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On the Importance of Archives

It seems strange to researchers like myself that anyone should question the necessity for collecting materials from the past and organizing them in publicly funded archives so that we in contemporary times may use them in our studies. The past is always relevant to the present, informing our views, answering our questions and pointing us in the right direction. At the same time, contemporary insights let us reacquaint ourselves with past documentation and see in it, for the first time as it were, implications hitherto unseen or unappreciated. Archives are an essential means of examining the past.

Just recently I published a book on which I have been working for several years. While I personally witnessed the events related in that book, no organized and verifiable work like this could have been published without direct access to archival material. Trial. The Loss of Constitutional Rights in Education in Newfoundland and Labrador: The Roman Catholic Story (ADDA Press) was published in the spring of 2004. Some 283 pages long, Trial documents the position taken by the Roman Catholic education authorities as Premiers Clyde Wells and Brian Tobin led their administrations during the 1990s through a process of radical education reform. In the process, the constitutional rights in education held by Roman Catholics and others were first impinged upon and then totally removed through changes made in the Constitution of Canada. The Roman Catholic Bishops through their educational structures opposed such radical changes but supported a reform of education that did not necessitate constitutional change.

In order to relate the position taken by Catholic Church educational authorities, I sought and received from the Bishops permission to access any and all of the documents relevant to the story. Those documents the Bishops had deposited in the Church archives. That meant daily visits on my part to the Archives of the Archdiocese of St. John's under the direction of Larry Dohey who proved to be both knowledgeable and most helpful in accessing the material. It may seem a case of stating the obvious but every researcher wishes to ensure the highest degree of accuracy in what is presented to the public. In my case, access to official documents that may have been known previously only to a small circle of officials was critical to getting the story right.

Archives are, of course, not merely dumping grounds for old material. Much effort has to be made to ensure that the materials are cared for, properly organized and accessible to the researcher. What I observed about the Archives of the Archdiocese of St. John's is an archive in process. That is, while much has been organized and therefore accessible, much more ongoing work needs to be undertaken to ensure other materials are organized. Only in this way are such materials readily accessible to the researcher.

Given the experience in researching Trial and my plans to undertake further research, I would most strongly support any request for additional public funding to ensure that the Archives of the Archdiocese of St. John's and other archives keep pace with the reception and processing of documents and related materials vital to keeping alive our connections with the past.
Dr. Bonaventure Fagan
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador


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