The quiet power of ordinary people: Reminders from the archives

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?

-Emily Dickinson

In the end, nothing is lost. Every event, for good or evil, has effects forever.

-Will Durant

As 2020 draws to a close many of us are reflecting on what matters. In times of trouble and uncertainty, life-giving perspective can be hard to come by. In this post I share some viewpoints on the meaning of lives gained from working closely with archival collections. Archives are concentrated evidence of activity – in a way, concentrated life. In his novel Consolation, Canadian writer Michael Redhill introduces an archival institution as “a room full of voices.” I hope what I’ve learned from these voices may be helpful to you. Still, this post may not be what you expect – if what you expect is tales of the extraordinary and exceptional. Perhaps what we need right now is quieter inspiration.

When archives hit the news, it’s often because someone has uncovered a document relating to a notable person: the unpublished draft by a famous author, the revealing letters of a notorious politician, the game-changing paper trail. And this is what archives are popularly associated with – the records of the history-makers, the decision-makers, the influencers. These are people or groups who have, for better or worse, exerted power, whether power over ideas, over institutions, or even over extraordinary odds.

Archives have indeed historically skewed towards documenting influence. This is not surprising. The more outsized your influence the more likely your records will be noticed and saved; and power tends to possess the resources to maintain its own records for its own purposes. Nor is this all bad: as we try to understand the imposed shape of our lives and communities, we need to study the records showing how they got that way. (Indeed this is why it’s essential that power does keep records.)

But if we promote archives largely as the records of the dominant and noteworthy, we feed an insidious cultural narrative, the idea that to matter at all you need to produce, and to do so exceptionally; that if you’re not Somebody, you’re nobody. And if you’re nobody, it is up to you to change that: we are all, or so the story runs, self-made by self-will. Even inspirational stories about the feats of ordinary people often focus on the heroic and outstanding. And so in this noisy novelty- and celebrity-obsessed world many people are haunted by a sense of inadequacy, even irrelevancy. Most people have and always will muddle through life, going nowhere in particular (or nowhere they intended), failing even to make lemonade out of all the lemons handed to them.

Archives reveal (if we listen) another story, and a quieter power: the power of ordinary people. In my archival and research career, I’ve found that local government and history archives, such as ours at the Region of Peel, document the lives of ordinary people particularly well. We collect records intimately related to the fabric of everyday life, from the public goods we take for granted like water, roads, and education, to the daily and yearly interactions of local businesses, organizations, and families. By concentrating on the local we by default document the universal.

Archival records capture people in the moment their lives are unfolding. From letters and emails to memos and meeting minutes, they are the documentary imprints of life as it is being lived. They are the raw material of evidence not yet interpreted and history not yet written. And there is something uniquely powerful about the accumulated records as we find them in the archives. From a kind of birds-eye perspective we see revealing patterns and connections.

Let’s look at some of these patterns disclosing the power of  ordinary people. If these points sound a little cliched, perhaps that’s because some clichés are truths dulled by familiarity. That’s why I prefer to call them “reminders” rather than lessons.

The power to change other people’s lives – without even knowing it

If working with large volumes of archival records teaches you nothing else, it is the countless connections between people. Archival collections are arranged and described to expose these connections because they are informative in themselves; so, for example we keep records together based on the person or group who created them.

And yet archivists routinely struggle to define the borders between groups of people – we quickly find that everyone is a part of a sprawling network. Truly no one is an island. To paraphrase a truth from the hoary holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life, each life touches others in a million ways, the majority of which escape our notice.

Within records we see how easily the course of lives is changed by the smallest events. The effects of being at a particular place at a particular time ripple outwards and down generations. Just one example of this unintended influence occurs when records themselves touch people long after their creators are gone, as researchers who use archives can attest. I’ve written about how old letters of grief have affected me. Millions of genealogists every year hunt for the stories of ancestors who little realized what interest their ordinary lives would one day inspire.

We will never know the impact and ultimate trajectory of our own story, especially while we’re still in it. But we do have more influence than we think.

Petition to Chinguacousy Council, 1854

This petition presented to the Council of Chinguacousy Township was signed by ordinary people in 1854. At a time long before a social safety net, the petitioners asked council to provide financial assistance from communal funds to “Widow Ford,” who had recently lost her sight. Left unable to farm and provide for her young children, the woman was being supported by her neighbours. A surviving note on the minutes of the township shows that a motion granted the petitioners’ request at double the sum requested. Multiple drafts of the petition were found in papers of the local Curry family, and both Samuel and James Curry signed the petition. Interestingly a later note added to one of these drafts by a Curry descendent reads “gt-grandmother of Dave and Eliza.”

The power to do things together that are impossible for one person alone

It sounds too obvious to bother saying that human beings do very little truly on their own. But again, the strong cultural emphasis on the exceptional individual hides the systems (and systems within systems) that these individuals themselves rely on. In reality we are all dependent on others; but this also means that together we can do what is impossible individually.

Working with the archival records of organizations such as governments brings home how many people it takes to get complex things done. You would think that the hundreds of thousands of files in the archives would result in an anonymizing effect – that a sense of individual contribution would fade among the outwardly blank rows of boxes. But to anyone who has worked at volume in an archives the opposite is true. People’s names and labours pass through your hands, and the weight of work translates into the weight of records (or nowadays the weighty challenge of digital preservation).

9-1-1 Project Files

Pictured are just a few files from just a few boxes of records generated in the establishment of Peel’s 9-1-1 emergency call system. It went live in 1988 after mammoth amounts of complex planning and testing involving thousands of workers from the Region of Peel, its member municipalities, the police, fire, ambulance, and health services, Bell Canada, and a range of vendors and technicians. Numerous challenges had to be negotiated from technical compatibility to jurisdictional boundaries. The human element of this project is captured in the handwriting and notes of the workers involved, all of whom, largely indirectly, saved and are still saving thousands of lives.

The power to make things stay the same when they need to

Once again, the archival viewpoint can counter a common and unhealthy notion: that the only people who matter are the people who make things happen, and the more radical the changes they make, the better. People who make things not happen are just as important. Thanks to the laws of physics, the tendency of everything we build is to unbuild itself. We need to pour constant effort – continual forethought and activity – into working against this tendency, and to guard against human errors that worsen it. When done well, this kind of work is often invisible. Indeed we often become aware of it only when things break down.

So important and yet so unappreciated is this work that a movement has been spawned to advocate for it (called The Maintainers). Most of us are involved in some sort of maintenance in the sense that we keep things going. The archives is full of records documenting that work, from homemaking to shopkeeping, to firefighting. And not only are we archivists consulted to support this type of work, we are ourselves doing it.

 Maintainers of Peel

The Region of Peel Archives at PAMA preserves records documenting the labour of many thousands of the ordinary people of the area who have helped to hold the world together. Here are just a few photographs of maintainers, including a powerline repair worker, a water testing technician, food growers, nurses and blood donors, parents and library staff, and sewer testing workers.

The power of just being who we are

Archival records, even the most prosaic, are documents in which we catch glimpses of the world through someone else’s eyes. Then we see that we don’t need to do anything at all to be exceptional. We already are. People matter simply because they exist. In a mysterious union of individual makeup, cultural formation and sheer circumstance, no human being is exactly like any other. Each is a uniquely unrepeatable witness to the world around them.

Archives don’t confer value on human beings. Archives are simply one of many windows through which we can experience the irreducible value of people, both as individuals and as community. And then, as Maya Angelou says, “We can learn to see each other and see ourselves in each other and recognize that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.”

The records of Betty Odlum

Betty Odlum ((1924-2015) lived in Brampton her whole life where she worked in the offices of Bell Canada. Her records, donated to us by a relative, show a talent for friendship, a love for place, and a zany sense of humour along with an eye for photography. Besides taking over 2000 photographs of her town, she hunted down and photographed the “privies of Peel,” the last surviving outhouses in the area. In the 1960s she produced scrapbooks memorializing the quirks and interests of her obviously well-loved coworkers using cut-outs from magazines as memes. Betty Odlum did not marry or have children. We continue to enjoy and learn from the world as she saw it.

We should not romanticize the quiet power I have outlined above. It can result in bad as well as good things. It belongs to everyone (for another thing archives teach us is that extraordinary people are ordinary too – but that’s another story). Ironically, it means that we have far less control over our lives than we are told we should have, and yet in some sense more power. It’s a power that is exercised moment by moment, for life is lived close-up even as we look to the past for guidance and to the future for hope. And it means that nobody is a nobody.

by Samantha Thompson, Archivist

Image sources listed in the order of appearance

“Together”: Photo montage by Nick Moreau produced for PAMA photojournalism exhibit Capturing the Moment

“Genealogy of the Descendants of Robert Shields,” 1915. Wm Perkins Bull fonds

“Raindrops on water,” Leon Brooks, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Petition to Chinguacousy Council, 1854. Curry Clark family fonds, Region of Peel Archives.

9-1-1 Project Files, 1967-1994. Region of Peel fonds, Region of Peel Archives

Maintainers montage by Nick Moreau, includes (from top left, clockwise): Electricity Line Repair -Caledon Hydro fonds; Water testing – Brampton Guardian fonds; Tractor in Field – Daily Times fonds; Blood donation nurses – Charters fonds; Mothers at library story time – Brampton Guardian fonds; Sewer testing – Region of Peel fonds. All from Region of Peel Archives

Betty Odlum scrapbook pages [ca. 1965], Privies of Peel photographs [after 1975], and photograph of Lorne Avenue, Brampton, [ca. 1956], Betty Odlum fonds, Region of Peel Archives

12 responses to “The quiet power of ordinary people: Reminders from the archives

  1. Good morning

    What a powerful piece of writing which in many ways sums up what I have been trying to enunciate about archives and why I am an archivist.

    I am forwarding it on to my great friend who volunteers in administering a in a couple of collections one of which contains archives and to the members of an voluntary archive team I am working with

    So very well done

    Ros Lauder

    Australian Archivist

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    • Ros, it’s so kind of you to let me know how you will share this and what it’s meant to you. And thank you to your volunteers for all that they do. The importance of memory work unites us across a very big pond!

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  2. Good reflection Samantha. Most of the ancestors, relatives and non related people that I have researched and am researching are ordinary yet unique in the way they approached life.

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  3. Samantha, that is a beautiful tribute to archivists, donors, creators and the maintainers. The so-called little people who think their lives and doings are of no consequence, but who have so much influence on families, friends, communities and we, as the lucky archivists entrusted with their treasures. Thank you for articulating what I have always sought out and hoped to preserve in my nearly 40 years in this profession.

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    • Thank you Kim, it means a lot to me that you’ve taken the time to comment. Thank you for all you’ve done in your own career to make sure all sorts of people are remembered.

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  4. Yet another gem of writing from an archivist from Peel’s Archives. Thanks very much for this, Samantha. Best wishes of the season to you and your colleagues for good health and a saner 2021!

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    • Lovely to hear from you Suzanne. Thanks so much for reading. I hope the next year of your new life is more hospitable than 2020. Have a safe but good holiday.

      Like

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