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Archived - A Season in the Life of LAC

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Speaking notes
Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
6th Conference of the Library and Information Community of Quebec
Montréal, Quebec
December 2, 2014
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I am very happy to join you for the 6th Conference of the Library and Information Community of Quebec.

It is always an honour for me to find myself surrounded by specialists in archival and library sciences, and a pleasure to engage in discussions with them about the trends governing the development of a community that is unique in every way.

Here, I feel that I am in familiar territory. As you know, I am here this year in a new capacity. On June 23, 2014, after five years as head of Bibliothèques et Archives nationales du Québec, I agreed to take over the reins at Library and Archives Canada.

Changing jobs forces us to rethink our approaches, to reconsider our practices and procedures, to take a fresh look at things that we have become accustomed to seeing a jaundiced eye. I speak from experience, since I am embarking on my 14th job. In short, we always reinvent ourselves a bit with each new job we undertake.

And I wondered if the organizers of this 6th Conference had perhaps extended their hospitality to the point of thinking of me in choosing this year’s theme, “Reinventing Ourselves.”

To help me to reinvent myself, to inspire me, I have the good fortune to be able to rely on some illustrious predecessors. It is with great pride that I follow in the footsteps of Ian Wilson, Dr. Jean‑Pierre Wallot and Sir Arthur George Doughty—three giants of Canadian archival sciences, who are continual sources of inspiration for me.

To Sir Doughty, whose majestic statue overlooks the Ottawa River from the north court of 395 Wellington Street, we are indebted for having laid the foundations of the institution as we know it today. To Ian Wilson, we owe the merger of the National Library and the National Archives just over 10 years ago, a move that remains truly revolutionary to this day. To Dr. Jean-Pierre Wallot, we owe the revision of the National Archives of Canada Act and the construction of the Preservation Centre in Gatineau, where we preserve our collections under ideal conditions.

This incredible metal and glass building was designed to last 500 years, with a view to preserving records for a very long time. It must be said that, if you have the misfortune to get lost among its stacks, 500 years will give you adequate time to find your way out of this labyrinth of records and artifacts, the country’s highest concentration of Canadian history.

On November 12, 2014, I reached the milestone of 100 days performing my new duties. I thought this conference would be the ideal opportunity for me to share my first impressions and to outline the commitments I have made for the duration of my term.

I never set much store by the concept of the first 100 days, initially introduced by Roosevelt during the Great Depression. In record time, less than three months, the New Deal president ensured the passage of 15 bills!

I don’t like the concept of 100 days because, to begin with, if you do not specify “first,” the phrase “hundred days” refers to Napoleon’s last 100 days, especially for a Francophone audience. Needless to say, I’m in no hurry to get to that point, although it will come some day!

But above all, I don’t like the idea of the first 100 days because this timeframe doesn’t seem appropriate in the management field. If you force yourself to do things in the first 100 days—in an institution as complex as Library and Archives Canada—you run the risk of making decisions based on preconceived notions, rather than your knowledge of the institution whose management has been entrusted to you.

To manage an institution such as LAC, you must base your commitments on three foundations: where the institution has been, where it must go and where it can go. That’s why, instead of talking about the first 100 days, I preferred to call this talk, “A Season in the Life of LAC,” a nod to the title of Marie-Claire Blais’s novel, which was awarded the Prix Médicis in 1966.

Mine was a summer season, as I assumed my duties on June 23, a season in which the LAC team very generously welcomed me and gave me a proper tour of the property. Actually, instead of “gave me a tour of the property,” I should say “showed me the lay of the land,” because—a little historical tidbit here—the National Archives were founded in 1872 as a branch of the Department of Agriculture.

Today, 142 years later, the land has yielded fruit that is astonishing to say the least, and has much less to do with agriculture than with culture, plain and simple. I will return to this theme later on.

But first, I want to answer a question that many of you have asked me: What is the main difference between BAnQ and LAC?

I might reply, like Sacha Guitry, that the two institutions are as different perhaps as nightlife in Montréal and in Ottawa. But that would not give Montréal the advantage, because the nights are warmer in Ottawa than in Montréal. Statistically, it is 0.2 degrees Celsius warmer—and, in Canada, weather is the principal barometer of the vitality of nightlife.

Enough kidding around. I’m not a fan of playing “Spot the Difference.” Basically, both institutions face the same issues and challenges as national libraries and archives all over the world. These issues and challenges can be summed up in three words, with which you are quite familiar: acquisition, preservation and dissemination.

That being said, when I compare LAC to BAnQ, the first thing that comes to mind is the lack of a public library on the scale of the Grande Bibliothèque. That isn’t to say LAC doesn’t have a role to play regarding the general public. As a national library, our role is to safeguard the legal deposit of some 45,000 publications issued in Canada each year and to guarantee access for all. Moreover, our constituent act gives Library and Archives Canada a mandate to promote the literacy and cultural advancement of Canadians.

Those who know me a little, know my love and profound respect for books. You don’t study ancient Greece without loving its writings, the oldest as well as the most recent. In keeping with our mandate, I’d like LAC to partner more closely with the publishing industry and the book industry in general, as we do already by managing the TDSummer Reading Club.

When I assumed my duties, apart from the absence of a public library in our portfolio, what struck me even more was the diversity and unexpected wealth of LAC’s collections.

First of all, let’s talk about volume:

  • 20 million records, whose total weight is equivalent to that of 442.5 blue whales
  • 250 linear kilometres of archival documents, the distance from Ottawa to Mont-Saint-Hilaire! And since we acquire the equivalent of 2 kilometres of government archives and a few hundred metres of private holdings each year, we should get to Madrid by 2040!
  • 3 million maps
  • 30 million photographs, one for every person living in Canada, or almost
  • 550,000 hours of audio and video recordings, enough to keep you busy listening and watching around the clock for 63 years!
  • An archive of all stamps issued by Canada Post since its creation
  • A collection of medals
  • Finally, perhaps the least known treasure of our collections, 425,000 artworks, including the largest collection of Canadian art in the world

As you can see, the scope of LAC’s collections poses enormous problems in terms of managing space for preservation purposes. Since 2011, we have added two new facilities to assist in storing our records. The first is our Nitrate Film Preservation Facility, located on the outskirts of Ottawa, which is entirely dedicated to film and photographic archives. The facility was specially designed to preserve celluloid‑ or nitrate‑based films and photographs, which are particularly flammable. The facility houses more than 5,500 reels of film, some dating back to the very beginning of Canadian cinema in 1912. Our visual memory is stored here, in a building that meets high environmental standards that enable us to reduce our energy consumption.

The other building is located in Gatineau, separate from the Preservation Centre, which I’ve already mentioned. We completely remodelled an old Zellers store, converting it into an ultramodern storage facility. At this new facility, among other things, we keep 500,000 archival files from the Second World War, 2.6 million miscellaneous publications, and 26,000 boxes containing archives of daily and other newspapers.

These figures measure the scope of our collective memory. Behind them lie the more or less hidden treasures that reflect the richness of our past and the various ways that Canada’s symbolic and cultural landscape has been peopled. There’s another thing that struck me when discovering LAC’s collections: not only their volume, but also their diversity. Let me give you three examples.

Let’s start with stamps. The National Archives have collected them since 1900. When the Canadian Postal Museum closed in 1988, it turned its entire collection over to us. That makes LAC Canada’s number one stamp collector and a global leader in this field. We house a complete collection of every stamp issued by Canada Post since its creation. We also have items that document the creation of some of these stamps, such as the design of Canada’s very first stamp—the famous beaver stamp of 1851. We even have stamps that were never issued, such as a stamp designed during the Second World War (1941), with medallions showing the faces of Churchill, Mackenzie King and Roosevelt. The Irish writer Yeats said, “Designs in connection with postage stamps … may be described, I think, as the silent ambassadors on national taste.” Our postal archives allow both stamp collectors and art lovers to discover more than a century and a half of Canadian illustrations and graphics.

Our medal collection is another example of the diversity of our collections.

The last example of the variety of our collections has to do with the field of art. When I came to Ottawa, I knew that LAC was an important repository of Canadian artworks, of which the national portrait collection is undoubtedly the best known. But I didn’t expect to discover such a wide range of collections. We have nearly half a million artworks spanning all forms including sculpture, illustrations for children’s books, comic books and comic strips, political posters and photographs. Some of these portray well-known people, such as the photo of Churchill by Yousuf Karsh, or the sculpture of David Suzuki. Others are entirely unknown, such as the magnificent notebooks of gouaches painted by a Canadian soldier in France during the First World War. I could add to the list—I could tell you about our collection of maps, some of them in two hemispheres, including a globe produced in Rome in 1695, and a steel globe designed in Nazi Germany to celebrate the conquests achieved by the Axis.

And that’s not all. We continually discover things among our holdings. Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero quipped that instead of talking about backlogs, we should speak of hidden collections!

This summer, one of our archivists found a two-metre-long map of the Belgian front, drawn by a soldier in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. “There are no coincidences,” said Éluard, “just encounters.” We must multiply these encounters with the part of our past that lies buried.

As you can see, there are priceless treasures to be found in our vaults. Our greatest challenge is to find new ways to unearth them. I will return later to this central aspect of our mandate.

I’d like to complete this overview of my first impressions by telling you about the atmosphere at Library and Archives Canada, and the staff who welcomed me during my inaugural season. As you undoubtedly know, like many other federal institutions, LAC has faced significant budget cuts in the past few years. This year marks the fourth and final year of a plan of budget restraint that will result in a reduction of 9.6 million.

Despite these challenges, confidence in the future is what I felt most of all in my initial contact with my new colleagues. Dedicated and qualified, my colleagues ask only to make use of their expertise and to showcase our collections. I also see, among my colleagues, a shared determination to ensure that the full worth of Library and Archives Canada’s contribution is recognized. It is pleasant to take the helm of an institution where hope is being reborn.

Our partners express the same sentiments. Several had distanced themselves from us in recent years, for various reasons. Now they are getting in touch with us again and showing renewed interest in our services, projects and ideas. For all of these reasons, I have not seen the cynicism often observed in major public organizations that are going through a period of transition. On the contrary, during the summer, I discovered a community eager to see LAC return to its rightful place, both nationally and internationally.

How do we achieve this? What priorities must we set? What course must we chart for a ship as stately as LAC?

To what approaches must we give preference in developing our collections and modernizing our operations? These are the questions I asked myself during my first season at Library and Archives Canada, as I suppose anyone would have done in my shoes.

As food for thought, I based our institution’s key priorities, on those of similar institutions worldwide, like BAnQ’s:

  • Acquire information resources that represent Canadian society;
  • Improve documentary heritage preservation in analogue and digital formats;
  • Offer quality services to Canadians and ensure access to as much content as possible using digital technologies;
  • Adopt a more collaborative approach with documentary heritage communities to carry out LAC's mandate;
  • Develop the infrastructure and the strategies required to ensure documentary heritage management in the 21st century;

To enable us to achieve these five priorities, I have proposed to my LAC colleagues that we make four commitments for my five-year term.

The first of these commitments is perhaps the most personal for me. I am a public servant and, as such, my first concern is to manage an institution that, at all times, absolutely, resolutely, dedicated to serving its clients, all its clients, including government, universities, researchers, students, librarians, archivists, genealogists, donorsandthe general public.

There is only one way to achieve this—by adapting ourselves better to meet the changing needs of the population that consults our collections. This forces us to venture outside our comfort zone and overcome what I’d call the Captain Nemo syndrome.

Those who have read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may remember how, in his submarine, the Nautilus, Jules Verne’s famous imaginary character fitted up a library of several thousand volumes, which he regarded as, and I quote, “the only ties which bind me to the earth.”

All of us here, whether we are archivists or librarians, are descendants of Captain Nemo, all a little jealous of the works or records which we have a responsibility to preserve for the memory of humanity.

I’m not saying this is no longer our responsibility. In the 21st century, however, I think our job is to raise the Nautilus to the surface and to free Nemo from his booklover’s utopia. Documents are no longer the last ties which bind us to the earth. They are often the first. This is quite a challenge for the staff of a public institution such as LAC.

It is an even greater challenge since, in the era of Google and Amazon, our users want direct and immediate access to our collections. This context of more democratic access is the reason for our exemplary project to digitize the files of the 640,000 Canadians who were involved in the First World War. This project allows thousands of Canadians to trace their relatives and find out where they were deployed, if they were wounded, the pay they received—in short, to lend flesh-and-blood humanity to their personal stories.

Our first duty is to use our expertise to organize the resources we make available to everyone, in ways that make sense and are easy to navigate. That is indeed what we have begun to do, notably by putting tools in place to guide our users to self-serve channels, such as our Flickr account, which has attracted 5 million visitors to date, or our famous podcasts—8 of which rank among the top 10 federal government productions.

These initiatives, and yet others that we plan to launch, assist us in our task of dissemination. They help us to explain in simple terms, the choices that guide the acquisition of information resources and why, first and foremost, we preserve resources that make it possible to understand our society.

The second commitment I proposed was to be an institution that is at the leading edge of archival and library science and new technologies. And there is only one key to honouring this commitment—to draw on and invest in the expertise of existing staff. There is no doubt in my mind that the experience, imagination and expertise of people working at LAC is the true gateway to information. But technology is also vital if we want to stay at the leading edge.

I’d like to take a few minutes to tell you about our achievements, several of which haven’t been sufficiently highlighted. I’ll give you two examples. The first example is the migration of audiovisual records that we have rolled out in recent years, which has already made it possible to save, on sustainable media, 81,000 hours of at‑risk content. In July 2014, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat hailed this initiative as an ideal example of modernizing an operational process.

The second example is the gains in efficiency achieved by digitizing our microfilms. Thanks to their inventiveness, LAC staff have reduced by two-thirds the time required to digitize these reels. It used to take us 50 hours. Now, it takes only 16 hours to convert 4 gigabytes of digital images. As a result, in one year, the number of images digitized has soared from 270,000 to 1.6 million.

Our staff has been outstanding in rising to the challenges of preservation that affect all memory institutions. However, we must keep our eyes wide open, as more challenges lie ahead. Government institutions will very definitely face the greatest challenge. Starting in 2017, if federal government departments want records to be archived, they will provide them to us in digital form.

At present, it is difficult to assess the full impact of this major change on our activities. Our current priority is to develop tools to accommodate this massive influx of records.

We are implementing a new digital strategy, so we can offer departments solid guarantees regarding the management of their digital archives.

This strategy will lead to the establishment of a trusted digital repository that meets the most stringent international standards. It’s not just a matter of archiving; it’s a matter of democracy. Part of our mandate is to help the Government of Canada to meet its obligation to be accountable to Canadians.

Library and Archives Canada is a key player in implementing Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2.0, made public on November 6, 2014. Among other things, this plan aims to broaden access to government data, and to ensure government transparency and accountability. And transparency necessarily means access to government archives, of which LAC is the official repository.

The third commitment is to make LAC an institution that is proactively engaged with national and international networks, in an open and inclusive way. Institutional networking is essential these days, as attested by this conference, which gives us an ideal opportunity, not only to engage in discussion, but also to renew our ties.

Collaboration is a general trend in the development of memory institutions. We are witnessing the emergence of inter‑institutional services and new partnerships, such as with the digital industry. Every second, 29,000 gigabytes of information are published worldwide, the equivalent of 6,000 high-definition films. Every second!

Big data, as one humorist quipped, is what Big Brother eats for breakfast. Big data is a reality and growing at a prodigious rate. It is estimated that the volume of digital information will double every year between now and 2020. This unprecedented volume of information will absolutely require networking among archives and public libraries worldwide. Even the Library of Congress, even the Bibliothèque nationale de France, cannot be self-sufficient and all‑encompassing.

Library and Archives Canada already belongs to many networks in Canada and abroad. First, let’s talk about our international network.

Libraries and archives have deep national roots, and their structures are often an organic reflection of the state they are responsible for serving. To take a familiar example, the Bibliothèque nationale de France is quite different from the Library of Congress, which itself operates very differently from LAC.

This makes international collaboration both more complex and more interesting, as nothing is more stimulating than rubbing elbows with corporate cultures and operating procedures that differ from our own. Fortunately, there are international forums to help us, such as IFLA, ICA or even ISO. These organizations facilitate international collaboration among institutions by establishing shared standards which are very useful especially in all matters relating to digitization.

We also have a very special responsibility to promote La Francophonie. In this regard, we have renewed our participation in the Association internationale des archives francophones (AIAF) and the Réseau francophone numérique (RFN). So much for the international side of things. But, of course, it is nationally that are partnerships are most active. It is on this front that I chiefly plan to involve myself in the coming months.

I think LAC can and must play a proactive role by mobilizing the various stakeholders in archival and library sciences. My approach is a simple one, based on two concepts: listening and respect.

LAC doesn’t have to chair of every committee or manage all projects. It is sometimes wise and appropriate to let other partners lead the way. It is in this spirit that we are launching the Stakeholders Forum. This forum will bring together our 11 most important partners, including ASTED and AAQ. I envision this forum as a locus for discussion. Not only will it enable LAC to share its projects upstream with partners, but it will also enable partners to share their new initiatives with the group. We will hold our first meeting a week from now, and I look forward to testing the new formula.

Our fourth and final commitment will be to achieve greater public visibility. I sincerely believe that greater public visibility is the key to highlighting the value of our collections and institutional services.

I love museums and exhibitions. At my age, I’m not about to change. This is an aspect of our activities that I greatly appreciated during my time at BAnQ, when I launched exhibitions on manga, and the library of philosopher Raymond Klibansky or the works of René Derouin. Such projects significantly contribute to the originality of memory institutions and give them their distinctive character. I definitely plan to promote LAC’s collections in several ways in the coming years. To start with, we must spruce up our own exhibitions.

To quote a well-known saying, only three things count in real estate: location, location, location. Some of you may remember the days when our showcase was 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa, a vibrant presence in the heart of Ottawa, a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court and not far from the War Museum. I want to re‑establish our presence in the national capital and to seek new ways to increase our visibility, collaborating with other memory institutions that share our mandate. We currently have a fine example of this, with the Canada Science and Technology Museum exhibit on Franklin’s Arctic expeditions, which we are presenting in the lobby of our building on Wellington Street. The recent discovery of one of the ships Franklin lost in the ice reawakened the interest of Canadians in all things related to the northwest passage.

In the wake of this renewed interest, we are exhibiting sketches from our collection. They represent northern landscapes from a rare notebook of George Back, an expeditionary artist who accompanied John Franklin on his first two expeditions.

I also want to encourage the lending of our documents to other institutions and to expand our presence throughout Canada. As you can very well imagine, our vaults are filled with treasures that are just waiting to be exhibited. Did you know, for example, that we have a copy of The War of the Jews, by historian Flavius Josephus?

Museums are turning to us more and more often, not just to borrow works and records, but sometimes even to find a new idea for an exhibition. In recent months, for example, the National Gallery of Canada provided a very fine showcase for our collection of amateur photographs. This exhibit pays tribute to the work of photographers who, for the most part, are entirely unknown but have left us a legacy of snapshots that are of documentary and artistic interest.

And I want to combine our activities with round-table discussions, conferences, book launches, VIP events, any dynamic means to promote literature and our collections.

Thirdly, I’d also like LAC to have an even higher media profile, in both traditional and social media. Our Preservation Centre recently presented a very well-received documentary series, “Who Do You Think You Are?” This series is a fine example of the media coverage we seek for LAC. Another example is the Canada AM coverage of our First World War archives. The Canada AM team took such a shine to us that they came back to talk about the uploading of Second World War news reels.

Our social media presence is growing every month. For us, social media is a powerful means of communication, enabling us to reach a wide-ranging and geographically scattered audience. And there couldn’t be a better time to reaffirm LAC’s public profile.

As you know, 2017 will be the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the 50th anniversary of Expo 67 and, of course, the 375th anniversary of Montréal. These anniversaries will serve as springboards to increase our public visibility. In this context, there is one project about which I’m particularly enthusiastic—our collaboration with the Canadian Museum of History. At least 40 items from our collections will be included in the 1867 exhibition that the museum will hold, starting next year.

I’ve just outlined my four commitments. Let me reiterate them:

  • Serving our clients
  • Being at the leading edge of our disciplines
  • Engaging with national and international networks in an open and inclusive way
  • Increasing our public visibility

A commitment is meaningless unless the community shares and supports it. During my first season at LAC, I felt the support of our staff and our partners.

The coming winter promises to be a little more difficult in terms of public relations. One right after the other, we have had to consider the conclusions of two reports that were not kind to LAC:

  • the Royal Society’s report on The Status and Future of Canada’s Libraries and Archives;
  • the Auditor General’s report of November 25, 2014, on the acquisition and preservation of the documentary heritage of the Government of Canada.

But we were prepared, because we ourselves identified most of the issues raised by these reports and we started to implement practical solutions even before their publication.

At the beginning of my speech, I mentioned the statue of Sir Arthur Doughty in the rear courtyard of our building on Wellington Street. I’ll end my remarks by telling you about another sculpture that greets our visitors in front of the building.

It is the work of Canadian artist Lea Vivot called “The Secret Bench of Knowledge.” Replicas are found elsewhere, including one here in Montréal, on McGill College Avenue. Apart from the fact that it is an ode to curiosity, what makes this sculpture special is that it is covered with written messages about the joys of reading.

Messages from writers, but also private citizens…and even a message in Braille, the language more symbolic than any other written language of the desire to learn despite the obstacles that nature sometimes puts in our way. “Knowledge belongs to all, and what is not written is forgotten,” Lea Vivot has said of her work.

I am struck by these words. They strike me for what they say about our mandate as a public institution. For what they say about the importance of memory in our society. And for what they say about the unending role of knowledge in the 21st century.

My first season in the life of LAC amounts to little compared to the entire life span of an institution that has been around for 142 years. I hope I will be able to return next year to talk to you about four seasons in the life of LAC, and even five, to quote Harmonium.

In the meantime, I invite you to pay us a visit. When you drop by, don’t hesitate to sit a while on the Secret Bench of Knowledge. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason for the bench to remain a secret. Or LAC, for that matter.


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