Speech Article from
Archived - The Hybrid, the Heretic and the Humanist: Educating Today's Archivists for Tomorrow's World
Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
February 13, 2015
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Many thanks to Luciana Duranti for inviting me to speak to you today.
I’ll start my talk with a brief overview of Library and Archives Canada.
LAC’s mandate is to:
- ensure that Canada’s continuing memory be preserved for the benefit of present and future generations;
- serve as an institution that is a source of enduring knowledge accessible to all;
- facilitate cooperation among the communities involved in the acquisition, preservation and diffusion of knowledge; and
- serve as the continuing memory of the government of Canada and its institutions.
The Public Archives of Canada was founded in 1872.
Here is an interesting little historical fact for you—it was founded as a branch of the Department of Agriculture!
It went on to become the National Archives in 1987.
In 1953, the National Library was created; and in 2004, these two venerable institutions were combined to form a new organization—Library and Archives Canada.
The merger in 2004 was an ambitious move. Revolutionary even.
Many other countries have tried, and failed, to merge their National Library and their National Archives. The Netherlands, Belgium, New Zealand to name a few.
But here in Canada we have succeeded.
When the Minister of Canadian Heritage announced the upcoming creation of LAC, she pointed out that rapidly changing information technologies and new media had altered the tasks of archives and libraries so much that the mandates of the two national organizations had begun to merge.
The National Archivist, Ian Wilson, and the National Librarian, Roch Carrier, both realized that users didn’t care if the content they were seeking came from the Library or the Archives.
This realization was prophetic.
Just a few weeks ago one of our newest hires, a reference librarian, remarked that the people who come to her with questions often mix library and archival topics freely.
To answer them, she has to draw from both fields. She really has to be a hybrid.
Mr. Wilson and Mr. Carrier also realized there was an enormous public appetite for information, but that many Canadians were not aware of what was available, or where to find it.
The objective of putting the vast collections of these two great institutions together was “to document the full complexity and the diversity of the Canadian experience,” to quote Mr. Wilson, and gather it together in one organization.
Thanks to the digital world, we have been able to extend this vision even further.
In a few short years, we have put millions of pages of documents, photographs, maps, portraits, records and other kinds of information online, for easy access by Canadians.
We have become one of the most popular websites in the Government of Canada, with an average of 1.8 million visits a month. Our Flickr site just reached the six million mark. We podcast, we blog, we tweet.
We have launched successful new partnerships with other libraries, archives, museums, galleries, and the private sector.
And our archivists and librarians, working together, continue to acquire, preserve and provide access both to the past and the changing record of our times.
Currently, there are more than 200 professionals at LAC who have been trained as archivists or librarians.
While a large number continue to provide leadership within their discipline, others have transferred their knowledge and skills into other areas within our organization. For example, communications, IT, programs, services, policy, and of course management.
The focus of my speech is on the skills archival professionals will have to develop in order to adapt and evolve in a rapidly changing world.
When most of the information is supplied online, what is the function of the archivist?
How has their role evolved as the gap narrows between the user and the information itself?
And how should we teach tomorrow’s archivists to fill this role, however we come to define it.
At this point I’d like to acknowledge the recent expert panel report of the Council of Canadian Academies, titled Leading in the Digital World: Opportunities for Canada’s Memory Institutions.
I would especially like to thank Professor Luciana Duranti, the Chair of Archival Studies here at UBC, for her work on the panel.
The report demonstrates clearly that the relationship between memory institutions and the general public has undergone a major shift.
Canada is now a digital society.
And while, as a country, we may have lagged behind, the digital society creates exciting opportunities for the archivist who is prepared to rethink their part in the digital world.
We need archivists who:
- understand and can analyze business processes;
- will seek out new ways to make information accessible;
- will gather and organize digital information in ways that make it easy to find and use; and
- will carve out new relationships, with partner organizations and with the public.
If you forgive the bad pun, archivists today must truly think outside the box.
Let me give you an example from LAC.
You have probably heard of the Mountain Legacy Project, a collaborative project with the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria.
Legacy is a unique partnership in which scientists are recreating original photographs taken in the Alberta and BC mountains, between 1886 and 1958.
They are using a collection of 60,000 glass plate negatives from LAC’s Dominion Land Survey fonds, as well as related cartographic, textual and other photographic archival material.
The idea is to study the differences in the landscape and analyze environmental change.
LAC has been providing high-resolution scans of the original glass plate negatives, as well as descriptions.
To date, more than 5,600 scans have been created and described.
LAC’s archivist on the project, Jill Delaney, has been involved in everything from negotiating the transfer of the collection from Natural Resources Canada to researching and speaking about the process, to collaborating with digitization experts to produce the scans, to working alongside the Alberta Library, Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, and Parks Canada, as well as participating in a photo field excursion.
This example sums up many of the skills required by today’s archivist—the ability to:
- undertake historical research across a variety of disciplines;
- be part of a team and to collaborate both within and outside the institution;
- provide public outreach;
- possess an abiding curiosity; and even
- climb a mountain, if that’s what it takes.
This is one example of how archivists work at LAC, but there are many others.
LAC archivists are locating material for researchers from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Others are processing the personal papers of senior public servants, of diplomats and of Prime Ministers. Others are assessing major auctions of Canadian art, working with curators at the National Gallery. Other colleagues are providing an inventory of archival records generated by National Defence regarding Canada’s NATO activities.
Many of the archivists who work at LAC, including a good number of UBC graduates, bring the perspective of several disciplines with them, not just archival theory.
They specialize in Canadian Studies, Literary Theory, Public Text, Near-Eastern Studies, Linguistics, Art History, etc.
And, increasingly, they bring skills to the table related to information science and digital technology.
Archivists and librarians with graduate degrees in library or archival science who are also subject-matter specialists in another field bring a vital research perspective to the work, and this is essential to building collections and providing services to researchers.
One of the most cutting-edge units at LAC is Digital Capacity.
The Digital Capacity group looks after Web harvesting, including the collection of Government of Canada websites.
It curates thematic Web collections, on topics ranging from the Keystone Pipeline to the Idle No More movement to the attack on Parliament Hill on October 22, 2014.
It produces guidelines, procedures, and strategic advice on digital library and archival assets to the Government of Canada, to the public, and to universities.
It wrestles with issues such as how you determine the authenticity of a digital record.
And Digital Capacity is run by a team of librarians and archivists, working side by side in more and more blended roles, just as LAC’s creators imagined.
Traditionally, librarians have been more concerned with judging the currency and relevance of information, while archivists have focussed on appraisal value and the authenticity of the record.
But times have changed, and we will need to make sure that the skills and methodologies from the analogue world are transformed for the digital one.
When tomorrow’s archivists are dealing with the sheer volume of materials created digitally, the decisions they make will have profound implications for our heritage as a nation.
How do you decide what needs saving, and then how to go about it?
The archivist of tomorrow will need to be a philosopher, a lawyer, a programmer, even a detective—with the ability to spot what has value in a vast heap of data!
In the future we will need graduates who work in digital forensics, who can recover deleted files and pull out the threads of history from cyberspace.
We’ll need archivists who grasp the legalities of copyright in a world where anything can be digitized, as well as concepts of reliability in a paperless world.
Just think of the implications of the 3D printer. Museums like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington have already created banks of downloadable 3D printer-templates of their collection.
This means anyone can produce accurate replicas of artifacts. Three-D printers can even replicate broken or missing parts of artifacts.
Imagine what this will mean to the definition of the original. It’s mind blowing.
In short, we are going to need archivists who can navigate this brave new world with imagination and creative thinking, and who will demonstrate the competencies needed to ensure that our digital world is preserved and made available.
We are dealing with these issues right now, as we transform LAC into a Trusted Digital Repository, and as we prepare for 2017, when the format of choice for the transfer of Government of Canada records to LAC will be digital.
We are going to need archivists and librarians who understand digital file formats, storage media, electronic processors, as well as the social sciences, and the humanities.
This will ensure that we can provide true leadership as a nation in the midst of an information revolution.
Now let’s turn to the second idea, the archivist as heretic.
Traditionally, archivists were recognized as the experts on the authenticity of information.
But with so much information being created today by users themselves, and widely available on search engines, that role is being challenged.
The democratic dream of a digital world is not quite what we expected. There’s good stuff out there, but do we know how to find it?
If you Google a topic and get 10,000 hits… do you know where to start?
Data is great and Big Data is even better. But data isn’t knowledge.
There is an enormous need for archivists and librarians to help people understand information, to contribute to civic literacy and to speak in plain language everyone can grasp.
Because every citizen today is a researcher, preservation cannot be our only goal.
If we don’t approach archival work with access as the goal, then we’re just hoarding.
It’s one of the reasons that our archivists are stepping more and more out of the shadows and into the spotlight, discussing their discoveries, telling us why they are important, and sharing the content with a broader public.
This openness goes both ways, in what the Canadian Council of the Academies expert panel describes as a growing “participatory culture” in memory institutions.
As people increasingly expect us to deliver cutting-edge services with digital tools, they also want to share their knowledge, their ideas and their personal experiences.
In response, memory institutions like LAC must develop user-friendly services and tools that allow the public to engage with cultural artifacts and collections. Users want to tag content, write reviews, and share their reactions to specific works or collections.
This dialogue has created new relationships between information professionals and the public.
Finally, let’s turn our attention to the archivist as humanist.
Today, everybody is talking about digitizing everything as if this would provide an effective substitute for the real thing.
How do we balance the wonder of an original document with the ubiquitous power of a digital copy?
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Walter Isaacson described his initial thrill at finding out that Albert Einstein’s papers were to be published free online, only to be followed by “a pinch of sadness.”
He lamented that “the next generation of scholars will lose the tingling inspiration of seeing original documents.”
I think his worry is unfounded.
Even if the Mona Lisa is merely a click away on Google, millions still line up to see her at the Louvre, live and in person, so to speak.
Even if The Beatles’ music is readily available on ITunes, people line up at the British Library to see the original lyrics of A Hard Day’s Night written on the reverse side of Julian Lennon’s birthday card.
It is one of my most deeply felt commitments, as the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, to see that we exhibit as many original documents as possible.
There is a real emotional connection to the evidence of our history in its original form.
I hope I have inspired you, because at LAC we have some of the most interesting archival opportunities in Canada.
I also hope I haven’t scared you by outlining the many different skill sets required by today’s archivists.
At LAC we hire more archivists than any other institution in the country. And we have observed, with appreciation, the degree to which our professionals are constantly adapting in order to stay relevant in the digital age.
We also take a keen interest in the development of future archivists.
We have had the opportunity recently to contribute—as an employer—in conversations focused on the planning of university curricula that help train information professionals to meet the needs of the 21st century.
Our view in these conversations is that we need a vast array of skills. Skills such as:
- collaboration, communications, and the ability to manage;
- an understanding of the digital world, and the impact of technology;
- the ability to think things through, to work effectively in teams, and to show initiative.
And, sometimes, even the ability to climb a mountain.
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