Speech Article from
Archived - Unmasked: everything you always wanted to know about LAC but were afraid to ask
Speaking notes for Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
2015 Conference of the Association des archivistes du Quebec
May 29, 2015
This speech was delivered in French. This English version is a translation.
And thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.
I see that as archivists you don’t fool around.
Eight o’clock sharp and you are ready to listen to me talk for an hour.
I hope you’ve had time for at least two cups of coffee!
AAQ’s last conference was held around this same time last year, in the City of Laval, in the historic and enchanting setting of Carrefour Laval.
It was my colleague, Hervé Dery, who spoke to you then about the files that were current at LAC.
Since Hervé gave that speech, LAC has gone through some major twists and turns...
...starting, of course, with my arrival on the scene in Gatineau on June 23, 2014.
But in all seriousness, in the year since the Laval conference, LAC has embarked on a forward path that is both positive and profound.
That is what I will be sharing with you today.
As you pointed out in your promotional materials for the conference, archivists and the archival profession itself are both undergoing a major reinvention.
I think that today, more than at any other time in our history, archives have a critical role to play in our society.
As for proof of that, we don’t need to look further than the news.
The destruction of historical records, whether they are books, archives or ancient monuments, clearly demonstrates their importance.
Those who oppose democracy do not want the evidence of the past to shed light on the present.
After five years at the helm of Bibliothèques et Archives nationales du Québec, I agreed to take over the reins at Library and Archives Canada last June.
Changing jobs forces us to rethink our approach, to review the way we do things, and to look with the right eye at things we’re used to looking at with the left.
I know something about this – this is my 14th job.
In short, we reinvent ourselves a little for each new job that we take on.
In this new position I have had the good fortune to rely on some illustrious predecessors.
It is with great pride that I follow in the footsteps of Ian Wilson, Jean-Pierre Wallot, and Sir Arthur George Doughty – three giants of Canadian archival sciences, who continue to inspire me.
And even though the National Archives was founded in 1872, Library and Archives Canada itself is only 11 years old.
LAC began with a conversation.
Between a librarian and an archivist.
Roch Carrier was the former National Librarian and Ian Wilson, the National Archivist.
They understood that the web had changed the way the world used information and defined knowledge.
Perhaps Mr Wilson picked up a map – where did it belong? A library or an archive?
Perhaps Mr Carrier produced a roll of film from his pocket – Library? Archive? Who knows?
From that embryonic conversation, an idea was born.
They began to conceive of an organization that would combine the National Library and the National Archives, that would house books, images, art, text, sounds and objects in a single collection, and that could provide seamless access to researchers.
They developed a new term to broaden the scope of what they could collect, preserve and share – “Documentary heritage”.
And they began the work of creating a new organization dedicated to the preservation of Canada’s collective memory in all its forms.
On April 22, 2004, Library and Archives Canada was born.
The merger of the National Library and the National Archives was ambitious.
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, both with LAC and with BAnQ, which was created on January 31, 2005.
In a few short years, we have put millions of pages of documents, photographs, maps, portraits and other kinds of information online, for easy access by Canadians.
Our website has 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 six million views.
We have our own channel on YouTube, and last year we had our first viral hit with a very rare newsreel film of the 1919 World Series that was originally discovered in a cache of films buried in the Yukon permafrost (and later in our vast archives).
Discovering the wealth and diversity of LAC’s collection was one of the biggest revelations I had on my arrival in Gatineau.
Let me give you the mini tour.
- 20 million books, the weight of 42 and a half blue whales!
- 250 kilometres of text records, which, lined up, would take us from Tadoussac 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 recordings, 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, with over 425,000 works, including sculptures, illustrations from children’s books, comic books, political posters and iconic portraits.
And our collection continues to grow.
A few weeks ago, we acquired ten 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 Kensington mansion that Peter Winkworth occupied for fifty years.
The artwork offers a tantalizing glimpse into pre-Confederation life in Canada.
It also expands our understanding of subjects related to First Nations and Arctic exploration.
We have also recently added texts, videos, audio-materials, photos and electronic items from novelist and essayist Nancy Huston, one of Canada’s best-selling and most internationally acclaimed authors.
Nancy Huston is one of only a few authors whose work truly overlaps the Anglophone and Francophone realities of Canada.
Just last month, we purchased four watercolours by Robert Hood, a British officer who was a member of an Arctic overland expedition to map the Coppermine River as part of the search for the Northwest Passage.
These pictures offer a historical context for the expeditions into the Arctic. LAC has Canada’s only public collection of Robert Hood’s drawings.
There is much, much more. Photographs from Malak Karsh, digital web captures, maps of Rupert’s Land, comic strips—the list is long and fascinating.
In terms of acquisitions, we are also working on something which the Canadian archival community has sought for years – a collaborative approach.
In partnership with the National, Provincial and Territorial Archivists Conference, we are developing a national collaborative approach for acquisitions, an idea that is now beginning to take concrete shape.
We will soon be launching a collaborative portal to foster collaboration in the acquisition of documentary heritage and to share best practices.
We are also going to develop guidelines on finding the “best fit” to house various acquisitions, namely, answers to the questions: what should be preserved, where and by whom?
These discussions with the National, Provincial and Territorial Archivists Conference also led to the creation of the Audio Visual Working Group, a forum which will create tools to ensure audiovisual preservation, such as a compendium of preservation file formats and standards.
These new projects are representative of a new path for LAC because, although our core mandate has not changed over the years, the world in which we deliver this mandate has changed considerably.
When I arrived at LAC, I introduced four commitments that I thought would help to define a memory organization prepared for the challenges of the 21st century.
These four commitments are that LAC:
- Be dedicated to serving its whole range of clients;
- Be recognized as being on the leading edge of archival and library science and new technologies because of the quality of its staff;
- Be proactively engaged with national and international networks, listening and showing respect, and;
- Have greater public visibility.
I have been discussing these commitments over the past twelve months with my staff, with the broader community and with our clients, and this vision has been well received.
We reorganized slightly so that our structure can better support these commitments.
And we have had the good fortune to be able to recruit Normand Charbonneau as Chief Operating Officer.
With this combination of projects and individuals, we are well positioned to be able to meet stakeholders’ expectations.
To understand these expectations, since June 2014, I have accepted as many invitations as I can to meet with library and archival organizations.
And in line with our commitment to engage proactively in international networks, our work with colleagues in Quebec ensures that Canada has a presence in international organizations such as the Réseau francophone numérique (RFN), the International Council on Archives (ICA), the Association international des archives francophones (AIAF) and IFLA.
In 2014, I had the pleasure of personally attending meetings of the Association Internationale des Archives Francophones during the Annual Conference of the International Council on Archives.
And in 2015, Library and Archives Canada sent a representative to the annual meeting of the Portail International Archivistique Francophone – a key learning resource for the international Francophone archival community.
You won’t be surprised to hear that we are also working closely with BAnQ.
Our collaboration reflects our shared values, and enhances the richness and expertise of our professional colleagues, our collections, and our common heritage.
We have signed a letter of understanding with BAnQ for acquiring private archives.
We also plan to follow the example of projects developed by the Archives Branch of BAnQ in the past few years, such as redesigning the “Pistard” or automated indexing system, and joining the Wiki world.
These are only some of our archival science projects. There are as many, if not more, library science projects.
My personal approach is a simple one, based on two concepts: listening and respect.
This was the guiding spirit behind the new Stakeholders Forum, which was launched last December. Slide 18, association logos or slide of stakeholder forum members
We have now met twice, with twelve of our most important partners, including the AAQ, and I already see the fruits of this connection.
I am also very proud of our participation in the Canadian Archival System Working Group, which has been meeting for the last eight months.
Created at the end of the archives summit held in Toronto on January 17, 2014, the Working Group has been meeting for eight months and has developed a tentative strategy and a timeline for the next ten years.
In spite of these positive developments, as you may guess, my life at LAC has not been all peace and quiet in the past year.
Since my arrival, we have received three reports that have closely scrutinized our work.
The first, the Royal Society of Canada’s report, came out in November. It is entitled The Future Now: Canada’s Libraries, Archives and Public Memory.
Some of you may recall it was not all that kind to us.
The report has 70 recommendations for libraries and archives, including six meant exclusively for LAC.
I believe that the four commitments that I mentioned at the beginning of my speech will enable us to meet, in large measure, the Royal Society’s expectations.
This is particularly true of recommendation two, regarding participation in the work of professional associations, recommendation three, on employee morale, and recommendation five, on Canada’s presence in international library and archives communities.
The first recommendation proposes that LAC develop a five-year strategic plan with its partners.
To this suggestion, we agreed that we will be developing our next three-year plan for 2016-2019 during the 2015-2016 fiscal year, only after we have consulted our employees, clients and partners.
This process starts on June 1 in Ottawa, with a town hall discussion that will take place during the Congress of the Canadian Historical Association.
Recommendation four of the Royal Society’s report suggests that LAC make efforts to align the cultures of library and archival science.
I am committed to respecting the different nature of the two professional cultures, while ensuring that their roles complement each other.
I know that Normand Charbonneau also shares this vision.
Finally, the sixth recommendation directs us to maintain a dialogue with Government of Canada decision-makers, a recommendation with which we are fully complying.
During the past year in particular, LAC has been playing a key role in implementing the federal open government initiative.
Another important report also came out last November. This one was from the Auditor General of Canada, dealing with our handling of government documents.
One of its main criticisms was the backlog of analogue records in our care which had not been processed.
We reacted quickly by establishing the Task Force on Disposition and Discoverability.
This Task Force, led by Bob McIntosh and Sandy Ramos, has already reduced the backlog of analogue records by 70 per cent.
This backlog went from over 98,000 containers to roughly 30,000 as of May 1.
The OAG report also mentioned our delay in issuing the necessary disposition authorities to federal government institutions.
The Task Force also established an action plan to ensure that all government institutions have full and up-to-date disposition coverage by 2017-18.
As part of this plan, we have implemented a more efficient approach, which has enabled us, to date, to provide 30% of Canadian government institutions with disposition authorities.
I am quite proud to tell you that LAC itself was the first federal institution to be subject to the new disposition authority process.
The Auditor General also recommended that LAC develop a corporate digital strategy to ensure its digital collection can be sustained and that LAC work with federal institutions to transfer their digital records using the right format.
Our digital strategy was adopted at the end of March and is designed to make sure that LAC can manage all its holdings to facilitate discovery and access.
The third report published in the past year was from the Canadian Council of the Academies.
Entitled Leading in the Digital World: Opportunities for Canada’s Memory Institutions, it came out in February.
The report pointed out how the digital revolution has radically changed the relationship between memory institutions and the general public.
It particular, it draws attention to the development of a culture of citizen participation and the need for memory institutions to develop ongoing permanent relationships with the public.
The report also pointed out to what extent it is essential – in keeping with best practices developed at the international level – that Canadian memory institutions develop multi-year agreements to work with the private sector on digitization initiatives.
For example, our partnership with Canadiana.org has enabled us to digitize 34.5 million images from more than 20,000 reels of microfilm.
Thanks to our partnership with Ancestry.ca, eight of our collections are being digitized and will be accessible on the Ancestry website.
This partnership is also key to our commitment to increase LAC’s visibility.
In partnership with other libraries and archives, and with universities and museums, we are developing a varied program of public activities.
I intend to restore our building at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa to a place of prominence in the National Capital’s cultural life.
We have already taken a few steps in this direction.
We brought in David Ferriero, the National Archivist of the United States, and David Fricker, the Director General of the Australian National Archives, as part of a public lecture series.
We also partnered with the Science and Technology Museum to feature a joint exhibition in the front lobby on Franklin’s Arctic expedition.
This was followed by the “Double Take – Portraits of Intriguing Canadians” exhibition in the main lobby of 395 Wellington.
From Joni Michell to Louis Riel to Jacques Plante, it’s well worth a visit!
We have exhibitions planned right up to October 2016. They include showcasing our comic book collection, the history of robotics, our collection of Metis 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 is hard to know where to begin:
- An original invitation card to the first Beaver Hall Group exhibition loaned to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts;
- Attestation papers, treaties and maps loaned to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax; and
- Eight original photographs of Quebec by celebrated American photo-journalist Lida Moser loaned to the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec City.
This kind of collaboration is ramping up as we near the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
For example, 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, including art, maps and textual material from our holdings, will be featured in exhibitions at the Museum.
A number of high profile documents from our collection were also loaned to the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg.
These include 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.
Although the three reports published in the past year were less than kind to us, I think that LAC has earned the right to brag about some of its successes as well.
As you know, LAC has 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, which tell the stories of war in a much more personal way than official accounts.
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.
Records of the Canadian Expeditionary Force belong to the top two subjects of interest so it makes sense 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 155,000 complete files available online. This represents nearly a quarter 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.
These files join our growing list of other fully digitized FWW collections including personal diaries and letters from Canadian nurses, oral histories, paintings of trenches and battlefields, and even music from the war.
None of these projects would have been possible without collaboration and, of course, without digital technology.
The success of projects like the digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces files has convinced me of one very important lesson – the accessibility of our files is essential if we want to highlight the value of our collections and services.
It is true that the archival profession has changed, and I think that the scope of what we can achieve has broadened considerably.
At Library and Archives Canada, as in most library and archival settings, the work that we do has to reflect both the analog and the digital worlds, which will continue to live side by side for a very long time.
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 two hundred professionals at LAC who have been trained as archivists or librarians.
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 archivists and librarians has evolved and continues to evolve as the gap narrows between the user and the information itself.
This evolution creates interesting opportunities.
And where does it leave the definition of an archivist?
At the crossroads of an exciting new world.
It doesn’t matter.
The road ahead will be exciting.
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