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Archived - Leviathan North: Long-term Access to Government Information in the Digital Era

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Speaking notes
Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Speech for the representatives of government agencies, research libraries (academic, public and legislative), national and provincial archives, and scholars
Toronto (Ontario)
May 15, 2015
Check against delivery

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

I am pleased to follow Treasury Board, as they have done so much to promote the idea of open government and to give the business of recordkeeping the importance it deserves.

I am also pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the ongoing work of LAC in preserving government records of value and making them accessible.

I believe that today, more than at any other period in history, records play a vital role in our society.

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The ongoing and widespread destruction of historical records, whether they are books, historical documents, or ancient monuments, is ample proof of their importance.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 voice to be heard.

The original Leviathan examined the same key issues we continue to grapple with:

  • how to ensure the survival of government records, including electronic and born-digital ones,
  • and how to make sure the information they contain can be accessed.

When we talk about digital records, their very nature means they can disappear as quickly as they are created.

Once they disappear, they are gone forever, taking the evidence of our history with them.

On April 27, the BBC ran a story titled “Does the digital era herald the end of history”. 

The reporter described the possibility “of an electromagnetic pulse that could wipe out entire electricity networks and effectively plunge the world in a digital dark age”.

We need to be prepared. We need to keep the records from disappearing, from being stolen by digital thieves in the night.

But, at the same time we protect the records, we need to make them accessible.

Canadians have already shown a high level of digital readiness and a huge appetite for more digital content, more digital functionality, and faster access via mobile devices.

Business is digital, government is digital, and, to put it simply, Canada is now a digital nation.

Government is racing to keep up, on several fronts.

As Canadians become more and more accustomed to getting services from the federal government through digital technologies, the government is working to make these online interactions as easy as possible.

The Government of Canada is consolidating its web presence, and radically reducing the number of individual websites in the gc.ca domain.

The system will be based on the needs of citizens themselves, rather than a cumbersome, bureaucratic division of responsibilities among hundreds of departments and agencies. 

And it will make it easier for Canadians to find the information they need, by standardizing content and improving search capacity.

The Government of Canada, through Public Works and Government Services Canada, is also moving towards an all-digital publishing model, featuring a central digital repository for all government publications.

And Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government is another key element of the digital information landscape, part of a government-wide effort to foster greater openness and accountability.

As US Judge Keith Damon once said, “Democracy dies behind closed doors”.

In order to keep the doors of democracy open, at LAC, we maintain the collective record of our nation.

Our mandate is

  • to preserve the documentary heritage of Canada for the benefit of present and future generations
  • and to serve as the continuing memory of the government of Canada and its institutions.

In fact, LAC’s government holdings, both analog and digital, account for nearly 80 per cent of our total archival collection.

Indeed, all government departments require permission from the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, via a disposition authority, before disposing of any records or publications.

We also have a key role in advising on the management of the government’s information resources.

Making the government records accessible is one of our most important priorities as well as a legal mandate.

After records of enduring value move to LAC, they are used and accessed, not only for traditional research but, increasingly, by individual citizens with an interest in history. 

Their own personal history or that of the nation they call home.

So, access encompasses anything from a single access to information request, to a massive project like that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is gathering thousands of records which show the profound impact of residential schools on Aboriginal children in Canada.

Information management in the government is a shared responsibility.

All departments are operating now in a digital fashion and creating records which are digital from the start.

Of course some records will continue to endure on paper, things like maps and signed treaties, which, even though they can be digitized, retain historical value in their original formats.

But whatever the format, we are in an era of open and transparent government and that means that all departments are paying very close attention to information management.

And to make sure that they have the systems and processes in place which will help them manage government records throughout their life cycle.

There are a number of Government of Canada initiatives underway to develop the common tools, processes and systems that will enable the government to move confidently forward.

The key element of the Government’s information policy management framework is the government-wide Information Management Policy.

This policy contains Treasury Board’s Directive on Recordkeeping, which LAC supports in a number of ways.

One way is by helping individual departments identify which records have enduring or archival value, and also by issuing disposition authorities.

LAC is now working towards upstream disposition, so departments will know what they need to transfer to LAC.

By identifying records accurately we can concentrate our efforts on essential archival records, save departments’ money, and manage information effectively.

And we will continue to work directly with the recordkeeping community throughout government, as we have in the past.

I admit we are not quite there yet. However, by combining government-wide initiatives, the commitment of individual departments, and the support of central agencies, I believe we are well on our way.

I’d like to turn now to some of the concrete measures we are putting into place at LAC to deal with the realities of the digital era.

Most of you have heard the phrase “Digital by 2017”.

What does it really mean?

It means, basically that:

  • Born-digital information resources of archival value created as of 2017, including government records, will be transferred to LAC digitally;
  • Paper information resources of archival value digitized by departments in the course of business will also be transferred digitally; and
  • Legacy (or pre-2017) paper and other non-digital materials identified as archival will continue to be accepted.

I should also point out that there will still be non-born-digital records of archival value created after 2017 and LAC will continue to accept them in paper format.

According to the 2007 Treasury Board policy on information management: “Deputy heads (of departments) are responsible for ensuring that electronic systems are the preferred means of creating, using and managing information” .

Of course, the key to this approach is a collaborative effort between Treasury Board, LAC, and individual departments.

We are preparing for 2017 and supporting open government on four fronts.

The first one concerns so-called legacy resources. Non-digital.

As you may know, last November, LAC was heavily criticized by the Auditor General for the backlog of legacy items in its care which had not been processed, as well as for falling behind in issuing disposition authorizations to government departments.

A disposition authorization is the tool LAC uses to inform Government of Canada institutions about which records we want transferred to LAC when their period of usefulness for their original business purpose has ended.

To address the Auditor General’s recommendations, we established a special Task Force on Disposition and Discoverability.

The task force has already reduced this backlog by 70 per cent, from over 98,000 containers to under 30,000 as of May 1st.

The Task Force was also charged with ensuring that all government institutions have full and up to date disposition authorities in place in the next three years.

To enable us to meet this ambitious target, we streamlined our approach and I am happy to report that, at this point in time, 30 per cent of government institutions now have full coverage.

And I am very proud to say that LAC was the first government institution to go through this new process.

In addition, LAC has been using a risk-based approach in reviewing “blocks” of our existing holdings to decide whether or not the records can be made accessible to the public under the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act, taking into account the age of the record and the subject.

Prior to what we call block review, most government heritage was closed, marked restricted or restricted pending review by the issuing departments.

Since introducing block review, we have opened more than ten million pages of Canadian government records and made them available to the public.

The second front we are addressing is digital infrastructure.

The disappearance of government records, the collective memory of how a nation is governed, would leave a gaping hole in the fabric of democracy itself.

One of the most vital ways we ensure this doesn’t happen is by harvesting web sites from the Government of Canada.

Between September 2013 and September 2014, we completed four complete crawls of the Government of Canada domain.

To date, we’ve amassed 86 million digital objects and more than 780 important domains.

We’ve also captured non-government web sites on such important topics as the Idle No More movement and the October 22, 2014 attack on Parliament Hill.

Sites like these form part of our vast digital collection at LAC, currently sized at over 2 petabytes and rapidly growing. 

In order to implement a standard trusted and recognized approach to this rising volume of digital information, LAC has developed a Digital Strategy.

This was one of the key recommendations in the Auditor General’s Report, as well as the Royal Society’s Report titled: The Future Now: Canada’s Libraries, Archives and Public Memory.

The goal of the strategy is to make sure that LAC has a global plan so that we can act on digital opportunities and meet our mandate. 

And to ensure that all of our holdings are managed to facilitate discovery and access. 

The work is being accomplished as part of our Digital Curation Initiative.

Curation follows the holdings at every step of their life, from evaluation and acquisition, to preservation, discovery and access.

The curation initiative includes the concrete actions which will be needed if we are to make use of these digital opportunities. 

LAC will continue to earn the trust of Canadians by being compliant with ISO standards for digital preservation.

This means becoming a Trusted Digital Repository for certain collections.

There has been a lot of discussion about this, which will likely continue, but I believe that certification is not necessary for all of our holdings.

We have decided to take a pragmatic approach in applying the rigor of those standards.

With the Center for Research Libraries, LAC recently undertook a Trusted Repository Audit Checklist (or TRAC) assessment. 

The assessment focused on three collections: migrated video content, public opinion research reports and government e-records.

The results are helping us establish what is still required for us to be deemed a TDR. 

We have already started working on recommendations such as documenting our procedures, ensuring that staff have a development program focused on digital media, and putting a sound technology platform in place for long-term preservation.

LAC will use this analysis to effectively “fill the gaps”.  It will be followed by another audit, and eventually by certification.

The next front we are tackling is access.

Access is the primary driver for LAC.  For government records as well as for all others.

We’re addressing the issue of access through innovative policies, such as LAC’s Directive on Making Holdings Available.

This LAC directive is linked to the broader open government directive created by Treasury Board in October 2014, and it represents one of our most tangible and visible contributions to open government.

Our new directive establishes that government records will be open for consultation from the time they are transferred to LAC, with some exceptions.

In addition, departments will have to obtain the necessary authorizations for disclosure before transfer.

The majority of the Government of Canada’s documentary heritage already present in LAC’s holdings will also be made available to Canadians more automatically.

For example, most documents that are more than 110 years old may be consulted immediately and, in the case of documents less than 110 years old, we will continue our block declassification efforts.

We call this approach, “open by default”.

That is, free of access restrictions, while respecting policy and legal requirements.

LAC is also determined to apply the TBS Open Government License to as much of its content as possible, including government publications.

This license was issued in 2013 for all levels of government in order to remove barriers to the re-issue of published government data and information, regardless of origin.

Our goal over time is to maximize the amount of our holdings that can be accessed and used immediately.

The last aspect of our scenario for the future is copyright.

Whenever we talk about records, copyright comes up.

Two reports which came out recently, one from the Royal Society and one from the Council of Canadian Academies, both identified copyright as one of the key issues facing all memory institutions.

Specifically, as a barrier to access.

The new Copyright Modernization Act was introduced quite recently, in 2012, and it is fair to say that copyright owners, creators and users are still getting used to it.

The Act attempts to not only bring Canada’s copyright law in line with international treaties, but to respond to new technologies and digital formats.

A number of areas affect memory institutions. They are:

  • The expansion and clarification of what is meant by “fair dealing”;
  • The strengthening of existing exceptions for libraries, archives and museums;
  • Greater allowance for digital reproductions and loans; and
  • Protection for third-parties facilitating “fair dealing” requests.

LAC is also grappling with the issue of moral rights and fair dealing, especially where the copyright owners are unknown or impossible to locate.

The current copyright act also makes no mention of out-of-commerce works, making it difficult for memory organizations like LAC to reproduce them without the risk of copyright infringement.

We have already undertaken an ongoing analysis of copyright issues and how they impact memory organizations, and we are developing our policy approach to managing copyright.

And we are currently working with the Ministry of Canadian Heritage to participate in the Legislative Review of the Act that is planned for 2017.

LAC recognizes that it has a national role to play in the fields of recordkeeping and access.

We recently invited David Fricker, the Director General of the National Archives of Australia, to speak to us about the work of his institution in the field of e-government.

One thing David said struck me in particular. He said: paper is patient, but digital is not. Simply stated, but true.

In order to manage the current and future volume of digital content coming rapidly our way and to demonstrate leadership, we need to be actively engaged with stakeholders.

To continue to work in partnership with other government departments, and with Treasury Board.

As part of this collaboration, we are ramping up our capacity to support government departments as they prepare to transfer considerably more records to LAC.

We are also currently surveying key departments in an effort to estimate the volume of records which will be coming our way in 2017.

Departments also need to dispose of original paper documents and retain the digitized copy, until it is either destroyed or transferred to us, and we have been advising them on the best ways to do this.

We recently proposed a Digitize and Dispose tool in order to provide guidance to Government departments in this critical area.

The draft is currently posted on GCpedia for consultation.

And we continue to work with international networks, with industry, and with leading experts in the library and archival fields to identify best practices and to study what happens in other countries who share similar challenges.

The key is collaboration, as it is in all areas of our networked society.

Panels and conferences like this one feed into the spirit of open government itself, by allowing for candid discussions, the sharing of ideas, and a better understanding of the environment we share.

I have now been at LAC for almost a year and I am confident that we have the momentum which will move us forward and allow us to embrace the opportunities of the digital world.

Back in 1809, Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change”.

I like using this quote in front of academics.  It gives me legitimacy to speak, even though I’m not part of “the most intelligent” species.

In the face of digital change, we will never be completely free of “thieves in the night”, whether it is the digital format itself, or its partners in crime: time, neglect and overabundance.

But we can outwit these thieves, and their companions, by being prepared.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity today to tell you about some of the ways we are getting prepared at Library and Archives Canada.


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