bias of archives,” and it is not uncommon in any collections. There is a reason we have a perceived notion of historical events and it is largely due to the way archives have been shaped and subsequently utilized by historians.
The idea that I can shape how people perceive the institution and its history, weighs heavily in my mind, but it is because of my history degree that I can make the most informed, ethical, and meaningful decisions possible. During my undergraduate degree I was taught language to speak about archives and other forums of public history, which gave me a starting point to gain a richer and deeper understanding of the nuances of these places that are supposed to hold our culture, ideas, and history. I also have the skill set to critique these institutions and hold them accountable when they aren’t representing the culture, ideas, and history, or representing cultures, ideas, and history badly.
My advice for someone starting out in the history field, or who is thinking about going into the history field, is to understand the impact of this degree, what it can offer you, but most importantly what you can offer the field of history. I do not see my degree strictly as a degree of history, but one of research, writing, and critical thinking. The technical, practical, and theoretical skills, language and experience I gained, combined with the interest I already held for communicating historical information led me to a career in public history. So, if you like to “do history,” than may I suggest you try to “make history,” in the public history sector?