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Archived - Access at the helm: Sailing the choppy waters between rights and responsibilities

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Speaking notes
Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Speech delivered to the 2015 Annual Conference of the Archives Association of Ontario
London (Ontario)
May 27, 2015
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Good afternoon,

I am honoured to be speaking here today at this annual conference.

I also greatly appreciate the opportunity to discuss Library and Archives Canada’s ongoing efforts regarding rights and responsibilities.

As a memory institution within the Government of Canada, our role in this area is particularly unique.

Perhaps you’re interested in learning about how we navigate the choppy waters between rights and responsibilities?

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

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, archives, 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.

As you know, LAC’s 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.

This core mandate has not changed over the years, but the world in which we deliver it has experienced some radical twists and turns.

And thus, so have we.

When I took over the reins at LAC, I introduced four commitments that I thought would enable us to adapt to the brave new world in which LAC evolves—four commitments to help us fulfil our vital mandate, to keep the doors of democracy open, and to maintain the collective record of our nation.

The four commitments I proposed define LAC as an institution:

  • that is dedicated to serving its clients
  • that is at the leading edge of archival and library science and new technologies, thanks to the strength of all its staff
  • that is proactively engaged with national and international networks in an open and inclusive way; and
  • that enjoys greater public visibility.

I have been spreading the gospel of these commitments over the past year, and I am happy to report they have been given a very warm welcome, both by staff and by the broad community of stakeholders and clients.

The first of the four commitments, being dedicated to serving our clients, is key to all the others.

Many of the issues of rights and responsibilities being discussed at conferences such as this one come about because of the tensions we face as we try to make records both safe and accessible at the same time.

For the archival world, this is a relatively new paradigm.

It used to be focused more on preserving archival records.

Access was limited, and attempts to get access were sometimes resented.

But Canada is now a digital nation and we live in a world where our clients expect instant access.

I always tell my colleagues—preservation without access is just hoarding.

So, at LAC, access is the key driver—which is why we have been developing an access policy framework that maximizes our ability to provide access, while respecting the legal frameworks within which we work.

I am glad that your conference acknowledges the breadth of challenges we face in balancing this, in juggling a variety of both rights and responsibilities.

A recent report from the Canadian Council of the Academies titled, Leading in the Digital World: Opportunities for Canada’s Memory Institutions, outlined some of the digital challenges we face in Canada in the archival and library worlds, and pointed out that the digital reality has radically changed the relationship between memory institutions and their clients.

Increasingly, these clients are the general public, rather than specialized groups or professional associations, because Canadians have already shown a high level of digital readiness and a huge appetite for more digital content and faster access.

As the report points out, memory institutions risk their relevance and their very survival by ignoring or failing to meet these expectations. If they cannot make this vital transition, to live fully in the digital universe, they will lose public confidence, and their disaffected clients will turn to other sources, more effective, although less reliable, to meet their constant, pressing need for information.

While the CCA report was both timely and informative, when it came to tackling the access issue, it focused mainly on the challenges of copyright laws.

No doubt, these are significant.

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 not only to 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, such as:

  • 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 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.

Yet, as a memory institution and a government agency, our ability to make documentary heritage accessible is affected by many more challenges than copyright.

As we read the Canadian Council of the Academies report, a lightbulb went on.

We realized just how invisible some of our challenges are, to many of our clients and to Canadians at large.

As a portfolio agency of the Department of Canadian Heritage, a full-fledged member of the federal family, we must respect access to information and privacy laws, donor agreements, laws related to official languages, attorney-client privilege, and web standards.

Added together, these rights and responsibilities, while important, can definitely challenge our ability to make things accessible online rapidly and inexpensively.

With a number of these challenges overlapping, it is easy to get confused, and it is difficult to apply the proper strategies.

At LAC, we have found it useful to divide up the issues.

First, there are the issues which directly affect public access—those that restrict our ability to make materials accessible online quickly and easily—for example, copyright, official languages, and access for the visually impaired.

Second, there are availability issues—those that make it harder to access the information at all—for example, how we interpret and manage material within privacy and access to information legislation can often be a barrier to access.

While the Access to Information Act is actually intended to facilitate Canadians’ right to access information under the control of government institutions, we often focus a great deal of effort and energy making sure we don’t accidently release material that is identified as exceptions under the act.

It is important to protect sensitive information, but at the same time LAC wanted to make sure that it maximizes access, making the collection as open as possible.

To further that goal, LAC set out to establish a clear policy position.

The objective of the policy, which is called Making Holdings Available, is to ensure that government records arriving at LAC are open for access.

We call it “open by default” and it is a major policy shift.

Up to now, government records were deemed closed until they could be reviewed.

And such a review was most often triggered by an access to information request.

This meant that a large percentage of LAC’s government records were closed to public access.

The new policy will have an impact on other government institutions because we are telling them that we now expect materials to arrive at LAC open for access.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that our new position is in perfect alignment with Canada’s Open Government initiative.

We worked with Treasury Board Secretariat to ensure that the policy was properly aligned and coordinated with the work that was being done on the Open Government directive.

We are now working with other departments to implement this new access direction.

Most of the documentary heritage of the Government of Canada already in our collection will be made available to Canadians.

For example, documents that are more than 110 years old will be available for consultation immediately and, in the case of documents less than 110 years old, we will continue with block review, which I will speak about in a minute.

So, that is our progress on one of our biggest policy shifts, and I think also, one of our greatest contributions to open government.

As I mentioned before, LAC is both a memory organization and an agency of government.

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

After records 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.

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 that show the profound impact of residential schools on Aboriginal children in Canada.

The way we provide access also varies, and we are tackling the issue on a number of other fronts as well.

For example, through block review, we are proactively opening government documents through the Access to Information Act.

At the beginning of November 2014, LAC opened more than 10 million pages of government documents, including files on Canada’s participation in both world wars, on trade relations, and on the centennial celebrations of Confederation in 1967.

We are also providing access through partnerships.

For example, the digitization partnership between LAC and Canadiana.org has produced 34.5 million images, digitized from over 20,000 microfilm reels.

And thanks to our partnership with Ancestry.ca, eight of our collections, over 700,000 images, have been digitized and made available through their website.

These are just a few of our solutions to navigating the choppy waters between rights and responsibilities—and to providing expanded public access to the collective memory of government.

I know there are other approaches out there, other ideas and ways of solving the challenges we are facing.

That is why I will be interested to know more about what comes out of this conference.

Thank you.


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