Speech Article from  Library and Archives Canada

Archived - Something old, something new: access and the heart of LAC's mandate

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Speaking notes
Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Friends of the City of Ottawa Archives
Ottawa, Ontario
April 30, 2015
Check against delivery

Good evening and thank you Mrs Mawani for inviting me to speak to you today.

And special thanks to Paul Henry for suggesting I be invited.

I was asked to speak to you in English today, but I will be quite pleased to answer questions in the language of your choice.

More than at any other period in history, records and archives play a vital role today.

As for proof of that, we don’t need to look further than the evening news.

The ongoing and widespread destruction of historical records, whether books, official documents, or ancient monuments is ample proof of their importance.

Anti-democratic forces do not want the evidence of the past to be available, or for its voices to be heard.

Society trusts us to preserve its historical records.

They are significant both as we look back and as we move forward.

As Ian Wilson once said, “as much as our role is to document the past, the way our records, archives and documents are used determines the future.

The key role that archives play in democratic societies was recognized by the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Archives, which states that archives are “playing an essential role in the development of societies.”

Keeping democracy alive and archival records accessible is something we do together, as part of a broad community.

A community that includes government, libraries, archives, museums and memory organizations like ours.

Researchers, students, genealogists, historians, and anyone interested in preserving and sharing an accurate record of the past.

Only by working together we meet the expectations of our clients and keep up with the digital world and its hunger for instant information.

I would like to start my talk today by congratulating Paul Henry and the City of Ottawa Archives, as well as the Friends who support them, for the leadership they have demonstrated in the archival community.

The Archives has been heavily involved with the new Ottawa Museums and Archives virtual Collections Catalogue.

This is a great example of the kind of community partnership that can offer unprecedented access to our collections.

The virtual Collections Catalogue puts the history of one of Canada’s most fascinating cities within fast and easy reach of residents and researchers alike.

In that spirit, LAC was glad to collaborate with the Ottawa Archives Reappraisal Project by transferring 45 fonds to the City of Ottawa Archives.

These fonds include the records of Ottawa-based businesses, the Ottawa locals of national trade unions, Ottawa-region environmental groups, Ottawa-area churches and other community associations.

I also want to mention the great work the City of Ottawa Archives has done on the Andrews-Newton Digital Access project… everything from images of the ByWard Market in the 1950s to the construction of the Mackenzie King Bridge to portraits of well-known sports figures and politicians.

Even an Elvis sighting on the streets of Ottawa!

And I thought Montreal was an exciting city!

As a relative newcomer to Ottawa, I have been steadily growing in my affection for the city, and all that it has to offer.

Coming from Montreal, I was delighted to discover that this city even has bagels that compare favourably to the ones I am used to!

Projects like the ones I mentioned bring us face to face with the new reality of archives in the 21st century: access is now the default position!

It’s also at the heart of LAC’s mandate:

It was the primary driver behind the original merger of the National Library and the National Archives in 2004.

A merger that began with a conversation.

Between a librarian and an archivist.

And that produced one of the most unique organizations in the world.

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, New Zealand to name a few.

But here in Canada we succeeded.

By putting the collections of the National Archives and those of the National Library together, LAC has been able, in the words of one of its founders, “to document the full complexity and the diversity of the Canadian experience.”

Together we are better and it’s our clients who are the biggest winners.

Since LAC is both a memory institution and an agency of the Government of Canada, it has a unique set of responsibilities.

Our employees are both public servants and documentary heritage specialists.

The decisions they make about what we acquire, preserve and make available must align with our obligations to Parliament and the public who elects it.

In all of these roles, we are firmly committed to the heritage community, which includes not only archives and libraries, but as the City of Ottawa already knows, museums, galleries, historical associations, universities, and increasingly, the private sector.

With access as the default, the next questions are:

What do our clients want to know?

What do they want to access?

How do we reach out to them?

Online discovery is one of the most popular ways of tracing our past.

When it comes to the history of the First World War, it has resulted in one of the most ambitious digitization projects we have ever undertaken.

And this work has taken us into the worlds of open data and citizen archivists.

But, let’s start at the beginning.

At Library and Archives Canada, we have the largest and most significant collection of original records documenting Canada’s role in the First World War.

These records include official ones, like personnel and medical records, and battlefield maps.

But they also include medals, photographs, journals, and letters that tell the stories of war in ways the official accounts can never quite match.

Taken together, they tell compelling stories of the men and women who fought in the Great War.

So it isn’t surprising that LAC receives over 3,000 requests a year to consult the service files from the First World War.

These files allow Canadians today to research their ancestors and to reconstruct their lives.

In a recent LAC Web study, the two top subjects of interest were genealogy followed by records from the First World War.

They beat out rare books, Cabinet documents, and Canadian events, among others.

Canadian Expeditionary Force records belong to the top two subjects of interest, so it’s not surprising that we have invested so much effort to make them accessible.

We have already begun to digitize the complete service files from the First World War, all 640,000 of them, as well as other non-official documents, like memoirs, maps and photographs.

In fact, we now have over 129,000 complete soldiers’ files available online, making it easy for historians, teachers, students and genealogists to search them.

This represents 20 percent of the total files.

When the files go online, they are linked to our database and to other online resources, including the database of the Imperial War Museum in London.

The work of digitizing the 32 million pages these files represent constitutes the biggest and most ambitious historical preservation project ever undertaken by LAC.

It is something I am very proud of, especially as it shows the dedication of our staff who have painstakingly pored over box after box of files, carefully removing fasteners and glue, and gently handling these precious, irreplaceable testaments to the past.

Over 400 pounds of fasteners were removed from the first 7,500 boxes of files alone!

These files join our growing list of other fully digitized First World War collections including personal diaries and letters from Canadian nurses, oral histories, paintings of trenches and battlefields, and even music from the war.

And as we mark the 100th anniversary of the war, the files have also inspired related projects:

  • 100 Stories is a Web project that will tell the individual stories of 100 soldiers, officers, and nurses, by linking their files to maps, government records, photographs, artwork, war diaries, and other First World War information resources held at LAC.
  • In collaboration with the Muninn Project, LAC released a data set of medical case files from the First World War on the Canadian Open Government Data portal.

These projects would not have been possible without the collaboration of our many partners.

In fact, collaborative effort drives the four commitments I introduced when I joined LAC, 10 months ago.

These commitments are that LAC be an institution that:

  • is dedicated to serving its clients;
  • is a leader in archival and library science and new technologies;
  • is proactively engaged with national and international networks; 
  • has a greater public visibility.

It’s key to one of the commitments for us to be actively involved with national and international networks, so we can benefit from the experience of our partners, and vice versa.

As you may know, the archival community convened a summit in Toronto last January, to consider the future of archives and the needs of Canadians in the digital age.

Following the summit, the Association des archivistes du Québec, the Association of Canadian Archivists, the Canadian Council of Archives, the Council of Provincial and Territorial Archives and LAC formed a working group, which has been meeting for the last eight months.

The result of these discussions is a draft strategy for the next 10 years, a roadmap for collaborative action.

This strategy focuses on improving the management of archives for all Canadians.

We will be looking to the members of the archival community to provide feedback on the strategy, and to comment on how we can work together to realize its vision.

The fourth commitment I made relates to greater public visibility and it will be achieved through public programming developed with partners like archives, libraries, museums, universities, galleries, and others.

We will be using our flagship building located at 395 Wellington to showcase our public programming.

Some of you will recall the days when 395 Wellington was a vibrant presence in the heart of Ottawa and it is my aim to restore that presence.

We have already had a modest beginning.

We brought in David Ferriero, 10th Archivist of the United States, and David Fricker, Director-General of the National Archives of Australia, as part of a public lecture series.

At the end of March we partnered with the Friends of Library and Archives Canada to present a talk by Professor Pierre Anctil from the University of Ottawa, on the Yiddish poetry of Montreal’s Jacob-Isaac Segal.

The talk was accompanied by an exhibition of rare documents from the Jacob Lowy Collection.

We also partnered with the Canada Science and Technology Museum to create a joint exhibition on the Franklin expedition, in the sunken lobby.

As part of this exhibition we showed sketches from a rarely seen notebook of George Back, an artist who accompanied John Franklin on his first two expeditions.

The Double Take exhibition is now on in the main lobby of 395 Wellington.

It features intriguing portraits of iconic Canadians, including Joni Mitchell, Jacques Plante, and Louis Riel. It’s well worth a visit.

As a matter of fact, we have exhibitions planned right up to October 2016.

I am looking forward to all of them, as they will showcase our comic book collection, the history of robotics, our collection of Métis heritage, and a tribute to our national pastime: hockey, not politics!

We also have an action-packed year of loans to other organizations coming up, making LAC more visible to a broader public and highlighting the value and the scope of our collections.

There are so many it’s hard to know where to begin!

One of the most interesting loans will be to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, Ontario.

Eight, original historical self-portraits by women, including pages from Molly Lamb Bobak’s diary and a famous painting by Frances Anne Hopkins, will be on display this summer.

Four original items, including another famous painting by Ms Hopkins, will be exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, and the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo in Brazil.

We will also be loaning

  • four watercolour paintings to the Galt Museum & Archives in Lethbridge;
  • an original invitation card to the first Beaver Hall exhibition to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts;
  • attestation papers, treaties and maps to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax; and
  • eight original photographs of Quebec by celebrated American photojournalist Lida Moser to the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, in Quebec City.

LAC has also been working in close collaboration with museums and galleries, especially as we near the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

We’ve established a three-year partnership with the National Gallery of Canada to produce a series of six exhibitions exploring 19th-century photography in Canada.

We are also contributing to major initiatives at the Canadian Museum of History.

Over 50 items from our holdings will be featured in exhibitions leading up to 2017, including art, maps and textual material, and we will also have a major presence in the soon-to-be-renovated Canada Hall.

We also worked with the Canadian War Museum to display the original manuscript of In Flanders Fields, an artifact that is well loved by so many people both in Canada and around the world.

A number of high-profile documents from our collection were also loaned to the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

These included a copy of the Canadian Bill of Rights, signed by John Diefenbaker in 1960, several examples of Chinese Head Tax certificates, and the first of a series of historic numbered treaties, signed in 1871 by representatives of the Chippewa and Cree First Nations.

And perhaps the most significant document of all: the Proclamation of the Constitution Act, 1982, signed on Parliament Hill by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second and then Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Most of these activities have benefited from the support of groups like the Friends of Library and Archives Canada.

The Friends, led by Marianne Scott, have made such a vast contribution to our development as an organization that it’s hard to even try and quantify.

In the past few weeks alone they contributed to the acquisition of 10 key heritage items from the Winkworth Collection sold by auction at Christie’s in London.

This last part of the Winkworth Collection comes from the armoires, cabinets, mantles and walls of the now-sold Kensington mansion that Peter Winkworth occupied for 50 years.

The artwork offers a tantalizing glimpse into Pre-Confederation and 19th-century life in Canada. It also expands our understanding of subjects related to the First Nations and Arctic exploration.

Beyond their significant financial contribution, the Friends of LAC work as tireless ambassadors on our behalf, and that is perhaps more important.

Because in the end, we all are part of a community.

I hope I made this idea clear in my speech today, because it is one of the most important ideas I would like for you to take away.

The future of Canada’s memory is in all our hands, and it is vital that we work together to preserve and share it, no matter what form it takes.

No small task. But one I know we can accomplish.

Together. Thank you.

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