City archives deserve a suitable home



The City of Winnipeg has a historic problem.

Its archives include a trove of photographs, artifacts and documents, such as council minutes, tax rolls and building plans that go back as far as the 1870s. It also stores similar documents from St. Boniface, Transcona and other cities and towns that had their own governments prior to the Unicity amalgamation in 1972.

It has records of the city’s many floods, which have given and will continue to give forecasters valuable information regarding where to bolster shorelines when the city’s rivers and creeks begin to rise.

How much material has the city archives compiled over the years? Here’s an example: a Winnipeg parks and recreation collection has about 7,000 photographs, slides, negatives and even Polaroid prints from events that have taken place at parks, community centres and golf courses over the years — and that’s just one of countless photo collections the city holds for safe-keeping.

These items are currently housed in a nondescript warehouse in an industrial area on Myrtle Street. Other than a small sign on the door, there is no recognition the building holds materials that record how a 19th-century isolated settlement on the Canadian Prairies became one of the country’s major cities in the 20th century.

The building has no special controls for temperature and humidity, two factors that threaten some of the oldest documents the city archives owns.

The archives have been in this temporary home since 2013; previously, the archives were held at the Carnegie Library on William Avenue, which was built in 1903 and itself is a piece of Winnipeg’s history.

The limestone building was undergoing renovations in 2013, which were to include temperature and humidity controls that would help preserve the archives’ materials, but a rainstorm caused damage to the structure’s roof and water damaged some records.

A lawsuit was launched and the archival material was moved to the Myrtle Street warehouse. It hasn’t been moved back.

The city archives situation was called a national embarrassment in a December 2016 opinion piece in the Free Press written by Kevin Walby, a University of Winnipeg professor, who was reacting to an executive policy committee decision that chose not to restore the Carnegie Library for the archives, a project estimated to cost $9.2 million.

So the archives remain at Myrtle Street, the Carnegie Library is vacant and in 2018 it was added to the National Trust Endangered Places List.

The city has hired a consultant to study a future home for the archives, but there is no word when this report will be completed and released to the public.

Some of the archives’ photographs and documents are available for viewing via the city’s website, but archiving experts say digitizing the full collection would take years and would be impractical.

The city’s archives need a proud, new home, and time is of the essence.

Winnipeg turns 150 on Nov. 8, 2023, and no doubt a celebration of the city’s past will take place. There will be a need to show off what Winnipeg looked like when it first became a city in 1873. Some will want to revisit other major events, such as scenes from the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 or the jubilation from Blue Bombers’ fans and players during the city’s occasional Grey Cup parades.

What better way to mark the occasion than to unveil a new home for the archives — one that stores the material in a secure manner and also provides easy access for historians, architects, homeowners or curious citizens who want to learn more about their city.