They are hardly noticed. However, they are important players in the cultural environment. The duty offers a series of pictures of shadow trades, through the confidences of professionals who practice or have practiced them. Now: archivists.
After a year spent teaching, François David decided to change course and become an archivist. “After I studied history, I studied to become a teacher. I was fascinated by its knowledge and delivery, but the classes were too noisy and distracting for me. Teaching is not for me. I looked for another place, quieter, where I could deliver something. I liked the primary sources, documents. It seems to me that there is much to be done on this side. For many years, François David has been an archivist and assistant curator at the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec (BAnQ).
With a background in history, he left to study archival science. “I quickly realized that the job of an archivist is not as lonely as I thought and as people in general think! Many think that we are alone, with our heads in boxes, in the third basement, in the dark… This is not a good picture! There is an important part of teamwork. This implies constant contact with other archivists, but also with specialists of all kinds, lawyers, computer specialists, librarians, according to the difficulties caused by a particular collection.
Archives have been a man’s world for a long time. “This is no longer the case. It has been for a long time. As an aside, one of his colleagues even pointed out that in many places women are, in fact, in the majority.
François David will first work for two years in Africa. Then, back in Montreal, he was hired by a private archive center that remarkably brought together all the archives of the historian in a cassock Lionel Groulx as well as some great figures of 20th century nationalism century.e century. All this will end up being combined with kilometers of paper managed by BAnQ.
Know the business
“To an archivist, the knowledge of databases is of course important. It is necessary to know the search tools specific to each area. But there is also the acquisition of documents, then the transmission of knowledge, through contact with source. “Often, we are the first to see many things, to know how important this or that is. »
Times have changed. “For the old archivists, it’s very different compared to today. The public has come against private preserves to which archivists have the keys. Because archivists in the past wore many hats. They were authors, historians, genealogists… What hat did they wear when they asked for a document? Some have kept the information to themselves, in a way boys club where the elevator returns often. »
François David cites as an example Pierre-Georges Roy (1870-1953), the former “chief archivist of the government of the province of Quebec”. “He offered the documents to some friends. There was favoritism. We see this in the letter of Lionel Groulx. In exchange for documents or services, Groulx wrote favorable reviews of texts produced by Roy. That’s how it works… Not anymore! »
At the National Archives, he said he enjoyed having to talk to all kinds of historical actors when their archival collections were acquired. “I had the privilege of discussing with Jacques Parizeau the contents of his archives. People said about him, without knowing it, that he was a cold bourgeois. Belts! I met someone simple and accessible, who was very interested in what we were doing. More than his thoughts or his positions, Mr. Parizeau is a very interesting man. And it’s not complicated. The question of his archives was settled in half an hour. He just wants to know the basic principles. He knows his place in history. He knew that his documents had to be preserved. It was the same with Lucien Bouchard, he remembered. In former minister Claude Castonguay, he also remembers “a person of high stature, sensitive to the importance of public service”.
Are archives the only reservoir of memory of great figures? ” No ! Absolutely not. But certainly the acquisitions are greatly influenced by what is happening around us. For example, we obtained the archives of a family of Lebanese immigrants. The letters written by the wife to her wife! It gives another view of Quebec. »
Unfortunately, many documents have escaped the vigilance of archivists. It’s quite simply because people think it’s not important to understand the society that brought them up. Everything was thrown away too quickly. “Certainly a lot of education needs to be done about archives, about their importance. This is also quite a task for archivists. Archives must introduce themselves. For him, the profession is one of the public services that it is important to defend and make the most of it.
For a long time, the archives were frequented by genealogists. “The case is low now. Resources are online for those interested. Those who come want to go further. They want to solve mysteries, try to understand what their loved ones are doing in such a place, at such a time. » The archive also allows for self-recovery on a larger scale. “Take the case of the Duplessis orphans. After certain procedures, it is possible for some to access their files, to discover, for example, that their mother is their aunt. Sometimes, as archivists, we witness this. More than touching. The same is happening now with the issue of residential schools and aboriginals. Archives are important. »
Were there any standout moments? “Oh! Yes… For example, a gentleman came to find a document certifying his divorce, at a time when he wanted to remarry. There were several official exchanges on this subject. We have them. But the last documents are not yet completed. During the remarriage, he discovered it! Archives are also used for this. Government archives are very important in a society. »
Is the profession of archivist destined to disappear in the age of digitization of everything and nothing? ” Bangkos ! The profession changes, but it will remain. More than ever. ” Why ? “Take for example the case of photographs. We live in an age where there is a great appetite for images. The power of digital has increased the appetite for photographs. The archives of course have photographs in abundance. And people are demanding more than ever. However, the question of rights and the management of the flow of these documents require personnel. “New needs have arisen. Today’s demand far exceeds our ability to meet it. »
“We are the guardians of a cultural heritage. You need to see the amount of films, documentaries, plays and books that would not exist without the use of archives. François David spent more than three decades surrounded by ancient documents. He plans to retire next spring. For him, however, the past remains undoubtedly “a job with a future”.