Career Journeys: Heather Bidzinski

Heather Bidzinski stands among archives stacks, with bankers boxes surrounding.
Heather Bidzinski, in the stacks.

This post is from Heather Bidzinski, Head of Archives at Special Collections at University of Manitoba. Heather is an active member of SAA and is a member of the ACACKRN (Canadian Research Knowledge Network) Conference Planning Committee; the CKRN NATIONAL HERITAGE DIGITIZATION STRATEGY Advisory Committee; and the ACA Governance Committee.

Heather, what are your main responsibilities as an archivist?

My current role is managing a medium-sized Canadian academic archives.  I am responsible for collection development, resource allocation, outreach, fundraising, managing a team of archivists and support staff. 

What is a typical day (or week) like for you?

I started in my new role as Head about four weeks before COVID-19 closed down the campus.  I’m not sure what a typical day is yet, but I am more than busy with ensuring we are operating smoothly in a hybrid environment.  I currently juggle managing restricted on site access with increased demands for digital content, committee work and contributing to libraries-wide post pandemic planning.  

What do you like most about your work? What’s most challenging? 

I love working with the collections and discovering opportunities to increase discoverability.  I’m keen on working with Indigenous community to open our spaces and our collections to new ways of understanding.  The most challenging part of my job is never having enough hours in the day!

What kinds of problems do you deal with? What kinds of decisions do you make?

I deal with some typical archival challenges like too many collections and not enough space!  We would like to increase our capacity for digitization and access – and tackling the backlog.  I regularly have to decide how to use our resources, how to find more resources, and our capacity for taking on big projects.  

How have your responsibilities changed throughout your career?

Absolutely they have!  I’ve been in the field for about fifteen years now.  I started out as a front line archivist – I’ve processed private manuscript collections and government records and been involved in outreach and reference work.  I’ve managed a provincial records centre, and had the opportunity to work in our national archives as an intern, and with the amazing Hudson’s Bay Company Archives – a UNESCO Memory of the World Register collection.  I was the first archivist at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights where I worked to establish an archival program built around a robust born digital oral history collection.  My responsibilities have shifted from processing in an analogue world, to working primarily with the digital. Taking on additional responsibilities as a manager has taught me a lot about all of the moving parts required to successfully run an archival institution. 

What current issues and trends in the field should readers know about/be aware of?

I am passionate about accessibility and Indigenization.  Understanding the role of archives in colonial structures is integral to the changes that need to happen in our field.  Exploring digital repatriation and digital surrogacy are hot topics (in my humble opinion)

What changes have you observed in the field or your organization in the past five years? What changes do you think might happen in the next five years?

It’s amazing how fast we are moving into the digital world.  When I graduated from the Archival Studies Program at the University of Manitoba, we were still talking about electronic records (as opposed to digital).  My first few jobs were strictly analogue and I remember printing email as my official record.  In the next five years I see us moving towards “self-serve” acquisition/donation where record creators are submitting their donations directly through online portals as opposed to sending us a bag full of thumb drives!  I hope to see description evolve to be more user friendly and for our content to be presented in a fully discoverable, searchable and user friendly platform. 

What are some career accomplishments you’re most proud of?”

I was honored to be a part of a stewardship agreement developed at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.  We worked with Kwakwaka’wakw artist Carey Newman to develop an agreement for the protection and preservation of The Witness Blanket (a national monument to the survivors of Indian Residential School). This unprecedented agreement brought together Kwakwaka’wakwtraditions and governance and Western contract law, vesting rights with the artwork itself as a legal entity that carries the stories of the survivors. It was the kind of project that stays with you.  I carry the responsibility for this agreement in my heart to this day. 

What related fields might aspiring archivists consider looking into?

Be open, be creative.  There are related fields such as records management, access and privacy, and copyright.  Museology also brings an interesting perspective to archivy. 

How did you become interested in this field, and how did you begin your career?

I first became interested in archives while I was doing my undergraduate degree in Music History.  One of my professors brought us to the university archives to look at some illuminated antiphonary (a book of liturgical chant) for our early music class.  When I was struggling with career choices after completing graduate studies in Ethnomusicology, he suggested my love of research and history would be a great fit for the archival studies program.  I arranged a coffee meeting with Tom Nesmith, who founded the program in 1990.  His enthusiasm was contagious, and I was hooked.  Through the  internship component of this program I was able to gain tremendous experience early in my career at Library and Archives Canada and then at the Hudson’s Bay Company archives.  Meeting then National Archivist Ian Wilson was something I’ll never forget. 

What education, skills, and training have been essential to your success in this field?

Having gone through a master’s degree program prior to applying for the M.A in archival studies prepared me for the rigors of the program.  Having a background in history is fairly common, but I made the leap from music without any issues.  Management and leadership training have been essential to my success thus far.  It would be wonderful for more Archival Studies and Information Science programs to include elements of public administration. 

What advice would you give someone who is considering this type of job (or field)?

Archives is an amazing field to get into – there is no risk of boredom because I am always discovering new things.  It’s a wonderful interdisciplinary field that can prepare you for many roles.  

If you could start all over again, would you change your career path in any way? Why?

The only thing I would change would be to start earlier…but maybe I wouldn’t have gotten here had it not been for an enterprising ethnomusicologist!  

In a perfect world at some point in the future, what would you like to be doing?

I hope to be continuing the wonderful work of my predecessor, Shelley Sweeney!  I love what I do and wouldn’t change it for the world.  I hope you will find me happily ensconced in my role at the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections.