Rethinking the Role of Libraries and Archives and Museums in the Age of Google

Speech

University of Manitoba: Colloquium, Department of History 

February 28, 2017

Winnipeg, Manitoba

 

Good afternoon.

Thank you so much for inviting me.

As you may know I have spent most of my life in academia and whenever I have the chance to talk with faculty and students once again, I think it’s a gift.

Special thanks to Dr. Tom Nesmith for giving me this opportunity.

First, let me acknowledge the Treaty 1 and Métis peoples on whose traditional land we are gathered.

The 150th anniversary of Confederation is a unique occasion for Canadians to get to know themselves.

We are at a significant juncture in our history.

The concept of two "founding" peoples that held sway for the longest part of our history has been greatly enhanced over the years.

The First Nations, the Métis and the Inuit are finally acknowledged as essential to the Canadian identity.

Moreover, the arrival in large numbers of new Canadians from all walks and conditions of life calls for a fundamental redefinition of Canadian identity, the hallmark of which has become inclusion and diversity.

Institutions like Library and Archives Canada (LAC), which act as the custodians of our distant past and our recent history, take on a new relevance.

The stories that illustrate where we come from and where we are going are found on our shelves, on our walls, on our screens, and in our display cases.

What better time to share our stories than right now.

Allow me to say a few words about my institution before going further.

The Dominion Archives of Canada was founded in 1872.

And it was founded as a branch of the Department of Agriculture!

It went on to become the National Archives in 1987.

In 1953, the National Library was created, a little late in comparison with other national libraries in the rest of the world.

For example, the National Library of France was founded in 1537, the Library of Congress in 1800, and the National Central Library of the United Kingdom in 1916.

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

It arose from 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.

We are the only G-20 country with this kind of combined national institution.

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

Singapore did it in 2012, and so far they have been successful.

LAC’s mandate is broad and comprehensive:

  • to preserve the documentary heritage of Canada; 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.

We are responsible for:

  • maintaining legal deposit of all published heritage from and about Canada, in which two copies of everything published in Canada is deposited with us
  • determining 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 catalog, 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, which funds projects that increase access to and awareness of Canada’s local heritage.

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 collections, including journalists, researchers, students, professors, and the public in general, and
  • services for publishers, such as International Standard Book Number (ISBN) and Cataloguing in Publication (CIP).

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

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

Let’s have a quick look at this collection from the video I showed you earlier:

  • 22 million books, the weight of 43 blue whales!
  • 250 kilometres of text records, which, lined up would take us from Winnipeg, arguably the centre of the universe, to the very edge of the earth’s atmosphere!
  • 3 million maps
  • 30 million photographs, one for every person living in Canada ... or almost
  • 550,000 hours of audio and video recordings, enough to keep you occupied for the next 63 years
  • an archive of all the stamps issued by Canada Post since its creation
  • a unique collection of medals
  • and the largest collection of Canadian documentary art in the world, with over 425,000 works, including sculptures, illustrations from children’s books, comic books, political posters and iconic portraits.

With all of these facts in mind, you might think you know what a national library and a national archives does.

But it’s time to look again.

Look again, not only at libraries and archives, but at museums and galleries too.

In a digital age, memory itself may seem obsolete. With the mind-blowing speed of their algorithms, aren’t Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter good enough for “remembering”?

Yet, data shows that more people are using memory institutions than ever.

This counter-intuitive fact has led the British Library to conclude this in a recent document:

The more screen-based our lives, it seems, the greater the perceived value of real human encounters and physical artefacts: activity in each realm feeds interest in the other.

(Living Knowledge, the British Library 2015-2023, January 2015)

* * *

The American poet Maya Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.

Before receiving the medal, she spoke to staff at the New York Public Library, which had just acquired her papers.

She explained how a library had saved her life.

Maya was an abused child.

She had stopped speaking—for six long years.

But when she was eight years old, she was taken to a library for the very first time.

The library had about 300 books.

The books were given to the black school from the white school in the small Arkansas town she lived in.

The woman who took her to the library told Maya, “I want you to read every book in this library.”

And she did.

And in her words, every time she went to the library, she felt safe.

“No bad thing can happen to you in the library.”

Because of the library, Maya found her voice, and went on to become one of the most popular and influential poets in the world.

There are many stories like this one.

Yet archives and libraries and other memory institutions are constantly having to explain their very existence.

  • In a society where digital access is everywhere, why should we build new libraries?
  • Since virtual museums offer culture and history to people across the country and around the world, who needs the expense of bricks and mortar?
  • And what about archives—can’t you get everything you need from their own platforms, or those of Ancestry or Findmypast?

For us historians who spend a considerable amount of time with artefacts, books and archives, these questions might sound ridiculous.

Isn’t the value of our organizations obvious?

Yet I assure you, these questions are being asked, despite the fact that our visitor numbers are on the rise.

Some of you may know there is a proposal in the works to create a new super library in downtown Ottawa, a collaboration between Library and Archives Canada and the Ottawa Public Library.

The proposal has generated a lot of discussion, most of it positive.

But let’s have a look at some of the negative comments that were published in our local paper, The Ottawa Citizen:

“A library is a thing of the past, anything you need is on the Internet. It’s a big waste of tax dollars.”

“People still go to libraries? LOL”

“Libraries still exist? Why? Be cheaper to buy everyone a kindle or a smart phone.”

 “I get everything I need on the Internet. Why not build homes for homeless people and seniors with all that money?”

“Library? Why a big place? No one reads books.”

It sounds discouraging.

But look again, the reality is counter-intuitive.

  • The new Halifax Public Library received double the expected number of visitors in its first year (1.9 million compared with the 900,000 expected.)
  • The proposed new Ottawa Public Library is expected to welcome at least 1.6 million visitors every year.
  • The number of visits to public libraries in the US actually increased by 4% last year.
  • As for Canadian museums, they attract an impressive 62 million visitors every year. That’s up 10% from 2013.

More people than ever are visiting GLAMs—galleries, libraries, archives and museums.

Why is that?

To find out, we held a summit last December in Ottawa with the Canadian Museums Association and the Canadian Commission to UNESCO.

The summit was called Taking it to the Streets, and it was created to look at the value of libraries, archives and museums in a changing world.

To pause and look again at what we can achieve by working together and sharing ideas.

We called the summit Taking it to the Streets because we wanted to emphasize that the GLAMs of today are truly information warriors.

Out in the community, starting conversations, bringing people out of the cold, helping to start businesses, sparking creativity and welcoming newcomers to our country.

The summit attracted nearly 300 people and some 30 speakers, a number of them from outside Canada.

It was an amazing day and a half.

Here are some of the conclusions we reached.

First of all, and this was no surprise, technology is not our enemy.

The summit gave us numerous real-life examples of innovation.

And much of this innovation is due to technology—a source of both challenges and opportunities.

On the challenges side, we need to find the resources to acquire the technology, and hire and train the people who will make the most of it.

On the opportunities side, technology allows us to reach our users where they are, which is mostly online.

And the great challenge comes from the fact that the more people use the Web to access our resources, the greater their appetite for visiting our actual physical spaces.

So that means we cannot “de-invest” our in-person services to invest in our virtual services.

Memory institutions have to do both—contrary to other sectors such as music and cinema.

Here are a few examples of the technological initiatives LAC is taking to help you look again at the services we provide.

Let’s consider DigiLab, our newest facility at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa.

It’s a new, hands-on facility that provides free access to digital scanning equipment and description tools.

The space is open to anyone—individuals, organizations, community groups, academics and genealogists—who wants to digitize and describe LAC materials.

They get free training and access to high-resolution digital scanning equipment for their own projects, while, at the same time making the information available to the public online.

Not only does this advance research, but it promotes discovery, and benefits all Canadians.

The digital world also allows for ongoing conversations, as you will see in another of our initiatives.

The On This Day project is a feast of fascinating, inspiring, thought-provoking and even controversial moments in our history.

365 of these moments will be shared daily on our website and through our social media channels to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

You see on the screen just one example—this is Frederick Sasakamoose, the first indigenous player in the National Hockey League. He actually learned to play hockey at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake.

With an onsite historian, a team at LAC combed through our collection with an eye to capture all aspects of Canadian society.

Some features come from discoveries in LAC’s vaults and some from suggestions by the more than 30 federal departments and agencies that collaborate with us to make it happen.

The project has sparked conversations among Canadians everywhere. They are invited to share their own versions of the day’s stories, as well as notable events from their own lives.

Technology also means that we can provide a bridge between the past and the present, even in the most remote areas of the country.

Back in 2001, LAC teamed up with a training program in Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost territory.

The idea was to digitize and identify the Inuit peoples and communities depicted in historical photos from our collection.

Many had remained unidentified for decades.

The goal was modest—to digitize and identify 500 photographs within the year.

But the initiative called Project Naming took on a life of its own.

Since 2001, we have digitized over 10,000 photographs and the project is still going strong.

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 our database.

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

***

I probably don’t need to convince you that technology has changed our world.

But what I can stress is just how important technology is in making our heritage accessible.

We’re working with our partners to hammer out a national strategy for digitization.

The National Heritage Digitization Strategy was developed by the major memory institutions of Canada: large public libraries, academic libraries and archives, provincial archives, national associations of archivists, librarians, historians and museums.

We adopted a way to accelerate the digitization of the most important collections of Canada and to make them easily accessible to all, linking Canadians everywhere in their quest for culture and knowledge.

The Strategy will cover published and unpublished analogue materials of national, regional and local significance, including:

  • books, periodicals and newspapers
  • government records
  • posters and maps
  • theses and artifacts
  • photographs and documentary art
  • film, video, and audio recordings
  • and more.

As for LAC itself, we already are in the business of mass digitization.

For example, we have digitized more than half of the 640,000 Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) soldiers’ files from the First World War.

Once this project is finished in 2018, 16 million pages of the most heavily requested materials we own will be fully accessible on our site.

This includes the diaries and medical records and attestation papers of famous soldiers like Frederick Banting who discovered insulin; “One-Eyed” Frank McGee, the legendary hockey player; and Grey Owl, one of the world’s first eco-warriors; as well as soldiers we may not know about, but whose families are searching for information about them.

We even have the military records of Wolverine!!

As it turns out, James Howlett had a quite the military career before he met Professor X!!

And according to our records he was gravely wounded in action many times and gained a reputation as a gritty survivor.

Of course, I’m just kidding. These are not real papers or authentic documents. But using Wolverine’s fake CEF file for our April Fool’s joke was our most popular social media post. Ever.

We got 157,000 likes on our Facebook page, nearly 24,000 comments, 45,000 shares and in total we reached over 6 million people! We were on TV, we made the front page of Reddit, and in addition to the Canadian media, the story was picked up on Forbes.com and even Entertainment Weekly.

Not bad for a library and archive!

* * *

The digital environment is also creating new kinds of jobs.

We just hired a Wikipedian in Residence as part of a LAC pilot project.

She is dedicated to engaging with the Wikipedia community, and with Wikimedia Canada, the non-profit body that works to increase Canadian content in Wikipedia.

Although she has only been with us for a short time, she has already:

  • mounted an edit-a-thon at the University of Guelph on Canadian Women Artists
  • planned a French-language edit-a-thon in March
  • identified public domain images at LAC to contribute to Wikimedia Commons, and
  • identified gaps in Wikipedia that can be filled using LAC holdings and metadata.

This kind of job didn’t even exist ten years ago—and one can only imagine the kinds of jobs that will pop up in the next few years.

And these are just a few examples of opportunities created by technology.

The second conclusion reached at the summit was that memory institutions are playing new roles.

I mentioned some earlier—providing comfortable spaces for people to gather, welcoming new immigrants and refugees, even providing high speed Internet access to those who need it.

This last one is perhaps surprising, but remember that in 2016, even though 88.5% of Canadians had access to the Internet at home, that still left millions of Canadians without it.

But let’s start with the spaces themselves.

The importance of public spaces, whether a library or a gallery or a museum, is only now being truly understood.

Throughout the world millions of dollars are being invested in buildings that invite people in, sometimes called urban living rooms, or “third spaces.”

A first space is what we call home, a second is where we work. So a third space is neither home nor work—but more of a community space, a bridge between the two.

There is a magic to these spaces.

I remember when I was the CEO of the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec in Montréal.

During the “red square” movement in 2012, every day for more than 100 days, thousands of students marched the streets of Montréal to protest proposed tuition hikes.

Buildings were occupied, police cars were set on fire, there were demonstrations and arrests, there was tear gas and violence.

The Grande Bibliothèque, Montréal’s central library was right in the heart of it, in the centre of Montréal, located next to one of the universities.

Every night we saw the protesters meet in a square across the street from the library, we witnessed the march, heard the shouting of slogans and the wailing of the sirens. It was quite scary.

But not once did the protesters come into the library.

Throughout, it remained a place of safety.

Last year, I had the privilege of sitting down with the new Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden.

During her inaugural speech, she recalled the unrest in Baltimore in April 2015.

As she put it, cars were still smoldering in the streets, closed signs were hanging in storefronts for blocks.

Still, she made the decision to keep her branch of the Baltimore Public Library open, and she was there, day after day, opening the doors with her staff—offering a place of sanctuary and understanding.

I remember colleagues from the Alexandrina in Egypt telling me similar stories about the library being protected by the students during the so called “Egyptian Revolution” of 2011.

As Maya Angelou said, no bad thing can happen to you in the library.

I think these stories illustrate an important point.

Memory institutions such as libraries and archives represent not only safety, but freedom.

Freedom to think and to question, to create and, of course, to disagree.

This freedom is at the heart of a democratic society.

And there is no better sanctuary than freedom itself.

One of the most powerful presentations at the December summit was from the chief librarian of the Toronto Public Library (TPL), an institution that gets some 18 million visitors a year.

The TPL has hackathons, meet-ups, seminars for small businesses, training and workshops for retirees, pop-up learning labs, lessons in using an e-reader, and free library programs to help newcomers learn English, get help with citizenship, and make new friends.

This is powerful “place-making”—giving people the tools they need to adapt to change—making our cities and our communities more liveable, more welcoming, and more sustainable.

* * *

LAC is also busy providing new spaces.

If approved, the new combined Ottawa Public Library and Library and Archives Canada building will offer a modern, dynamic and multi-purpose space that, for our clients, will improve access, make our documentary heritage more available, and provide ample room for exhibits and public events.

A new landmark building in the heart of the city would also put us squarely in the public eye—with an expected 4,500 visitors a day.

And so that we can expand the reach of our services at both ends of the country, we’ve also relocated our offices to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax and to the Vancouver Public Library.

And we’re opening up 2,000 square feet of dedicated LAC gallery space at The Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

Plans are in the works for our public service point in Winnipeg too—plans to bring our services closer to the people.

We’ve also worked extensively with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba to make sure that as many Canadians as possible have access to their heritage.

As a result of a partnership between LAC and the museum, a number of important foundational documents have been loaned and put on exhibition, making them accessible to a wider public.

Last year we loaned the museum one of our most popular exhibitions. It’s called Let Them Howl: 100 Years in the Women’s Rights Struggle, and it features reproductions of 12 portraits of iconic women, taken mostly from LAC’s collection.

It includes photographs by such renowned artists as Yousuf Karsh and Bryan Adams.

I am also very proud of an agreement we signed with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to ensure the preservation of, and public access to, the records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on residential schools.

We are both committed to preserving documents of national importance that bear witness to the Canadian experience.

Making these records accessible to residential school survivors, their families, and the public is a key outcome of our agreement.

The agreement also provides for consultations, meetings, special events, workshops, conferences and exhibitions that we will organize together, making the best use of both our resources and capabilities.

Which brings me to an interesting point.

Technology offers us the chance to digitize, and thus democratize, a great deal of information—opening the doors to equality of opportunity.

But there is a power to exhibiting authentic objects that exceeds the digital world.

Jack Lohman, the CEO of the Royal BC Museum said,

Access to significant artifacts or to a masterpiece opens a new world, which cannot be experienced in the same way through a mobile phone or a television.

He’s right.

Even if the Mona Lisa is merely a click away on Google, millions still line up to see her at the Louvre, live and in person, so to speak.

Even if the Beatles’ music is readily available on ITunes, people line up at the British Library to see the original lyrics of “A Hard Day’s Night” written on the reverse side of Julian Lennon’s birthday card.

There is an emotion, a visceral response that happens when you come in contact with an original document that nothing can replace.

Going back to the summit, we did conclude that one of the most misunderstood aspects of our sector is the link to economic development.

When it comes to proving our value, this is a subject that comes up a lot.

  • The British Library estimates that for every £ 1 of public funding it receives annually, £ 4.90 is generated for the UK economy.
  • The 5-to-1 ratio is similar in Canada, according to recent studies at the Toronto Public Library and the Ottawa Public Library.

For every dollar invested, the community reaps about $5 worth of benefits.

Not a bad investment, I’d say.

The British Library has really stepped up its game in the area of contributing to economic growth.

The Knowledge Quarter, for example, was created by the British Library (BL).

The Knowledge Quarter is a growing collection of local organizations within a one-mile radius of St. Pancras, where the BL is located. They loosely share a common focus: the advancement and dissemination of knowledge.

It comprises

  • 7 higher education institutions
  • 13 cultural institutions
  • 21 museums and galleries
  • 27 libraries and archives, and
  • multiple research institutes.

The Knowledge Quarter welcomes 10 million visitors a year.

The British Library also offers a business and IP centre network, helping businesses to innovate and grow.

This is knowledge sharing on a massive scale, but libraries and other such institutions can also be helpful on a smaller scale.

The Grande Bibliothèque in Montréal, my old stomping grounds, introduced a financial literacy program to help young Quebecers learn more about money and personal finances, in cooperation with the Canadian Foundation for Economic Education and the BMO Financial Group.

Unfortunately these new initiatives are virtually unknown to the political, economic and media elites who spend very little time in memory institutions—those who prefer to purchase rather than borrow, and whose economic status means that free services are not really necessary.

Cultural consumption for these groups means something quite different from that of many library users, yet these are often the people we need to reach in order to demonstrate our value.

The last conclusion from the December summit I want to share with you is about the place of memory institutions in the creative ecosystem.

This position cannot be reduced to the functions of collecting and preserving works.

GLAMs are also present at the beginning of the creative chain, providing inspiration and material to artists of all disciplines—not just authors and poets, but also digital artists, musicians, painters, and directors.

This is a rapidly growing new sector for memory institutions, who are often seen as final resting places for creative work, rather than as inspiration at the start.

Yet it may surprise you to learn just how much artists and creators rely on us.

One of the liveliest presenters at the summit was Derek Kwan, an actor and creator from Vancouver.

His documentary film, Taste of Identity, was made with the help of the resources available at the Vancouver Public Library’s Inspiration Lab.

Derek talked about how his film could not have been made without the Inspiration Lab, which offered the space to collaborate, access to state-of-the-art equipment and of course, inspiration.

It won Best Canadian Short and Best Documentary at the 2015 Canadian Shorts Film Festival.

As a result of its success, he was one of 15 filmmakers from across Canada invited to be part of a CBC development workshop.

Derek’s enthusiasm was echoed by another young artist—Eric Chan, a digital artist known as “eepmon,” who fuses computer code and drawing to portray his artistic vision.

He spoke at length about how the GLAMs have an importance well beyond the fact of exhibition and research—as creative mediums in and of themselves.

Here is an example of his wearable art—an exclusive Canada Goose parka that combines fine arts, design and computer programming.

There are numerous examples at LAC—examples that show how raw material from our collection takes on a second life through the creative interpretation of artists from all disciplines.

Take Jane Urquhart, who researched the sculptor of the Vimy Ridge memorial for her classic work of fiction The Stone Carvers.

Or Frances Itani, who spent six months at LAC researching a novel called Deafening, which went on to be published in 16 countries.

Or Jeff Thomas, an Iroquois artist and photographer who was so inspired by seeing the famous Four Indian Kings portraits from our collection, he went on to develop an entire series of his own unique works of art, called the Red Robe series.

I am especially proud of the work of artist Sarah Hatton, who works at LAC.

She took hundreds of brass fasteners, which had been removed by hand from the personnel files of Canadian soldiers from the First World War and created a unique and moving installation called Detachment.

Detachment is a series of star charts showing how the night sky would have looked over the sites of several major battles in that war, including Vimy and Passchendaele.

I wish we had time to discuss more examples.

But it’s clear—GLAMs are sources of inspiration, places where connections can be made, where collaboration can take place, where history can be understood, and where the future can be imagined.

The December summit ended with a commitment to keep going, a recognition that memory institutions share more than they thought.

We decided to adopt a declaration, to keep up the momentum we started and to find new ways of working as a community.

The Ottawa Declaration says that together, we will

  • increase collaboration in ways that spark creativity and enhance engagement
  • develop innovative programs and services, and adopt technologies that let us engage our publics, and
  • expand access to our collections so that our institutions contribute to the public good and sustainable development.

I am excited by this, and I hope you are too.

In an age of “alternate facts” and “fake news,” the recognition of the value of memory institutions is more critical than ever.

Because of your work, our memories will stay true across the journey of history—allowing us to learn and adapt from the past, as we go forward into the future.

Thank you.


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