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Everything you ever wanted to know about LAC but were afraid to ask

Speaking notes
Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
University of Toronto speech for Association of Canadian Archivists
Toronto, Ontario
February 25, 2015
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Good afternoon.

My thanks to Dr. Seamus Ross for inviting me to speak to you today. It is always a pleasure to be surrounded by students and faculty members to discuss the future we face together.

We live in exciting times, and this is especially true for our chosen professions.

I became the Librarian and Archivist of Canada eight months ago, in June of last year. I arrived at LAC from the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec with a tenacious belief that, despite rumours to the contrary, libraries and archives are here to stay. And the longer I hold this position, the more people I meet, and the more discussions I have, the more unshakeable this belief becomes.

What I do see, however, as I travel the country, is that libraries and archives are in the process of being redefined. And this goes for LAC as well.

The Dominion Archives was founded in 1872—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 was ambitious. Revolutionary even.

Many other countries have tried and failed to merge their National Library and their National Archives. The Netherlands, Belgium, and New Zealand to name a few. But here in Canada, we succeeded.

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.

By putting the collections of the National Library and those of the National Archives together, LAC has been able “to document the full complexity and the diversity of the Canadian experience” to quote of one of its founders. And, thanks to the digital world, we have extended 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 current times.

The core of our mandate has not changed over the years, and aims 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.

But the world in which we deliver this mandate has undergone a profound shift.

Our organizational chart reflects the fact that we have integrated the national archives and national library. Like memory institutions around the world, we are at a crossroads.

With this in mind, I proposed four commitments to help us meet our mandate and fulfill our obligations as an organization. By sharing these with you I think you will have a sense of where I see LAC heading.

First, I want LAC to be an institution dedicated to serving all its clients. This means adjusting and adapting as the needs of Canadians change, and organizing our information so that it is easy to find and use.

Ultimately, LAC is an access-oriented institution, and this access is provided in different ways to different kinds of users. Students search us online; genealogists, researchers, journalists and faculty can be found in our reading rooms; and the general public might get their first glimpse of us on Wikipedia. But whatever the means, we need to be there.

The second commitment is to be a leader in archival and library science and new technologies, so that we can help Canadians connect with the collection, and make the best use of the experience, imagination and expertise of our staff.

Many of our staff teach and study at universities across the country, and these kinds of partnerships both support and advance this commitment.

At this point, I’d like to mention the faculty here at the iSchool for their key role in the development of bibliographic and archival standards which are used here and around the world.

Lynne Howarth of the iSchool plays a vital role in advising on the development of the international standard known as RDA, Resource Description and Access.

RDA represents a major shift in bibliographic cataloguing. It provides standards for resource description and access, designed specifically for the digital world.

My third commitment is for LAC to be proactively involved with national and international networks, so we benefit from the experience of our partners, and vice versa.

And finally, I want to draw more public attention to the value of our services and our collection by making sure that LAC has greater visibility.

I’ll tell you more in a minute about our efforts to develop a full slate of public programs designed to reinforce our position as a cultural hub.

Since I mentioned the collection, let me give you a quick tour.

Discovering the wealth and the diversity of our collection was one of my biggest revelations after taking on my job. We have:

  • 20 million books, the weight of 42 and a half blue whales!
  • 250 kilometres of text records, which would take us from Toronto (a city we all know as the centre of the universe!) to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere!
  • 3 million maps
  • 30 million photographs, one for every person living in Canada… or almost
  • 550,000 hours of audio and video recording, enough to keep you occupied for the next 63 years
  • an archive of all the stamps issued by Canada Post since its creation
  • a unique collection of medals
  • and the largest collection of Canadian art in the world, over 425,000 works, including sculptures, illustrations from children’s books, comic books, political posters, and iconic portraits.

I am sure you will agree this is impressive, but it’s also daunting. Just imagine trying to store all of this safely, preserve it, and make it accessible to the public.

At this point I should mention some of the impressive buildings which house our collection.

Our Preservation Centre in Gatineau, with its 48 vaults and modern conservation labs, as well as the new LAC Nitrate Facility, are world-class, state-of-the art facilities.

The nitrate facility is the only one in Canada designed for long-term storage of nitrate films and negatives. It has won numerous awards for its green design.

We also opened a new facility, in Gatineau, featuring the latest in high-density storage. Our national newspaper collection is being stored there, as are military files from the veterans of the Second World War.

Since my arrival at LAC, we have received two reports which are extremely useful in helping us navigate LAC’s future.

The first one came out last November, from the Royal Society of Canada, titled The Future Now: Canada’s Libraries, Archives, and Public Memory. Some of you may remember that it was not very kind to us. But as Bill Gates observed, without feedback, we don’t improve.

In one of the most heartening results of this study, we learned that many Canadians care passionately about LAC and about libraries and archives in general. I don’t see us falling off the map anytime soon.

The report contained 70 recommendations for libraries and archives, six were intended just for us, including the call for a renewal of LAC’s leadership role.

I believe the four commitments I mentioned at the beginning will go a long way in addressing this, especially our increased presence and visibility on the national and international stage.

The report also pointed out the challenges faced by all memory institutions coping with the rapid growth of digital technologies. As more and more content is born digital, we are well aware of the need to safeguard that heritage. This is our job.

Over the past year, LAC staff have been working hard to improve our capacity to acquire and preserve our digital holdings. We have significantly increased our ability to preserve digital content from a rate of 3 million images per month to 8 million images per month, so that over 160 million documents (over 2 petabytes) are now stored and preserved in our secure vaults.

We have also released guidelines based on international standards that clearly state the file formats that LAC prefers to acquire from our donors, including publishers, government departments and private citizens. And to help us on the road to becoming a trusted digital repository, we are assessing our current repository with the Centre for Research Libraries. These are important steps forward.

The Royal Society also called on LAC to respond to the new landscape of copyright. We have undertaken an ongoing analysis of copyright issues, especially how they impact memory organizations in the digital environment.

We are also developing our policy approach to managing copyright. By doing this we hope to engage with the wider documentary heritage community in this key area.

The second report I wanted to mention was issued a few weeks ago. It was published by the Council of Canadian Academies and it is entitled Leading in the Digital World: Opportunities for Canada’s Memory Institutions. The report is clear: Canada is now a digital society. This has radically changed the relationship between memory institutions and the general public. For the better.

The report also draws attention to the idea of citizen participation, which is something I totally support. We can only foster this kind of relationship if we stay relevant. And we will only stay relevant if we are trusted as a source of authentic information.

This is one of the reasons that we are on social media every day, building connections with the community and providing outreach. We are also organizing conferences and inviting the public to hear visiting speakers, encouraging dialogue and working together.

The report also shed light on how important it is for Canada to regain its position as a leader in digital initiatives, by developing ongoing partnerships with the private sector. The way forward, as the Council of Canadian Academies report concluded, is digital, and collaborative.

However, at LAC, our role as a cultural institution has to reflect both the analog and the digital worlds, which will continue to live side by side for a very long time. If we are to actually document the “full complexity and diversity of the Canadian experience,” we have to remember that this experience is drawn from both worlds. Responding to it means bringing a variety of skills, experiences, and perspectives to the table. It also means understanding that we can't rely on technology alone to form the connections between content and users. The human element, always has to be there.

Currently there are more than 200 professionals at LAC who have been trained as archivists or librarians. I am glad to say that quite a few of them are graduates of the iSchool.

While a large number work within their discipline, others have transferred their knowledge and skills into other areas of our organization, for example, communications, IT, programs, services, policy, and, of course, management.

The role of both professions has evolved as the gap narrows between the user and the information itself. This very evolution creates exciting opportunities. We need people who understand and can analyze business processes.Who will seek out new ways to make information accessible? Who will gather and organize digital information in ways that make it easy to find and use. And who will carve out these new relationships, with partner organizations and with the public.

If you forgive the over-used pun, archivists and librarians today must truly think outside the box. Let me give you a few examples from LAC.

The Mountain Legacy Project is a collaboration 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 analyse 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. She has collaborated with digitization experts to produce the scans; working alongside the Alberta Library, Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, and Parks Canada. She has also participated in a photo field excursion.

This example sums up many of the skills required by today’s information professional, who must:

  • have the ability to negotiate;
  • undertake historical research across a variety of disciplines;
  • be part of a team and 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.

Many of the archivists and librarians who work at LAC bring the perspective of several disciplines with them. 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 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 21st-century concepts like the authenticity of a digital record.

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. This is vital, because technology creates new shared functions for both professions.

Both archivists and librarians will need to make quick decisions in real time. 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? You will need to be a philosopher, a lawyer, a programmer, and 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. Graduates who grasp the nuances of copyright in a world where anything can be digitized, as well as concepts of reliability and authenticity in a paperless world.

Just think of the implications of the 3D printer. Museums like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Smithsonian Institutions in Washington have already created banks of downloadable 3D printer templates of their collection. We can even replicate broken or missing parts of artifacts.

Where does this leave the definition of the original? It’s mind blowing.

We are going to need graduates who can navigate this brave new world with imagination and creative thinking.

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 results… 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 find the right information easily. The key here is description, the metadata, because every citizen today is a researcher.

Technology means that archivists and librarians have to work together to provide descriptive information across a vast range of formats. So partnership is vital to what we do, and in more ways than one.

The Canadian Council of the Academies expert panel describes 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 are developing 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.

Much of this conversation is taking place on social media, as we busily digitize as much content as possible. There is no doubt that this is the way of the future.

Each month, LAC receives over 800 consultation and reproduction requests for the service files of Canadian Expeditionary Force personnel from the First World War. These century-old records represent unique portraits in time, providing details from more than 640,000 files—files which tell the stories of the soldiers, nurses and chaplains who enlisted in the Great War. But they are fragile.

Once the project is complete, some 32 million images will be available for online research, offering unprecedented access to the files as well as protection for the original documents. The response has been unparalleled.

There is no question that digitization is the way of the future, a democratic future in which more and more knowledge and information will be shared.

But the analog world has not quite finished disclosing its secrets. 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 and online, though he added feeling “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 not totally founded. 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 Days’ Night written on the reverse side of Julian Lennon’s birthday card.

So it is one of my most deeply felt commitments 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 that nothing else can replace.

I hope I have inspired you, because at LAC we have some of the most interesting archival and library opportunities in Canada. I also hope I haven’t scared you by outlining the many different skill sets we are going to need.

Our professionals are constantly adapting in order to stay relevant in the digital age. 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. 

Thank you.


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