Library leadership in a sea of change


International Association of University Libraries (IATUL) speech, Halifax
Conference theme: Library leadership in a sea of change
Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
June 6, 2016
The speech was delivered in English. Check against delivery.

First, let me thank Donna Bourne-Tyson for inviting me to give this keynote.

Her invitation was most generous, although I’m not sure I’m worthy of it.

Donna is such an inspiring leader in the world of Canadian libraries that, when she asked me to speak on leadership, it felt like Placido Domingo was asking me to sing an aria.

But out of friendship and admiration, I agreed to give it a try.

I saw an interesting article on leadership recently, in The New Yorker.

Editor Joshua Rothman wrote that "For leadership to exist, a leader must cross paths with a crisis." .

Otherwise, a leader remains simply "a custodian of potential." .

I think we can all agree that libraries have faced their share of crises, especially in the last few years.

The rise of e-books and apps, the emergence of Google and Wikipedia, the ease and speed of getting digital information without even having to leave the house—these were all seen as nails in the library's coffin.

Yet, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumours of our demise were greatly exaggerated.

Here we are. Surviving. Even thriving.

Libraries, like the magnificent public library here in Halifax, speak volumes about the importance we continue to place on them.

So how have libraries done it?.

What are the qualities that have kept libraries relevant?.

And what is the leadership secret that's kept us alive? .

Let's start with the landscape.

The digital world has challenged the very notion of what it means to lead.

Leadership is no longer vertical, because neither is the world.

Today's world is made of networks, partnerships, collaborations and connections.

It puts collective knowledge and information in shared and collaborative spaces, like Instagram and YouTube.

And it means that information flows in all directions -- up, down, across and sideways.

Libraries have to respond to the constant flow of data and resources beyond their doors with innovation and courage.

And also with leadership that resides in a network of people, rather than in a single person or organization.

The Digital Public Library of America is a good case in point.

The DPLA provides free online access to over 14 million items from libraries, archives, museums and universities across the United States.

It started with 500 contributing institutions, and, in a mere three years since it was launched, that number has shot up to over 2,000.

Among the contributors -- the Smithsonian Institution, the Boston Public Library, the Hathi Trust, the New York Public Library and Harvard..

Access to this highly digitized content is only possible when a network gets involved.

Robert Darnton, Librarian Emeritus at Harvard and one of the chief spokespersons for the DPLA, describes it as being:.

“….an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives and museums, in order to educate, inform and empower everyone in current and future generations.”.

Educate, inform and empower.

These sound like the pillars of a great library.

And the DPLA demonstrates that amazing things can happen when people, resources and expertise come together.

One of the reasons it has been so successful is that its leadership is horizontal.

Six working groups across the United States tackled the initial start-up, and the process of moving it forward continues to be a collective process.

DPLA only has 15 staff to manage everything.

It’s the opposite of a traditional hierarchy.

And it’s redefining the way we look at libraries, and at information.

Thomas Jefferson said that “The field of knowledge is the common property of mankind.”.

Sentiments like these are near and dear to a librarian’s heart.

Librarians devote a good deal of their working lives to putting this common knowledge into people’s hands.

Traditionally, this has meant finding and recommending the right book, and loaning it out.

The choices made by libraries were fairly straightforward.

National libraries kept copies of everything issued by publishing houses—books, newspapers, journals.

They paid no attention to anything that was self-published, and considered such works to be of no interest.

After all, if the publishing houses didn’t want them, why should they?.

But it’s more complicated today.

Nowadays the number of publications doubles every two years.

Self-publishing platforms like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing are becoming more popular and are a significant part of the market.

New conversations are happening on Twitter and Facebook, creating a free-flowing cultural exchange in real time.

Many publications—like my own daily, La Presse, The Christian Science Monitor, and a whole range of scientific journals—are only available in digital format.

To stay relevant, we have to face the new reality and even be ahead of the curve.

Journals, research, big data, scholarly information, databases, blogs, podcasts, and so on.

What’s harder to come by is help finding the right information among this vast accumulation of data.

And finding librarians who understand how the Web works, and what resources are out there.

The ones who make it easier for users to find what they need, by creating the right tools.

A case in point: in March, the Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CRKN) launched the Canadian National Heritage Index.

This index will cover digital collections from across Canada, and create a single, current list of all Canadian digitization projects.

It will be the first of its kind in Canada.

According to the network’s Executive Director, Clare Appavoo, it will mean: .

“A single point of contact for any Canadian who wishes to access the collective digitized heritage of our nation.” .

The Index is the kind of service that can only result from combining the efforts of libraries, archives and other memory institutions to create something that users want.

I am proud to say it was funded in part by LAC’s Documentary Heritage Communities Program.

Under this program, which we launched last year, heritage organizations, including privately funded libraries and archives, can apply for help to preserve and showcase their collections.

In the first year, we gave funding to 65 organizations, including the Canadian Knowledge Research Network, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, and other members of the library community.

And this year, in the second round of the program, we received 155 applications and I’ll announce the 38 winners on June 14, in Quebec City.

Needless to say, a great many of these applications are for digitization projects.

There’s no doubt that funding is important, but achieving successful leadership in the field of digital information is about much more than money.

It’s about creating strategies that build on the contributions of many players.

And that maximize the capacities of our memory institutions.

All over the world libraries are developing digital strategies to provide online access to their collections.

The National Library of New Zealand has developed DigitalNZ with almost 200 partners, offering a portal to their digital content.

These partners include government, universities, the cultural sector, communities, and the media.

The infographic on the portal sums it up nicely: .

People and organizations contribute content. We store information about the content and provide access. Content is easier to find, share and use. .

It sounds simple and it is.

A single point of contact for multiple sources of information.

In Sweden, they’ve set up Digisam, a secretariat to help national heritage institutions develop their own digital strategies, in a coordinated way.

Another example is Bookshelf, a project between the Norwegian National Library and Kopinor.

Kopinor is a Norwegian organization which represents the copyright holders of published works.

Bookshelf provides online access to roughly 250,000 books published in the 20th century to anyone who has a Norwegian IP address.

In 2012, they reported over 200 million hits and downloads from the website.

So the demand is there. We know it.

When LAC published data from the 1921 census online, we got 40 million hits within the first 90 days.

That information was used to complete countless family trees in Canada, the US, the United Kingdom, France and beyond.

When I took up my position, 2 years ago, I realized the importance of having a digitization strategy for Canada.

And so, with our stakeholders we have been reviewing models and best practices from around the world to develop our strategy.

I am very proud to tell you that we just launched the Canadian Heritage Digitization Strategy before an international panel in Ottawa last Friday.

The strategy covers books, periodicals, newspapers, government records, theses, artefacts, photographs, documentary art, film and video, maps, audio recordings, and more.

It will draw on a rich pool of analogue collections from libraries, public and private archives, museums and galleries, non-profit organizations, corporations and other memory institutions.

I am especially proud of the fact that this strategy has allowed LAC to walk the talk in terms of horizontal leadership.

It was developed collectively, and it will be run, collectively.

The steering committee which will oversee the strategy will include creators, writers, cultural communities, end users, as well as representatives from libraries, archives, universities, historical societies, museums, galleries, and the private and not-for-profit sectors.

In addition, a broad-based national secretariat will:

  • Develop an inventory of existing digitization projects and systems to identify gaps
  • Develop and determine future requirements in the area of standards and share them with the community
  • Create a collaborative portal ensuring access to digitized sources
  • Compile and share best practices
  • Raise awareness of funding opportunities

I am very excited about what this strategy will mean for Canadians and for the library community.

I think it’s clear that the power of networks can be harnessed to digitize vast amounts of material.

In fact LAC has been working closely with to do just that. is an NGO that was created in 2008, by LAC, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, and Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

LAC has supported the work of this organization for many years, so that important Canadian historical collections could be digitized.

The large scale partnership means that some 60 million images from a number of collections, including land grants, war diaries and photographs, will all go online.

As of today, has already digitized 35 million pages of archival material from microfilm.

We’ve also been working with Ancestry, which leads the world in the field of digitization.

Ancestry websites provide access to over 18 billion genealogical records.

Working in partnership with LAC, Ancestry was able to digitize and index 11 archival collections, representing 3 million pages online.

New partnerships with and Ancestry are now under way, for newspaper reels and certificates of military instruction.

Partnerships like these deliver the best chance we have of digitizing a vast range of historical documents.

The upshot is that Canadians have access to the content they want, wherever they live, wherever they work.

And on any device they choose.

Libraries, which are leaders in this sea of change, need to connect their users to the information they seek.

And since information is everywhere, doing so is no mean feat.

It’s important for libraries to see themselves as part of a broader information network.

This means that digital literacy has to be part of the librarian’s toolkit.

And that tech-savvy, digital librarians need to work side by side with more traditional print librarians.

This is an area we have worked on at LAC.

Currently, there are more than two hundred professionals at LAC who have been trained either as archivists or librarians.  .

While a large number continue to provide leadership within their discipline, others have transferred their knowledge and skills to other areas within our organization.

For example, communications, IT, programs, services, policy, and management.

The digital world creates exciting opportunities for the librarian who is prepared to rethink his or her part in the digital world.

Those who will seek out new ways to make information accessible.

Who will gather and organize digital information in ways that users want and value.

As an interesting sidebar to this, I am fascinated by the fact that many of today’s students still point to the traditional reading room as their favourite place in the university library—the room whose walls are filled with books.

Books they will probably never take out.

Perhaps it’s because here, in the intersection of old and new, scrolling through their tablets and their smartphones, yet sensing history all around them, they find their place.

The place from which they acknowledge the past, and get ready to move ahead to the future.

Many of the librarians and archivists who work at LAC bring the perspective of several disciplines with them.

They specialize in Canadian Studies, Literary Theory, Public Text, Near-Eastern Studies, Linguistics, Art History, etc.

And, increasingly, they bring skills to the table related to information science and digital technology.

Librarians with graduate degrees in library science who are also subject matter specialists in another field bring a vital research perspective to the work, and this is essential for building collections and providing services for users.

For example, one of the most cutting-edge units at LAC is the one that looks after web harvesting, including the collection of Government of Canada websites.

This unit curates thematic web collections on topics ranging from the Keystone Pipeline, to Fort McMurray, to the 2014 attack on Parliament Hill.

It provides strategic advice on digital library and archival assets for the Government of Canada, the public and universities.

It wrestles with issues such as how you determine the authenticity of a digital record.

And it’s run by a team of librarians and archivists, working side by side, in a distinctly digital area.

Libraries need to make sure that the skills and methodologies from the analogue world are transformed for the digital one.

And that the librarians of tomorrow have the capacity to spot what has value in a vast heap of data! .

Because the sheer volume of information created digitally means that the decisions we make as a community will have profound implications for the libraries of the future.

The need to marry different disciplines, skills and perspectives is one of the main reasons we signed two unique agreements with the University of Ottawa and Dalhousie University last year.

The idea was to share expertise, knowledge and technology, as well as support research and outreach activities.

These agreements are the first to be signed with Canadian universities that have an interest in sharing expertise with LAC.

Partnerships like these position our institutions at the cutting edge of library and archival sciences.

And they mean that researchers and graduate students will enjoy greater access to LAC resources and staff to support their work—especially in the humanities and social sciences.

One of the most tangible successes resulting from our MOU with Dalhousie was the Halifax Recordkeeping Day, held at Dalhousie University on March 22.

This one-day event was held in conjunction with the Treasury Board Secretariat and Dalhousie, and was intended for all members of the Government of Canada Information Management community as well as students and faculty of the School of Information Management.

By all accounts it was a great success.

Eight presentations were given, from Treasury Board, LAC, the Canada School of Public Service and the Dalhousie University School of Information Management.

We’ve also worked closely with Ottawa U to organize a number of interesting events, including

  • a panel discussion on the 100th anniversary of Canadian women acquiring the right to vote, with the Minister Responsible for the Status of Women
  • a conference on what it means to be Métis, and
  • a panel discussion on the citizens of tomorrow

And this is just the beginning.

In the digital age, it’s the library users who decide what they want, what they need, and where to get it.

In a very real sense, they determine our value.

How can we help to shape, and communicate our value to, the world?.

I like to think that libraries, especially communities of libraries, develop like great cities.

Lewis Mumford, in his classic work, The City in History, writes that: .

From its origins onward, the city may be described as a structure specially equipped to store and transmit the goods of civilization.”.

Among those goods of civilisation we find knowledge, of course.

As goods move about within the city, the city grows and changes and defines its own unique character.

The more these goods are freely exchanged the better the city functions and grows.

One can imagine libraries and the knowledge community growing the same way,

  • from large networks like UNESCO, which look at the impact of information on a global scale…
  • …to more focused international groups like IATUL, IFLA, the ICA, and ICOM, which translate these impacts to their members…
  • …to national organizations like  CARL, and CULC, working to share information
  • …to government departments and agencies like LAC,  that play a unique role as national institutions

How does leadership play out in this broader network?.

This year I have the honour of chairing the National Libraries section of IFLA.

National libraries have special responsibilities, often defined in law, within a nation's library and information environment.

These responsibilities vary from country to country.

As a matter of fact, my section of IFLA is currently conducting a survey to capture all of the functions of national libraries.

What I think you might be interested in is the strategic plan for the IFLA National Libraries Section, for 2015 to 2017.

It adheres to IFLA’s overall direction, by focussing on:  .

-defining our activities, so that governments can better understand what we do.

-encouraging access to collections through digitization, access policies and social    media, and  .

-working together with cultural heritage partners to promote open access to national heritage.

To me, these read like opportunities regarding how we work together as a community.

By bringing library issues to the table in discussions both inside and outside government.

And supporting the open exchange of information at all levels.

Creating the right conditions for the kind of collaborative leadership I spoke about at the beginning.

Adding our voices collectively as part of a broader library community—academic libraries, NGOS, public libraries and the private sector.

With a sense of common purpose, and the collective wisdom and experience to lead.

Leadership for libraries in the digital age also means learning a new language.

We know how to brag about our analogue collections.

But I think what we need to do now is translate and articulate a digital vision of information and access in a way that people can understand.

For example, I speak regularly about our 22 million books, 3 million maps, 30 million photographs, 550,000 hours of audio and video recordings, and our collection of 425,000 works of art, the largest collection of Canadian documentary art in the world.

But it’s only recently I have started to talk about our 5 petabytes of digital content.

Even at that, how many people know what a petabyte is? How much is a million megabytes? How big is that?.

What does it mean? .

Four petabytes is equal to 4 billion e-copies of War and Peace!.

But the analogy still relies heavily on a grasp of the analogue world.

War and Peace. A giant brick of a book.

We see it in our mind’s eye.

We don’t yet have the same shorthand for the world of the digital library.

And we are going to need it, to be effective leaders going forward.

I spoke about the value of libraries recently, at the IFLA President’s meeting.

The value of libraries may seem obvious to us, but libraries still need to demonstrate their value, and often that means economic value.

Good work has already been done in this area.

Surveys of library users, circulation statistics, the study of the growth of businesses located next to libraries – for example the Knowledge Quarter around the British Library – and the willingness to pay for library services are some of the methods that have been used to demonstrate the value of libraries.

With the Canadian Museums Association and other stakeholders from libraries and archives, we are planning to hold a summit on the value of memory institutions at the end of November or the beginning of December 2016.

We will be putting out a call for papers soon, so please stay tuned.

Still, it’s hard to put a dollar value on freedom gained by accessing information.

Yet, if we speak about this value with a united voice, we stand a better chance of being heard.

The Chief Librarian of the British Library, Caroline Brazier, made some very interesting remarks about the value of libraries at a conference she gave in Ottawa just a few weeks ago.

She talked about three types of value:

  • intrinsic, created by capturing and preserving the national memory
  • instrumental, by using our collections and services to support economic, educational and social development, and
  • institutional, being as creative and innovative as we can in providing people with the highest quality services we can achieve

She was talking about national libraries, but I think we can apply this to all sorts of libraries, including university libraries.

I came across some remarks the other day by my colleague David Fricker, the Director General of Australia’s National Archives.

He said that how we manage information is what creates value.

We create value by building strategies that connect the user to information, ensuring that tomorrow’s librarians understand digital resources, listening carefully to what users want, and participating in networks that span the world, both physically, and virtually.

This is the kind of collective thinking that will enable us to cross the path of whatever crises the future has in store, not as “promising custodians of potential,” to quote Joshua Rothman again, but as leaders in the world of information.

Thank you.

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