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THE ASSOCIATE

How Western got its weather data

“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when his department’s Performance Evaluation Committee isn’t looking.”

By ALAN MACEACHERN | April 9, 2014

Warning: I’m going to talk about my own work in this column. I don’t usually like to do that, because it smacks of self-promotion. I prefer my self-promotion masked as self-deprecation. That’s the Maritime way.

In 2008, I had a meeting at the Environment Canada headquarters in Downsview, Ontario. Other visitors probably get to see where they make the weather, but because I’m a historian, they showed me the old stuff. We went to the basement and walked down aisle after aisle of weather observations: all of the original paper forms that volunteers and paid observers had filled out, multiple times a day, across thousands of stations across Canada, from 1840 onward.

No one was quite sure what would become of these records. Environment Canada had long ago extracted any data it wanted from them, and even used them to create a Historical Climate Data archive. But it had left unextracted some of the categories of data, many of the pre-1900 observations, and all of the written remarks, suggesting that the collection still had significant untapped research potential. Beyond that, the collection was of obvious historical significance and cried out for preservation. Yet it had never made it to Library and Archives Canada – in earlier decades, I was told, because such data-heavy records did not conform to the archives’ idea of historical, and in more recent years because the archives experienced an acquisitions freeze and then a de facto one.

Environment Canada was maintaining the collection as best it could, but staff were well aware that this was not a facility equipped to maintain material at archival standards. And given the building’s limited space, there were concerns about the collection’s long-term prospects. So, lacking authorization or plan, I offered to take the collection off their hands.

It took Western’s University Archivist Robin Keirstead and me five years of negotiations, but this winter we succeeded in bringing the collection to London on long-term loan. Coming are all extant meteorological observations between 1840 and 1960 – about a thousand boxes in all – and another 250 volumes of journals, letterbooks, observations and correspondence related to Canadian meteorological history. It will be available for researching and teaching; the agency even gave us licence to digitize it.

By sheer coincidence, the loan agreement was finalized just when the news was awash with stories about federal department library closures. We thought that the Western loan might receive some national attention.
On the one hand, it was a good news story: perhaps the largest such archival arrangement ever between a Canadian university and the feds, it might serve as inspiration, even precedent, for other efforts. On the other hand, it was a reminder that the closure of government libraries risked the destruction of archival as well as published material, and that the state of Library and Archives Canada figures into the issue too. Western tried to get the media interested – see the cool timeline map of weather stations that Josh MacFadyen created (communications.uwo.ca/media/weatherhistory).  But then an actor OD’ed, a mayor jaywalked, and the Olympics happened.

So nobody noticed what we’d done. But who cares? A clear win. Which is all to say that, once again, I got to thinking how ridiculous the evaluation of university faculty’s job performance is. We (unlike Library and Archives Canada) crave quantitative data: numbers of publications and committees joined, student evaluation scores. The hundreds of hours I spent negotiating the Environment Canada agreement will, in terms of my job, be valued less than a 15-minute talk at a conference, regardless of what benefit those hours ultimately provide my university, discipline, or even country. I know, I know: “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when his department’s Performance Evaluation Committee isn’t looking.” Still.

But, once again, I realized that I don’t really care, that the great joy of the academic gig is that there is flexibility to do the things that you believe are important, regardless of whether they measure well. I have a colleague who vows not to work on anything that won’t show up on his obituary. This lets him focus on the things that matter while avoiding many of the frustrations and stresses that age him – thus simultaneously drafting and postponing his obituary. Genius. Yet I sometimes wonder if he is just trading in one written assessment of job performance for another. The goal is to care solely about the work itself. The goal, as in so much of life – from writing to free throws – is to not care how you’re doing, while caring deeply.

ABOUT ALAN MACEACHERN
Alan MacEachern
Alan MacEachern is associate professor and graduate chair of history at Western University and director of NiCHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment. His column appears in every second issue.
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