Speech Article from
Archived - Raising the Nautilus: A new chapter at Library and Archives Canada
Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Presented to the Library Association of the National Capital Region and L’Association des bibliothèques de l’Ontario-Franco
December 11, 2014
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First, my thanks to the Library Association of the National Capital Region and L’Association des bibliothèques de l’Ontario-Franco for inviting me here tonight, and to the Ottawa Public Library for hosting this event. I am always happy to be back in a public library.
As you may know, I have spent the last 5 years as CEO of Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, 5 years during which I was in charge of the Grande Bibliothèque in Montréal, where we welcomed over two and a half million visitors a year.
I love the smell of a public library—the scent of old books, with their familiar hints of paper, glue and ink, the unmistakeable dankness of wool hats and mitts pulled off at the door in winter, and the presence of people—all kinds of people—from heads of industry to the homeless, who have come inside the public library to find information, solace, and the company of other human beings.
And I especially love its mission—to help everyone regardless of origin, race, status or gender.
Public libraries remind me of the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
I am delighted to be here in my new role as the Librarian and Archivist of Canada. This is a responsibility I take very seriously, and with great respect for the institution I represent.
Changing jobs forces one to rethink one’s approaches, to reconsider how one works, and to take a fresh look at things one has become accustomed to seeing with a jaundiced eye. I speak from experience, since I am embarking on my 14th job! But with each new job we reinvent ourselves, a little at a time.
To help me reinvent myself, I have the good fortune to rely on some illustrious predecessors. Marianne Scott, Ian Wilson, and Roch Carrier are three important figures in the history of LAC who continue to inspire me.
Marianne Scott is one of our most precious natural resources, the former National Librarian who fully embraced the new role of LAC and went on to found the Friends of LAC. Ian Wilson and Roch Carrier, the visionaries behind the merger of the National Library and the National Archives, just over 10 years ago.
That ambitious move remains truly revolutionary to this day. Others have tried and failed—Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, but we Canadians have succeeded and our clients are all the better for it.
Then we have Sir Arthur Doughty, whose majestic statue overlooks the Ottawa River from the north court of 395 Wellington Street. We are indebted to him for having laid the foundations of the institution as we know it today.
And I am now fortunate enough to work in the shadow of the Preservation Centre in Gatineau, the legacy of another inspirational leader, Jean-Pierre Wallot. This incredible metal and glass building was designed to last 500 years, with a view to preserving records for a very long time.
I would think that if somehow you were to get lost among its stacks, 500 years might give you just enough time to find your way out of this labyrinth of books, records and artifacts, the country’s highest concentration of Canadian history.
To manage an institution such as LAC, you have to look at where the institution has been, and where it should go. Let’s have a look first at where we have been. Because we have been very busy! LAC has:
- 20 million books, periodicals, newspapers, microforms, literary texts and government publications;
- 250 kilometres of government and private textual records;
- 3 million maps, plans and architectural drawings;
- 30 million photographs;
- 550,000 hours of audio and video recordings;
- And 425,000 works of art, the largest collection of Canadian art in the world.
And contrary to popular belief, we continue to acquire at a considerable rate. Between April and September 2014 LAC acquired 65,505 titles.
Also, during the 2013–2014 fiscal year, LAC completed 76 private acquisitions, including 17 new collections from Canadians such as Marc Lalonde, Nancy Huston and Malak Karsh. LAC also acquired the Sherbrooke fonds, a rare watercolour from Rindisbacher, and a two-part diary about the siege of Louisbourg.
The wealth and diversity of our collections is truly astounding, and while I am sure you are all aware of it, I think it never hurts to remind ourselves of the treasures we have been entrusted with.
LAC faces the same issues and challenges as libraries and archives throughout Canada, and indeed, all over the world. These issues and challenges can be summed up in three words, with which you are quite familiar: acquisition, preservation and access.
Of course national libraries vary enormously. Several years ago the late Maurice Line, a leading library figure in Britain, commented in Alexandria that “national libraries are in fact rather like dogs; dogs also exhibit an enormous variety, but we somehow recognize them all as dogs.”
LAC has a major role to play regarding the general public. As a national library, our role is to manage the legal deposit of some 45,000 publications issued in Canada each year and to guarantee access for all. Our role is also to support the library and archival community, and this is a key aspect of our mandate. Moreover, the literacy and cultural advancement of Canadians is also something we can contribute to in a number of ways.
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 with the TDSummer Reading Club.
As you know, LAC had a difficult November. The Report of the Auditor General and the Royal Society’s Report on The Status and Future of Canada’s Libraries and Archives were both very critical of LAC. We take the reports seriously and we have already taken concrete steps to address the issues that were raised and to respond to the recommendations.
We have set up a task force on the disposition and discoverability of government records which will ensure the elimination of the backlog by December 2015. We are also working on a corporate digital strategy to begin our transition to a digital platform and the development of a Trusted Digital Repository. This strategy will be finalized and implemented beginning next March.
Confidence in the future is what I felt most of all in my initial contact with my new colleagues. Dedicated and qualified, my colleagues simply wish to make the best use of their expertise, to provide quality service, and to showcase our collections. This is my wish also. In addition, I see a shared determination to ensure that LAC’s contribution is fully recognized. It is good for the spirit to take the helm of an institution where hope is being reborn in this way.
Our partners have expressed the same sentiments. Some of them had distanced themselves from us in recent years, for all kinds of 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 at LAC the cynicism that is so often found in major public organizations that are going through a period of transition. On the contrary, over the summer and throughout the fall, I discovered a community eager to see LAC return to its rightful place, both nationally and internationally.
So, how do we achieve this? What priorities should we set? What course must we chart for a ship as stately as LAC? These are the questions I asked myself during my first six months at Library and Archives Canada.
As food for thought, I began with LAC’s key priorities, which are similar to those of most national institutions worldwide:
- To acquire information resources that represent Canadian society.
- To improve documentary heritage preservation in analogue and digital formats.
- To offer quality services to Canadians and ensure access to as much content as possible using digital technologies.
- To adopt a more collaborative approach with documentary heritage communities to carry out LAC's mandate.
- And to 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 proposed four commitments for my five-year term. In my view, these commitments are key to securing a viable future for Library and Archives Canada.
The first of these commitments is perhaps the most personal for me. As a public servant, my first concern is to manage an institution that, is 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 to better meet the changing needs of our clients. This forces us to venture outside our comfort zone and overcome what I 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 are descendants of Captain Nemo, protective of the works which we have a responsibility to preserve for the memory of humanity.
I’m not saying this is no longer our responsibility. However, in the 21st century, I think our job is to raise the Nautilus to the surface and to free Nemo’s books. This is quite a challenge for a public institution such as LAC. As well as for all libraries.
It is an even greater challenge in the era of Google and Amazon, as our users want direct and immediate access to our collections. This context of more democratic access is the reason for our current 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 and how they were wounded, what pay they received—in short, to lend flesh and blood to their personal histories.
Interest in our records will increase as baby boomers retire and have more free time for personal research into their family or collective past. So our first duty is to use our expertise to organize our resources and to make them available to everyone in ways that make sense and are easy to navigate.
This is indeed what we have begun to do, 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 to our podcasts—8 of which rank among the top 10 federal government productions.
These kinds of initiatives, and others still in the works, go a long way in bringing our clients to our doorstep, either literally or online. And once they are there, we need to make sure they understand the choices we have made as an organization, as their national library and archives, and how and why we are preserving the resources that make it possible to understand our society. This is a big part of my job.
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 to do this by drawing on and re-investing in our 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.
People used to rely on LAC staff as respected sources of information and guidance. I want to see this again. Of course we are not going to suddenly add hundreds of positions, we have to be realistic. But with a little flexibility and ingenuity we can empower our staff to do what they have always done best—provide a vital service to the Canadian public. Technology is part of this—and essential if we want to stay at the leading edge.
Our staff has been outstanding in rising to the challenges of preservation that affect all memory institutions, both analogue and digital. However, we must keep our eyes wide open, as more challenges lie ahead. For example, starting in 2017, the format of choice for the transfer of federal government records will be digital.
At the moment, it is difficult to assess the full impact of this change. Our current priority is to develop tools to accommodate this massive influx of records.
As I mentioned earlier, 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 reliable 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 it provides an ideal opportunity not only to engage in discussion, but also to renew our ties.
Collaboration and partnership is a general trend in the development of all libraries, archives and memory institutions. It is especially needed to cope with the growth of digital information.
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. And by the way, that means a growing proportion of content will be used only by machines. This unprecedented volume of information will absolutely require networking among archives and libraries worldwide. Even the Library of Congress cannot be self-sufficient and all‑encompassing.
Library and Archives Canada already belongs to many networks in Canada and abroad. 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. This is the spirit behind the Stakeholders Forum which I launched yesterday. This forum brings together a dozen of our most important partners, including CARL, CLA and OLA. I see 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 our partners to share their new initiatives with the group.
Our fourth and final commitment is to achieve greater public visibility. I sincerely believe that greater public visibility is the key to highlighting the value of our collections and services.
I have an anecdote to share in this regard, a very concrete example of the questions we at LAC must sometimes ask ourselves.
We received a request from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to borrow the Canadian Constitution, the document that Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Queen Elizabeth signed in 1982. The Constitution is of course an exceptional document in every sense of the word, but it deteriorates when exposed to light. The Queen’s signature is especially at risk, as Her Majesty used a different ink that fades when exposed to light. Imagine if we allowed light exposure to erase the signature. A future historian might come to the conclusion that the Queen did not sign the Constitution of 1982!
After many discussions, and after carefully weighing the pros and cons, we decided to loan the precious document to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights for one year, obviously taking extraordinary precautions, including a new case designed by LAC in cooperation with the Canadian Conservation Institute. This kind of dilemma clearly illustrates the tension all librarians and archivists face today, between preservation and access, between preservation and exhibition. That’s why technology is so helpful to us in ensuring access.
I love exhibitions. In this era of the internet, we must remind ourselves that there is no substitute for the emotion of actually seeing the originals. Even if the Mona Lisa is merely a click away on Google, millions still lineup to see her at the Louvre, live and in person as it were. Even if the Beatles’ music is readily available on iTunes, people lineup at the British Library to see their original lyrics written on scraps of paper and on the reverse side of Julian Lennon’s birthday cards.
In the case of memory institutions, exhibitions define their originality and they characterize their distinctive natures. With this in mind, 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.
As some of you may remember, 395 Wellington Street once was our showcase, a vibrant presence in the heart of Ottawa, a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court and the Parliament Buildings. To quote a well-known saying, only three things count in real estate: location, location, location. I want to re‑establish our presence in the national capital and seek new ways to increase our visibility, working 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. The recent discovery of the Erebus has reawakened the interest of Canadians in all things related to the Northwest Passage. In the wake of this renewed interest, we are exhibiting sketches of 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 records to other museums and libraries, and to expand our presence throughout Canada. Museums are turning to us more and more often, not just to borrow works and records, but sometimes even to find new ideas for exhibitions.
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 great interest, both as archival records and works of art.
And I want to combine our activities with round-table discussions, lectures, book launches, VIP events—in short, with any dynamic means to promote literacy, literature and our collections. I’d also like LAC to have an even higher media profile, in both traditional and social media.
Our Preservation Centre was featured recently and prominently in a popular series called, “Who Do You Think You Are?” This 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. Our Flickr account offers the general public more than 100 thematic albums on sports, rare books, Aboriginal peoples, music, politics, etc. It has received five million visits so far.
And there couldn’t be a better time to reaffirm LAC’s public profile. 2017 will serve as a springboard to increase our public visibility.
In this context, there is one project I am especially enthusiastic about—our partnership with the Canadian Museum of History. At least 40 items from our collections will be included in the museum’s 1867 exhibition, which will start next year.
Those are my four commitments. But commitments are meaningless unless the community shares and supports them. I want to be able to count on your support and your ideas as LAC moves forward.
Whenever I visit 395 Wellington Street, I am struck by the messages engraved on the Secret Bench of Knowledge, the sculpture by Czech-born artist Lea Vivot. They are messages about the joy of reading.
“Knowledge belongs to all, and what is not written is forgotten,” Lea Vivot has said of her work. I am struck by these words—for what they say about our mandate as public institutions, for what they say about the importance of books, records and memory in our society.
My first six months at LAC amounts to very little compared to the entire lifespan of an institution that has been around for 142 years. I sincerely hope that the decisions we make now, together, will ensure that that this noble institution is around for the next 142 years and many more beyond that. So, I invite your thoughts and ideas.
And whenever you drop by, I urge you to sit a while on the Secret Bench of Knowledge. Because, 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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