Digital technology, the need for connection, and the role of national memory institutions


Speaking notes
Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Speech delivered at the Digital Heritage 2015 Conference
Granada, Spain
October 2, 2015
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The digital age is delivered to us largely through the world wide web, at least for now.

And when we think about the web, we think about how well it connects us.

Vint Cerf, one of the pioneers of the web, put it this way:

Forty years ago, we wrote the script of the Internet. Thirty years ago we turned it on. We thought we were building a system to connect computers together. But we quickly learned that it’s a system for connecting people.

The web’s many offspring, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, are all ways for human beings to do what they have been trying to do since the dawn of time – connect with each other.

But I’d like to argue today that while this is true, the web can also divide us, by detecting and reflecting our individual biases and preferences.

I think we can turn things around and get more out of our digital world by looking at the process of how we connect, as libraries, archives, museums, galleries, and other kinds of memory organizations.

And re-thinking how this connection works.

The digital world has transformed

  • how we think,
  • how we communicate,
  • and how we retain our collective memory.

In this landscape, memory organizations hold the key to keeping that collective memory alive and making sure that it persists into the future.

Let’s go back for a moment to my initial point.

The instant communication offered by the web means that we can quickly hook up with folks who share the same passions that we do, the same ideologies and interests.

This is great, don’t get me wrong.

But as much as the web gives us the chance to step outside the box and learn something new, it can also keep us in our boxes through our tendency to pursue only that information which reflects like-minded interests and world views.

If you’re a librarian, there is a lot of great stuff out there about libraries.

About all aspects of libraries.

Everything you ever wanted to know about libraries, in fact.

But in the pursuit of information about the areas which interest us the most, I think it is quite possible that we may be boxing ourselves in.

In my talk today I want to examine a number of questions which flow from this premise.

And ask the questions:

  • How do we use digital technology, and our position as memory institutions, to connect beyond limited channels?
  • Does the digital world really dissolve the boundaries between memory organizations?
  • How can we make the promise of connection, which is so basic to the digital environment, do more?
  • What is the role of a national library and archives in all this?  
  • And how do we go beyond connecting, to a process that achieves results?

These are just a few of the things I would like to discuss with you today.

But before I go any further, let me give you a sense of where I am coming from and how that informs the way I see the world of memory institutions.

In order to do this, let’s back track, for a moment, to the origins of Library and Archives Canada.

In 2004, Canada became one of the first countries in the world to combine its national library and its national archives.

Behind its creation was the vision of a new kind of knowledge organization, fully integrated between two disciplines and equipped to respond to the information demands of the 21st century.

It was a bold idea. Revolutionary even. Canada is still the only G-20 country with this kind of combined national institution.

Ian Wilson, one of the visionaries behind LAC and the very first Librarian and Archivist of Canada, put it this way:

What we’ve done is to establish a new, national cultural institution, built on two great traditions, but hopefully going into areas that neither institution could reach in the past.

It’s the last part of that statement that interests me the most.

LAC is a new kind of hybrid, one that houses books, serials, images, art, documents, recorded sounds and objects in a single collection.

It offers seamless access, and puts two unique disciplines together to create an environment that can expect the unexpected, and respond.

The initial idea was so ground-breaking that the term “documentary heritage”, had to be expanded to provide enough scope to encompass everything such an organization could collect, preserve and share.

This turned out to be prophetic, as Canada’s collective memory would morph and twist into numerous shapes over the years, some of which would prove to be as fleeting and fragile as a tweet.

So, LAC is, by its very nature, a collaborative organization, designed to juxtapose the landscapes of two venerable disciplines.

We are uniquely placed to operate smoothly in the digital environment, one that has no real tolerance for boundaries and divisions.

Now, going back to the questions I raised about connection at the onset, we can think of connection as either static or productive.

Unfortunately, the former is often mistaken for the latter.

For example, when we bring groups together to discuss issues of mutual concern, it often looks from the outside as if the connections have already been made.

But taking this connection to the next level, to create an outcome we might not have expected, requires an open-ended way of thinking.

Perhaps the role of knowledge institutions like libraries and archives, in a digital age, is to bring unexpected elements together and create the conditions for new kinds of interfaces.

To remain open to ideas we never saw coming.

One of Library and Archives Canada’s most surprising digital successes arose from a project known simply as “Project Naming”.

It illustrates the powerful impact that a national memory organization can have.

Back in 2001, we teamed up with a Training program in Nunavut, the northernmost territory in Canada.

With the Nunavut Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, our project was to digitize and identify historical photos of Inuit from our collection.

Many of them had remained unidentified for decades.

The goal was modest: to digitize and identify 500 photographs.

The whole project was expected to be finished within the year.

We were wrong.

The project took on a life of its own.

Since 2001, we have digitized approximately 8,000 photographs and the project is still going.

The enthusiasm and support of Inuit and non-Inuit researchers has meant that nearly one-quarter of the individuals, activities or events portrayed in the images have been identified.

Families and friends have re-connected.

All this information, along with the images, is now available in the database.

And we have just expanded it to include Inuit living in the Northwest Territories, the northern part of the Province of Quebec, the region of Labrador, as well as First Nations and Métis communities in the rest of Canada.

In a number of ways we were crowdsourcing long before the term was even invented.

But perhaps what is more important is that we created the conditions for people to make connections across time, across geography, and across generations.

We used digital technology for a very human purpose, and the magnitude of the results was completely unexpected.

Digitization has allowed us to preserve these images for the long term, and the process of naming them has allowed a people to reclaim their heritage in a highly measurable and tangible way.

This is the kind of thing that excites me when I think about our digital heritage and what the challenges of preserving it mean.

Project Naming relies on a unique collaboration between the public and a memory institution.

Not only does the public’s contribution enrich our photo collection, but past experience shows tha such initiatives will trigger a dialogue between older and younger Aboriginal generations and help them understand their past.

The highly human imperative to make sense of the world is something that unites us all, whether we are scientists, curators, librarians, archivists, or other specialists.

Digital technology weaves the web together by marrying the technology of communication with the human art of conversation.

Even though the web has been called “a giant copying machine,” we can never forget that its main value is to communicate.

If we, as a national library and archives, can position ourselves where these conversations are taking place, at the intersection of technology and the very human need to connect, we may be able to position ourselves as key players in the digital world.

Despite the naysayers who are so fond of predicting our demise.

For example, LAC has done a great deal of work to make its digital collections available online, such as data sets including census data, Western Land Grants, First World War medical case files, a database of Canadian feature films, and illustrations from rare books in our collection.

By providing this raw, open data we give Canadians the chance to use it in ways that in turn contribute to new knowledge.

To create patterns of information which show up only when you put large volumes of data together.

We’re also involved in projects that link a variety of partners.

For Out of the Trenches, LAC contributed digital resources from its First World War collections to a linked open data project that features everything from sheet music for war songs, to war diaries, to photographs, sound recordings and films.

Our partners include a number of universities, as well as, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, the Canadian Historical Association, and the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec.

Much of the focus of digital development over the past few years has been about providing exactly this type of access.

While access is important, there can be no access without preservation.

And preservation without access is simply hoarding.

As the old song goes, “you can’t have one without the other.  They go together like a horse and carriage”. 

Protecting our digital heritage is vital, and it’s a shared responsibility.

There is an abundance of material out there, much of it we’ve never even seen before, but this simply makes the choice of what we select much more acute.

If we are prepared to share that responsibility, and distribute the decision-making, we are much more likely to collect and preserve the documentary heritage that means the most to our citizens.

Sharing the job provides a bigger lens to view our cultural heritage.

It offers less risk of losing significant material and it lets us respond together so that we do not create any dark holes in our history.

So how do we preserve all this?

How do we maintain authenticity and trust?

As I look around at the myriad innovations that are in play here, I truly wonder how we will be able to keep up.

Every new technology forces us to adapt new solutions for acquiring, preserving and transferring across media.

Digital information can easily be copied, edited, moved and shared.

In this kind of landscape, the role of a national memory institution like mine, is to act as a kind of connector.

I liken our role to that of big data itself, which creates the links that allow us to see our world from a different perspective, or a drone, which flying over the landscape allows us to see patterns which would not be visible from the ground.

Big picture thinking.

The exchange of data which allows us to share roles and responsibilities.

Horizontal players rather than hierarchies.

It’s totally democratic.

And I truly think it works.

It is understandable that in this context the open government movement has grown up alongside the digital one.

A key aspect of our mandate requires that we act as the collective memory of the government Canada.

That is why, as part of our commitment to Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government, we are working to open doors through open information, open data, and open dialogue.

One approach we are using is “block review,” literally reviewing blocks of our existing holdings to see whether or not they can be made accessible under the Access to Information and Privacy Act.

Prior to block review, most government heritage was closed, marked restricted or restricted pending review by the departments which issued them.

Since introducing block review, we have opened more than ten million pages of Canadian government records.

These records document all aspects of Canadian public life, from our military history to the records of residential schools, from our diplomatic and trade relationships with foreign governments to celebrations of our founding as a nation.

And we are now working to see that the vast majority of government documents that arrive at LAC will already be open.

We call this initiative “open by default”, meaning free of access restrictions, while respecting policy and legal requirements.

And we are consulting with a number of government departments on the best ways to make government documentary heritage available in the future, building bridges between departments and between citizens and their government.

While ensuring that contemporary records of the Government of Canada are as accessible and available as possible, LAC must address the competing obligation of preserving the archival record while making it as available as possible.

One of the most outstanding contributions we have made to ensure that documentary heritage is available involves our First World War records.

The digitization of these records represents the largest digital preservation project ever attempted at LAC.

Once completed, we will provide access to 32 million images online, including medical records, diaries, photographs, and so on.

This is just one example of how we will be preserving our records using the best of digital technology.

Another example involves digitizing and describing collections of high-demand microfilm, roughly 63,000,000 pages of it, in partnership with the private sector.

We also have harvested web sites from the Government of Canada.

Between September 2013 and September 2014 we completed four complete crawls of the Government of Canada presence on the web.

To date we’ve amassed 88 million digital objects and more than 780 important domains.

We’re curating a web collection right now on the pending Canadian federal election, set for October, 19 which should make for some fascinating viewing.

And we’ve also captured non-government web sites on key topics like the Idle No More movement, which brought the needs of Canada’s aboriginal people to public attention, and the October 22, 2014 attack on Parliament Hill, our seat of government, by a lone gunman.

Sites like these form part of our vast digital collection, currently sized at over 4 petabytes and rapidly growing, so much so that, by 2020, it should be at 20 petabytes.

A good proportion of our digital collection is formed by resources from the web which are not available in any other medium.

The significance of preserving these kinds of dynamic records of our history is clear, as is the need to work together on making it happen.

But what about digital objects that are more elusive – such as digital art?

Digital art is not static but interactive, changing, and dependent on software and hardware which is modified or created by the artists.

It’s been referred to as “e-literature,” digital installation art, digital music and non-static digital photography or interactive film. 

These types of art present immense challenges.

Not only in terms of acquisition and preservation, but, given their technical complexity, even on how to ensure access to them in the future.

And while there is a lot of discussions in all the art areas, they tend to focus on different, limited aspects of different problems. 

Interesting boxes, but boxes all the same.

As a result, the complexity of preserving this kind of digital product is something no one has really solved. 

So we’re planning to hold a summit on acquiring and preserving complex digital art forms.

We will bring together experts in the field, including Canadian and international pioneers, who have shown real results and have developed concrete strategies.

We’ll be looking at new partnerships and ways of working together to solve the vital issue of preserving this aspect of our cultural heritage, fostering connections among all the players to create solutions to shared problems.

And by sharing the results of this summit beyond the immediate participants, we may generate new and unexpected solutions to other issues facing the digital world, including our own approach to digital preservation.

These kinds of opportunities abound, if we are ready to take advantage of them.

For example, LAC currently has many international activities on the go in a vast range of areas.

This includes multi-lateral engagements with NGOs, such as IFLA, the International Council of Archives, and UNESCO; strategic projects linked to the information community, such as PERSIST, and the Memory of the World project; and, finally, bilateral relations, with NARA and the Library of Congress, among others.

Let’s examine just one of these – our involvement in PERSIST.

The PERSIST initiative arose out of the Memory of the World conference held in Vancouver, in 2012, and the Vancouver Declaration on the preservation of digital heritage.

It’s a collaborative project of UNESCO, IFLA, ICA and other world partners to address all issues of digital preservation.

The idea is to create a high level global policy discussion among heritage institutions, industry and government.

LAC is heavily involved in PERSIST, namely through our participation in the task force on content.

One of the primary concerns of the task force is how digital content is selected.

What digital heritage should be preserved for the long term?

How should libraries, archives and museums select, identify and prioritize the digital material of most value to their stakeholders?

And how will they ensure that the authenticity of digital heritage is maintained?

Aside from the ideas stemming from the subject itself, PERSIST is interesting for another reason as well.

One of the first observations among PERSIST members was how diverse their perspectives really were.

For example, the museum community considered digital heritage to be primarily metadata about objects, rather than the objects themselves.

Librarians were more focussed on legal deposit, as well as the challenges of harvesting the web.

For them, selection was the key question, because of their tradition of comprehensive collecting.

Many libraries are not memory organizations either, having research mandates which don’t involve long term preservation.

And finally, archivists tended to raise issues of access and appraisal from a legal environment, confidentiality, the sensitivity of personal information, and other issues which were a priority for them, including questions about how criteria for the selection of digital material would differ from that of analog.

So even within memory institutions, there are significant differences in how the issues are understood and where they see the need for change.

Fascinating don’t you think?

I have no doubt that we can do more to participate in initiatives such as PERSIST.

We can share what we have learned about access by crossing the boundaries of disciplines and stakeholders, including the public sector, the private sector, profit and not-for-profit groups, government itself, and our users in the wider public.

Just off the top of my head I can think of at least 5 key access issues that could use some combined thinking:

  • Open government, and related privacy concerns
  • The Right to be Forgotten, a very hot button issue at the moment
  • Accessibility issues for persons with disabilities, flowing from the Marrakesh Treaty
  • Official languages, a major issue in Canada
  • Copyright and out of commerce works

These issues not only cross disciplines, countries, and governments, but legal and commercial frontiers as well.

The only way to solve them is by putting as many people together, from as many different areas as possible.

Again, a national organization like ours is in a good spot to make this happen.

Just think of our chairmanship of the International Internet Preservation Consortium and of our involvement in InterPARES.

As you all know, the InterPARES Project is a major international research initiative in which archival scholars, computer engineering scholars, national archival institutions and private industry representatives are collaborating to develop the knowledge required for the permanent preservation of e-records.

This research is urgently needed as the IT revolution has dramaticallyaltered the way in which governments, corporations and individuals communicate.

As a result, many records that would have traditionally been created and preserved on paper are now in electronic form.

However, our capacity to preserve these records over the long haul, and to maintain their authenticity, is challenged on a number of fronts.

Governments, industries, researchers, and private citizens must all get involved to find solutions. 

The issue affects accountability, productivity, commerce and our fundamental ability to use records as reliable sources of information.

InterPARES tackles the "electronic records problem" in a comprehensive, collaborative manner.

And LAC is involved in InterPARES as a collaborating institution, both at the strategic level and at the ground level.

It’s an ongoing commitment, covering off areas as diverse as open government and open data, life in the cloud, metadata, the legal side of preservation policies, and a variety of recordkeeping issues.

The variety and complexity of areas covered through the work of InterPARES illustrate the fact that the digital world is a complicated one, with its own specialized vocabulary and concepts.

A lot of people don’t understand how digital technology works, but only how it works for them.

Most of us still process information in a decidedly analogue way, but the world we inhabit is more and more digital.

Finding solutions to the problems this world presents sometimes means simplifying the problem.

For example, if part of the issue is the sheer volume of digital material being produced, then the broad problem has to be – how do we select what has value?

As you can imagine, there are a great many actors in this social discourse.

Lots of people want their two cents included.

At LAC, it is an issue we have been tackling for some time.

A key challenge for memory organizations in the digital age is making a decision: do we keep everything and develop a method for access, or do we continue selecting what to keep?

And if we go with the latter, how do we decide?

Tom Branton, the head of the National Security Archive in the US, talks about a new collection posture: sniff it all, know it all, collect it all, process it all, exploit it all, and partner it all.

But is this realistic for most of us?

Is it going to be useful to future generations of scholars and graduate students?

The current environment is characterized by an explosion of information in all its forms, especially digital.

New media is transforming the expectations of our users faster than we can keep up with it.

We’ve had to completely revamp our traditional approach to acquisition, preservation and access, because in the digital age they don’t happen in sequence anymore.

The functions are simultaneous.

This changes everything.

In response, we’ve developed an approach to evaluation that helps us to pull out what has meaning and value from a crowded mass of information, and which best reflects Canadian society.

The new approach looks at all three functions at once, using concepts such as national significance, sufficiency, sustainability, and suitability.

And it provides a frame of reference for LAC to sift through a growing amount of information to identify and acquire documentary heritage of enduring value for present and future generations of Canadians.

At its heart is a series of threads which form a kind of societal web, a window into social memory in the making, and a means of explaining to a wider public why we do what we do.

We are even using a new kind of software allowing us to do “Societal Listening,” which combines both traditional and social media monitoring to identify key influences in Canadian society.

I’d like to return for a moment to my earlier thoughts about communication and connection, and the need to bring a variety of people together to seek new ways to preserve our uniquely digital memory.

As we continually look for new ways to communicate electronically, which seems to be as natural as breathing, we sometimes create new problems, and solving them may be complicated.

Here is a case in point: 2015 is the first year that the Pew Research Centre has surveyed mobile messaging apps as a separate kind of activity from cell phone texting.

According to this survey, 36 per cent of smartphone owners, and there are millions of them in Canada, reported using messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Kik, or iMessage, and 17 per cent use apps such as Snapchat or Wickr that automatically delete sent messages.

Automatically deletes sent messages!

This is the kind of thing that sends cold shivers down an archivist’s back!

How are we going to capture this fleeting reality?

It is one of the major dilemmas facing all memory institutions, and it needs composite thinking to get it right.

Composite thinking and innovation.

As you know, innovation labs are a hot topic right now, and there are a variety of them in memory organizations around the world.

For example, there are labs at the British Library and in the National Archives of Australia.

And there are the Gallica labs in France.

The idea of a nimble, experimental place where new ideas and approaches can be explored from a variety of perspectives will surely yield some interesting results.

Nimble experiments and innovative ideas have helped us at LAC to develop our digital strategy, introduced in July 2015.

The goal is to ensure that we can acquire, preserve, and provide appropriate access to our digital collection. 

The pulsing heart of this strategy is the digital curation initiative, or DCI.

DCI brings together an entire collection of coordinated, concrete and targeted projects at LAC, everything from metadata to procurement, and from collection management to the creation of a Trusted Digital repository.

And although it’s led by the technology group, it includes all parts of LAC, and all kinds of expertise.

The DCI is designed to provide the technology we need, to ensure that our collections include new forms of born-digital heritage, such as data and web, to digitize analogue parts of our collection based on use and popularity, as well as preservation needs, and to ensure that all our holdings include comprehensive metadata which is continuously being enriched and updated.

Ultimately, it will mean that Canadians have access to content from our holdings and from other collections across a network of institutions, not just LAC.

Canada’s National Research Council, in a recent report on the future of knowledge, pointed out that:

“Connecting and sharing of information across organizational and global boundaries raises the productivity of knowledge workers by 20-25 per cent, through streamlining communication and collaboration, breaking down silos and extending a company’s knowledge and expertise networks.”

Eventually, more of our activities will translate into economic value.

As you know, a great deal of work is going on right now to try and measure the “value” of libraries and archives, though I think most of us grasp this on an intuitive level anyway.

I started out by pointing out the significance of connection for a national memory organization, and in support of that idea I have mentioned a lot of concepts such as open government, open data, crowdsourcing, web archiving, digitization strategies, innovation labs, digital preservation, and so on.

So how do we define leadership in this environment, as a national memory organization?

What does it mean to manage what the British Library has referred to as “living knowledge,” or the “rise of the living data,” as the Canadian NRC report puts it?

There is no single answer, any more than there is a single definition of a record in today’s world.

But I would argue that the first step is to set aside the traditional boundaries inside and outside our organizations and talk to as many people as possible.

In this way we mirror the dynamic world of digital itself, which opens itself to anyone keen enough to explore it and learn, and which can re-create knowledge in bold and unexpected ways.

Thank you.

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