Saving the world: one record at a time


Speech by Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Delivered at the Canada School of Public Service, Ottawa, Ontario
May 30, 2016
The speech was delivered in English. Check against delivery

Good afternoon, and welcome.

Today I am going to debunk some of the myths you may have heard about Library and Archives Canada.

To demystify who we are and what we do.

And in the process, I want to leave you with a greater understanding of one of Canada’s most treasured, yet misunderstood government agencies.

First of all, let me tell you about LAC today.

Our mandate is broad, and comprehensive:

  • 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.

We achieve this through a variety of programs and services that meet the needs of our clients, our stakeholders and our partners.

We are responsible for:

  • maintaining legal deposit, by which two copies of everything published in Canada are deposited with us;
  • deciding which government records are of archival and historical value, and providing disposition authorities for records which no longer have operational value;
  • maintaining the national union catalogue, which contains over 25 million bibliographic descriptions, location and holdings information from hundreds of Canadian libraries;
  • developing national and international standards in the area of archival and library science; and
  • running the Documentary Heritage Communities Program, to support documentary heritage communities across the country. 

Our services include:

  • access to information, so that Canadians can get the information they want from the federal government;
  • reference services for those who consult our documents, including journalists, researchers, students, professors, and the public in general; and
  • services to publishers, such as international standard book numbers (ISBN) and the cataloguing in publication service (CIP).

These are vital programs and important services, but there is more.

We are also the stewards of a vast collection of digital and analogue records.

Let’s take a quick look at this collection:

  • 22 million books, the weight of 43 blue whales!
  • 250 kilometres of text records, which, lined up, would take us from here to the very edge of the earth’s atmosphere!
  • 3 million maps, plans and architectural drawings, which equates to the number of leaves on 12 oak trees!
  • 30 million photographs, almost as many photos as there are people in Canada!
  • 550,000 hours of audio and video recordings, enough to keep you occupied for the next 63 years!
  • 5 billion megabytes of digital content!
  • a copy of every stamp issued by Canada Post!
  • a unique collection of medals! and
  • the largest collection of Canadian documentary art in the world, with over 425,000 works, including sculptures, illustrations from children’s books, comic books, political posters and iconic portraits.

Storing all this safely is no mean feat, as you can imagine.

The buildings which house our collection are almost as impressive as the collection itself.

The Preservation Centre in Gatineau, with its 48 vaults and modern conservation labs is a world-class, state-of-the-art facility.

Our Nitrate Facility has won numerous awards for its green design, and it is the only one in Canada for the long-term storage of nitrate films and negatives.

We also opened a facility in Gatineau which features the latest in high-density storage.

Our national newspaper collection is there, as well as military files from the veterans of the Second World War.

We also have offices in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Winnipeg and Burnaby, B.C.

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

It was a bold idea. Revolutionary, even.

The Public Archives of Canada was founded back in 1872, as a branch of the Department of Agriculture!

The National Archives was responsible for government records, but also for private archives, documentary art, photographs, maps, audiovisual materials, medals, and even globes.

As for the National Library, it was created in 1953.

By putting them together, the creators of Library and Archives Canada launched a brand new kind of knowledge organization.

With a mandate for collecting an amazing range of material, both published and unpublished, digital and analogue, public and private, and in all kinds of media.

An organization that would combine two disciplines—library and archival—and be fully equipped to respond to the information demands of the 21st century.

Integrating expertise and technology…

And offering seamless service to an increasingly seamless world.

Like all great ideas though, its birth was not without problems.

By being both a national library and a national archives, as well as a government agency, LAC had a unique opportunity…

…to question the old way of doing things, to find new routes to deliver its mandate, and to document a society in flux.

It also had the opportunity to make a few mistakes along the way, since there were no other models to follow.

LAC has been forging a new and untested path, with the inevitable trial and errors that go with it.

But we are constantly learning. 

Belgium, the Netherlands and New Zealand have tried to merge their national libraries and archives, and they have all failed.

Singapore did it in 2012, and by all accounts, it seems to be a success.

LAC’s mandate reflects both the National Library and the National Archives, including the collection of our documentary heritage and the management of information within the federal government.

But it goes even further.

The most significant aspect of the combined mandate was to make Canada’s documentary heritage more accessible to Canadians.

But amalgamation was not an easy process. First of all, it meant the marriage of two very different cultures: library and archival.

For some who had worked in the National Library, it meant the erosion of a distinct public identity, which had been many years in the making.

And for those in the National Archives, it meant more emphasis on standardized practices, and public access to holdings.

We may have pushed them a little too far, trying to make librarians and archivists interchangeable, without enough regard for their individual expertise.

So this year we reorganized our operations sector, with a view to harmonizing the disciplines, rather than trying to make their distinctions disappear.

We put together five main branches: published heritage, private archives, government records, public services and preservation.

What may be of interest to you is the decision-making process that led up to it.

We consulted with LAC managers and directors, we met with employees (over 340 out of 1,000) and we got more than 160 emails from staff with suggestions and ideas.

We also consulted with our Stakeholders Forum, and our consultative committees.

In the Government Records Branch, we now have archivists who are linked to specific departments, so that there are clear points of contact and sources of information.

Records are everywhere…on our home and work computers, our mobile devices, on websites and in databases, and on social media.

And they are in constant flux.

At LAC we face the same challenge that all government agencies and departments face in the 21st century: how to manage our records while still providing access.

In 2014, 24 million Canadians owned cell phones. That does not mean that Canadians spend all their time talking!

Eighty per cent of these phones were smart phones, used mostly with apps rather than for voice communication.

And according to the latest Pew Research Study, 65% of adults now use social networking sites, a tenfold jump in the past decade alone.

And it’s not just young people: 35% of people 65 and older reported using social media, compared with only 2% in 2005.

The sprawling network of connections we call the 21st century is redefining how governments provide their services.

And it means that an agency like Library and Archives Canada has to make choices which are both pragmatic and informed.

We can’t always foresee the changes happening down the line, or how people will adapt to them. And we can’t embrace every new technology that comes along.

So we need to share our resources and expertise, as well as experience, with as many partners as possible.

This is one reason we developed a three-year plan as a roadmap for LAC’s activities until 2019.

The plan is based on an analysis of 12 major trends in the information world, and on consultations with our clients, our stakeholders and our employees.

It is interesting to note that 7 of the 12 trends are related to IT, from mobile apps to long-term digital preservation.  

To develop a plan that reflected a wide range of needs, we conducted four focus groups and a town hall meeting; posted a survey on our website; held five employee consultation sessions; and had a formal discussion with 12 Canadian professional associations—our major stakeholders.

When we asked survey respondents to rank LAC activities in terms of priority, 54% said “to provide access to the collections.”

So we listened.

We made access the number one goal of our three-year plan.

The plan reflects LAC’s four commitments:

  • To serve all our clients;
  • To be at the leading edge of library and archival science;
  • To engage proactively with national and international networks; and
  • To have greater public visibility.

So, our first priority is to ensure that we are fully dedicated to serving all our clients.

This includes academics, researchers, archivists, librarians, students, the Government of Canada, donors, genealogists and the general public.

We post as much content as possible on social media, and digitize our collection so that more goes online for Canadians to use.

One of our main projects is to digitize our First World War records.

In fact, this is the largest digital preservation project ever attempted at LAC.

You will be interested to know that Frederick Banting, who discovered insulin, Raymond Chandler, the creator of the famous detective Philip Marlowe, and even hockey legend, one-eyed Frank McGee all served in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) in the First World War.

We are digitizing their service files, along with 640,000 others.

These are the complete records of all the men and women who served in the Great War.

Once the project is finished, some 32 million images will be available on LAC’s website for online research, offering access to our history never available before.

If you will allow me a sidebar, I’d also like to mention an unusual innovation that came about as a result of this work.

LAC wanted to use BancTec digital scanners to preserve fragile First World War documents.

Normally these scanners are used at banks to scan cheques.

Working with the company, LAC technicians adapted and redesigned the business machines to work with historical records.

They can now scan everything, from photos to onion-skin letters to medical charts, safely and directly to a preservation format.

LAC is the first organization in the world to use a BancTec scanner this way.

Some of our partners have also been digitizing our materials for us.

For example,, an NGO created by Canadian universities, digitized 35 million pages of archival material on microfilm.

This material includes immigration and land records, documents related to Canada’s Aboriginal history, documents from government departments, military history, and papers from a variety of prominent Canadians. digitized and indexed 11 archival collections for us, representing 3 million pages online.

We will also be putting more content on mobile interfaces to reach more people.

As you know, our website is already one of the top ten in government.

In 2015–2016, the LAC homepage was viewed almost 90 million times by more than 15 million visitors, who conducted over 800,000 searches!

But we think our website could be even more user-friendly, by optimizing search tools and making it easier for Canadians to discover their heritage.

The second priority of our three-year plan is to put us at the leading edge of archival and library science and new technologies.

For example, we are in the early stages of building a second state-of-the-art preservation centre in Gatineau, to preserve and provide access to our text records.

We are also developing a digital curation initiative, to provide the technology we need to collect new forms of digital heritage like data and web, and to ensure that we can preserve it.

We’re following a “buy and build” strategy to do it, realizing that now, as opposed to 15 or 20 years ago, we don’t need to build all our systems ourselves.

Increasingly, IT organizations around the world are turning to using the cloud and software services instead of doing everything themselves.  

So at LAC, we want to go out and buy the tools we need to help us ingest and process our digital heritage.

But we wanted to know exactly what was out there, so we put out an RFI and we met with 24 commercial vendors.

We asked these vendors to propose solutions that meet our digital needs, from the time material is taken in to its long-term preservation.

It’s been a great learning experience.

There are a lot of ideas out there, lots of different solutions, from big data to alternative storage options to complete end-to-end services.

But we also want to keep our own “secret sauce,” to showcase the unique nature of our collection.

So we are probably looking at an 80/20 model—80% we buy, and 20% we build—to match our particular needs.  

Public Services and Procurement Canada said the level of interest was extraordinary, and once we decide on the best options we will be able to share this information with other interested departments and external partners.

Another major IT project under way at LAC is the replacement of AMICUS with the services offered by OCLC, a global library cooperative that provides shared technology services for libraries.

Our third priority is to be proactively engaged in national and international networks.

Practically speaking, what this means is having LAC engage in innovative partnerships.

Partnerships with government, and with new players like academia, non-profit organizations, the private sector, and provincial and other public institutions, like public libraries.

We just announced one of these new partnerships, a co-location with the popular Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax.

Next January, LAC will be moving its Atlantic offices from an out-of-the-way industrial park in Dartmouth, to Pier 21, located in the heart of downtown Halifax.

This will mean that our clients will have easier access to our staff, and that Canadians will benefit from the services of both organizations in one central location.

We are on the verge of doing something similar in Vancouver, with the two sides of the country serving as bookends for LAC services.

And I am sure you have heard of another LAC partnership—with the Ottawa Public Library.

We’ve just created a joint steering committee to look into the idea of creating a new super-library in Ottawa.

An exceptional cultural hub for the city, with shared exhibition spaces and the scope to combine various services, such as genealogy.

It’s an exciting prospect.

Last year we also signed two agreements with the University of Ottawa and Dalhousie University to share expertise, knowledge and technology, as well as support research and outreach activities over the next five years.

I hope this trend will continue with other Canadian universities that have an interest in sharing expertise with LAC.

And last but not least, our partnership with the Toronto Public Library and the TD Group has enabled the TD Summer Reading Club to introduce the joy of reading to thousands of children at thousands of libraries across the country.

Our final priority is greater public visibility. This is the key to highlighting the value of our collection and services.

We will continue to loan out items from our collection so that larger audiences enjoy the thrill of discovering an original work of art, or a map, or one of Canada’s foundational documents, like the constitution—currently on loan to the Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg.

We will also expand the dynamic public programming we launched at 395 Wellington, which includes exhibitions, book launches and guest speakers.

I am especially excited about the current exhibition at 395 Wellington—Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity—a magnificent display of art by some of Canada’s best loved comic-book artists.

LAC is also contributing to major initiatives led by the Canadian Museum of History.

Over 50 items from LAC’s holdings will be featured in a range of exhibitions leading up to 2017.

As well as original art, maps and textual material on display in those temporary exhibitions, LAC will have a significant presence in the museum’s renewed Canada Hall.

For a slightly different take on things, we also have the Wallot-Sylvestre public lecture series, which brings in leading thinkers from the academic, public and private sectors.

As well, I have the good fortune to interview some of Canada’s most notable personalities.

The Signatures series is a chance to meet some of the Canadians who have given their archives to LAC for safekeeping, including journalist Sarah Jennings, and the Right Honourable Jean Chrétien, who was my guest on May 18.

And there is a lot more to come in the fall.

The digital age, with its democratic sharing of knowledge and information, challenges all governments.

The importance of listening and responding can’t be stressed enough.

This is a key aspect of open government, and Library and Archives Canada is an important player in translating the idea into a reality.

The current cabinet made open government a priority in the March budget, and it’s something that has an impact on everyone in this audience.

Let’s review our part in this equation, as the continuing memory of the Government of Canada.

We have multiple roles:

  • We are the custodians of our documentary heritage.
  • We are also responsible for establishing the criteria to meet the directive on open government, working with Treasury Board.
  • We are a government agency in our own right.

The release of data is really the starting point for all other open government activities.

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

And since we support the whole of government in how they manage their information resources, their data, we are right in the thick of it.

Again, working closely with Treasury Board.

It’s our goal to make sure that government records are made available as soon as possible, following Treasury Board policies.

To maximize the removal of restrictions on government information coming into LAC.

To open access to Government of Canada documents as soon and as much as possible.

We call it an “open by default” approach, one that is, free of access restrictions, while respecting policy and legal requirements.

The Directive on Making Government of Canada Records Available, which we developed, will be in place by 2018.

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

Under the new directive, most government records will be open for consultation from the time they are transferred to LAC.

The majority of the government’s documentary heritage already in our 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.

LAC is a key partner with TBS in the Open Government Strategy, but records management is about more than directives and processes.

It’s about building trust in government, supporting democracy, and creating informed and engaged citizens.

So how do we ensure the survival of government records, especially digital records, which can disappear as quickly as they are created?

And how do we ensure that people have access to them, both now and in the future?

The BBC ran a story last year 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.

The 2015 World Development Report issued by the World Bank group pointed out that transparency and accountability will be among the first casualties if we fail to manage digital records.

Canadians have a huge appetite for digital content.

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

As our Prime Minister has pointed out in his Open and Accountable Government Guide, “open government is good government.”

US Judge Keith Damon put it another way, when he said, “Democracy dies behind closed doors.”

In order to keep the doors of our democracy open, LAC maintains the record of our nation, and makes it accessible.

We’ve already had considerable success in meeting our commitments to Open Government.

We’ve opened up 18 million pages of government records for public consultation.

We’ve harvested 41 major domains with over 2.81 million digital assets, roughly 100 gigabytes of data.

We released 74 datasets to the Government of Canada Open Data Portal in 2015–2016.

And we’re developing a single online platform for federal science library services and collections, in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada.

I’d like to walk you through how we did it.

First of all, we introduced something called block review.

What this means is that we reviewed “blocks” of our existing holdings.

Let me give you an example.

Let’s say there are a hundred boxes of government records that are described as covering weather information from the 1950s.

The block review archivist goes over the finding aids, looks at the dates, considers the material that might be there, and asks for a sample to assess—maybe ten boxes.

He or she then asks questions like: Who created these files? What is their function? What do they cover?

Then one of our ATIP analysts reviews the sample ten boxes, according to ATIP legislation.

Once the analyst has assessed the sample ten boxes, and decided there is no risk to releasing the documents, a memo is sent to the ATIP coordinator and the balance of boxes are opened and made available for public consultation.

So when a researcher looking into climate change comes looking for weather information from the 1950s, all of this information is freely available.

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

Block review has enabled us to open 18 million pages of Canadian Government records this way, and make them available to the public.

One of our biggest challenges is the fact that we are the stewards of many historical records we did not create.

This means that we need to interpret open government requirements that were not designed with documentary holdings in mind.

For example, LAC has data that predate any present-day standards for format or metadata.

In some cases, data is stored in legacy systems. But LAC’s legacy systems and databases were not engineered to meet open data needs.

To address this, LAC developed a set of procedures to ensure dataset quality before publication.

This has allowed us to regularly release high-quality datasets to the open government portal, everything from census data to records of land grants.

As I mentioned, LAC released 74 datasets, including environmental observations, studies of immigrants and the results of Canadian elections.

We’ve also identified an additional 45 datasets for release in 2016–2017, and we are developing a strategy to review currently restricted datasets so they can be released for study on the Open Data Portal.

All of this work is done in consultation with other government departments–20 in fact–including TBS, Global Affairs Canada, the RCMP, Public Services and Procurement Canada, and Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

In 2015–2016, LAC archived 41 major departmental websites, in support of the TBS Web Renewal Initiative.

These sites belonged to 20 “Pathfinder” organizations that participated in a pilot migration to the domain. 

LAC has made these web resources available by re-launching the Government of Canada Web Archive.

I actually think the term “archiving” here is a bit misleading: what it means is that we collect information stored on the Web, store it, preserve it, and make it available for future study.

In 2016–2017, LAC will collect the federal web presence for the fifth time since 2005, and work toward providing access to these resources through the archive.

We’ve also captured non-government web sites on topics such as Fort McMurray 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 4 petabytes and rapidly growing. In case you’re wondering, 4 petabytes is the equivalent of 3 billion electronic copies of War and Peace, or, if you are younger than me, 2 billion copies of the first three tomes of Millennium.

I am also proud of our work with the Federal Science Library Initiative, which will allow Canadians to access government science and library collections using a system similar to Google.

We have a dedicated LAC manager who sits on the Federal Science Library steering committee, offering guidance and support.

She is also on the lookout for opportunities to expand the model to other information domains, like law libraries.

This is an area where I think we can make a substantial contribution as a member of the federal family—looking for synergies and seeing which new approaches can be picked up throughout government.

For example, LAC Direct, an innovative platform we developed that could provide other government departments and agencies, and their external stakeholders, with a secure collaborative workspace.

We’ve been using LAC Direct to connect with our stakeholders since 2012.

And now, in concert with Treasury Board, we are leading a pilot to find out the needs of other departments that are interested in using this platform.

Working with Treasury Board, we are also building on our role as the permanent repository of published information of the Government of Canada.

The Open Information Portal will mean that Canadians will have a completely one-stop searchable collection of all government information.

This might be a good time to talk about our Digital by 2017 initiative.

I imagine most of you have heard the phrase.

But there is some confusion about what it means.


  • 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.
  • Paper and other non-digital materials identified as archival will continue to be accepted, as long as they are produced.

Where confusion sometimes arises is for non-digital records of archival value created after 2017, things like maps and signed treaties. I’d like to reassure you that LAC will continue to accept these in paper format.

Since we’re talking about the future, there is a third open government action plan set to launch in July.

LAC will be contributing to it by:

  • increasing access to historical government information through the “Open Archives Initiative;”

(The OAI is an organization which works to ensure the interoperability of the web. For example, universities that contribute theses to us must make sure they meet OAI standards for metadata and so on.)

  • continuing block review and web archiving;
  • digitizing inventories and information of national interest, like cabinet agendas and documents, scientific research, and records of ministers’ offices; and
  • consulting with Canadians about which collections should be digitized first.

LAC will also continue to work with partners on the Government of Canada Open Information Portal, the one-stop government information shop I mentioned earlier.

One message I hope you take away from all this is that that our work at LAC takes place at the very heart of the digital revolution.

With a little help from our partners we can realize the vision of a fully digitally-enabled institution that engages Canadians with their documentary heritage, as part of a global movement towards open government and a shared democratic system.

Thank you.

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