Telling Canada’s International Story: Reflections on the Scholarly Process

Adam Chapnick, Canadian Forces College |

It’s been 20 years since I first entered what was then the National Archives of Canada to study Canadian international history. I didn’t realize it then, but reflecting back, it is now clear that I joined the community of historians of Canadian diplomacy at a time when archival research was just beginning to undergo a dramatic transformation. A revolution in communications technology was changing the way that we think about and produce international history, especially the contemporary kind. This post reflects on that transformation and its implications in the classroom.

The tradition of conducting archival research into Canada’s diplomatic past that I became a part of in 1998 can be traced back to the 1930s, if not further, but the idea of Canadian foreign policy as a formal subject of international history did not emerge until after the Second World War. In the late 1940s, Fredric Soward left his position as special assistant in the Department of External Affairs and returned to British Columbia where he taught the first (undergraduate) university course in Canadian foreign policy. About a decade later, C.P. Stacey introduced a graduate course in Canada-US relations. During this period, archival research into Canada’s international history was primarily the domain of military historians and political scientists. The latter proliferated under the tutelage of John Holmes in the 1970s, a period during which a small group of historians – like Robert Bothwell, John English, and Norman Hillmer – also began to shape the field.

Regardless of their disciplinary orientation, until the 1990s, the experience of archival researchers interested in Canada’s diplomatic past was relatively similar. Certainly, the more casual access that early researchers received to government records became increasingly restrictive over time, but in terms of process, scholars – almost exclusively male – generally brought their pencils and paper to the reading room, paid too much for photocopies (which took too long to be produced), and transformed their hand-written notes into type-written manuscripts when they returned home. While they were in Ottawa, many also completed oral history interviews. Recordings were captured and stored on bulky cassette tapes. Diplomats, current and retired, were typically willing to talk, although not everyone permitted attribution. Politicians were more reticent, but some of them could also be helpful. The most ambitious, and well-funded, scholars might have supplemented their work with visits to archives in the US or the UK, where the research environment would not have been much different.

In this environment, teaching the process of “doing” international history meant helping students: (1) select a meaningful and answerable research question; (2) build relationships with archivists; (3) develop contacts among serving and retired diplomats; (4) create efficient and effective note-taking strategies; and (5) write clearly.

By the time I arrived in Ottawa in 1998, government cut-backs, computers, and (soon after) the internet were beginning to change almost everything. For one, relationships with archivists could now only get you so far. Cutbacks meant that there were fewer experts, and less expertise. Canada, which had once been a leader in access to information, was becoming a laggard, and filing effective access to information requests was becoming a required skill.

Although I brought pencil and paper to the third floor research room, some scholars were already carrying laptop computers. Within 18 months, the minority laptop users had become the majority, and conversations in the research room included complaints about the lack of internet access. Not much later everyone had a laptop and could toggle between their notes and the world wide web as they worked. Digital photography followed. At first, Library and Archives Canada staff took the pictures; later we could use our own cameras. (In truth, I haven’t quite figured out photographing, but any scholar who began their research career in the 21st century almost certainly has.)

Technological advancements also had an impact on access to archival research beyond Ottawa. An increasing number of libraries began to put first, their finding aids, and more recently, entire archival collections on-line. These innovations reduced (although did not eliminate) the need for extensive international research travel and increased opportunities for early career, impoverished researchers to pursue genuinely international history. Armed with a finding aid downloaded from an archival library’s website, researchers anywhere in Canada could identify the files they hoped to see in Paris or London fairly easily. They could hire a professional researcher through the same website, negotiate a fee, and receive searchable PDFs of the relevant files within weeks.

Scholars – no longer exclusively male – have continued to do interviews, but many now fret about the need to secure Tri-Council ethics approval – something that some find to be more of a burden than it is worth. The subjects of those interviews have also evolved. Diplomats are still the most helpful, and politicians remain valuable – when you can get them to talk – but the increase in political staff over the last two decades, be they in the prime minister’s office or in the offices of ministers with international portfolios, has provided researchers with a new entry point into the diplomatic process. The combination of the web and the decreasing cost of long-distance phone calls, not to mention electronic mail, has made identifying and then interviewing international officials significantly easier. With the arrival of Skype, those interviews can even be quasi-face-to-face. Records of the conversations are now stored on digital devices, or mobile phones.

Today’s diplomatic historians require a significantly broader skill-set than I had, or needed, 20 years ago. They still have to know how to create a legitimate research question (although they now have access through relatively simple on-line searches to an overwhelming historiographical literature). Building relationships still matters, as does the ability to take and organize notes, and to write concisely and convincingly. But web skills are now critical, as are skills with a digital camera. New researchers must navigate institutional bureaucracy to support their oral history efforts and must know how to file complaints with the Information Commissioner when their access requests are denied or unnecessarily redacted. Researchers might even find themselves filing freedom of information requests in other countries. Many projects will also require the ability to manipulate big data.

All of these new skills make me wonder how prepared individuals from my generation (and those older than me and/or similarly slow to adapt to this new world) are to serve as effective mentors to new graduate students. It seems to me that now more than ever we must approach graduate mentorship in international history as a collective effort. I can make connections, and I hope that I have developed, over two decades, a grasp of the scholarly literature that might help new scholars generate legitimate research questions, but I couldn’t imagine sending a graduate student to the archives without ensuring that they had digital skills that far exceed my own. How future scholars of Canada’s (contemporary) international history plan to deal with the proliferation of email, pins, and other forms of electronic communication also makes me wonder whether some avenues of research will have to be undertaken, more often than not, in teams. This would be a big change for a field that has traditionally been the domain of introverts.

At the same time, it is hard not to be excited by some of the changes. The revolution in communication technology has created opportunities for new questions and deeper, more affordable research than ever before. The results will benefit Canadians, and Canadian society. I look forward to being a part of the process.

About the Author

Adam Chapnick teaches defence studies at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto. He is currently finishing a history of Canadian service on the United Nations Security Council.

2 thoughts on “Telling Canada’s International Story: Reflections on the Scholarly Process

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of April 15, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

  2. John Pumphrey


    Thank you for sharing your observations regarding research in this current era. In my personal (and relatively recent) experiences in graduate research, I have found a new appreciation for the skills and services offered by librarians at university campuses. Their knowledge of locations of digital archival collections and technical research skills / software / meta-data search techniques, etc, is a treasure trove of information that maybe even today’s digitally-savy, mid-20s graduate student may be blissfully unaware.

    I certainly share your implied concerns regarding lost information in this twitter-topia / Blackberry pins that we seem to find ourselves. Are these near-decisional discussions being appropriately captured and archived (I doubt it), but do not pessimistically believe that such information is lost to the void. Queue my support for librarians and their information-search techniques.

    Thanks again for sharing your reflections on this topic.


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