More relevant than ever: archives, Google, and the paradox of healthy disruption.
Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Presented to Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA)
June 9, 2017
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Thanks for inviting me to speak to you today about the relevance of archives and the paradox of healthy disruption.
I’d like to start by acknowledging that we are gathered on the traditional land of the Algonquin people.
The 150th anniversary of Confederation is a unique occasion for Canadians to get to know themselves, if you allow me to paraphrase Delphic wisdom.
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 Nation 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.
It’s also a good time to look again at memory institutions like archives, which take on a new relevance by collecting and maintaining the records of the Canadian identity.
The stories, which 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.
And as our birthday approaches, I can’t think of a better time to share our stories and demonstrate our value than right now.
* * *
We live in a skeptical age.
An age of post-truth, fake news and alternative facts.
So it’s good to know there are still some folks we can trust.
And places we can turn to for the truth.
Archives are such places.
That’s one of the reasons we are enjoying such a renaissance right now.
I will come back to this in a moment, but you don’t have to go far for proof.
Across the river, at the Canadian Museum of History, you can check out Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) new exhibition space.
You can also find us down the street at the National Gallery.
Or at 395 Wellington Street.
This is exactly the kind of prominence and public visibility that archives need, to step out of the shadows and onto centre stage.
And as we are celebrating International Archives Day today, I invite you to take advantage of this opportunity to explain your work, and to point out the vital role that archives play in our society.
Some of you have already had the chance to take part in the Open Doors event today and tomorrow at the LAC Preservation Centre across the river in Gatineau.
This is a rare chance to look inside one of the region’s most iconic buildings, and to go behind the scenes in our vaults and conservation labs.
You will remember that LAC worked with the Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA), Canadian Council of Archives (CCA), and Association des archivistes du Québec (AAQ) to develop Canada’s Archives: A New Blueprint.
The report was published in November 2015.
Three working groups were established as a result:
- one to review the archival workforce
- another to respond to the report of the Truth and Reconcilation Commission
- and the third to ensure that both the public and decision makers understand the value and the importance of archives.
With the last one in mind, I will explore the healthy disruption we are seeing in the world of archives today and the redefinition of its role.
I think it’s fair to say that the function of archives as record keepers is fairly well understood and accepted.
After all, we are pretty good at acquiring and preserving.
However, sharing what we have—the access aspect of our work—has yet to be fully explored.
And it involves working with others to a greater degree than we have in the past.
So in a digital age, where the idea of memory itself may seem obsolete, how can we make the most of this new role?
How do we tap into the collective wisdom of all kinds of memory institutions?
Let me share my thoughts with you about this.
Moments From 150 Years Ago is the first exhibition in the new LAC gallery at the Museum of History.
The materials on display can be found in the Treasure Room, an appropriate name I think.
They include rare documents, photographs, watercolours and other printed material from our collection.
Curators from the museum and archivists from LAC worked closely together to make this exhibition happen.
Larger audiences will now have the thrill of discovering an original document, or a map, or a diary written by the wife of our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.
As archivists, you know very well that when you look at an original, let’s say an ambrotype of Niagara Falls, or a carte de visite showing the faces of a champion lacrosse team from the Mohawk Nation in 1869, you are not simply an observer.
It isn’t a passive experience.
You are busy decoding it, interpreting it, filtering it through your own experience.
It’s a kind of magic.
And archivists can help share that magic with a wider public.
We also launched an exhibition at 395 Wellington Street called Canada: Who Do We Think We Are?
It’s an exploration of Canadian identity from well before 1867.
This exhibition contains a number of seldom-seen archival materials that invite viewers to ask themselves—what does it really mean to be a Canadian?
The exhibition does not confine itself to Canada’s first formal 150 years, but also includes objects and documents from earlier periods, when figures like Champlain were considering the potential of the country.
- LAC’s leather-bound copy of Samuel de Champlain’s Les Voyages du sieur, dated 1613, with its appended map
- Catharine Parr Traill’s only surviving journal
- and the paint brushes Paul Kane is said to have used during his western travels
- —to name a few!
Some images may provoke a smile, such as a 1944 image of the “typical” Canadian family.
But what all of these artifacts confirm is the unique and enduring role of LAC as the official “memory” or “mirror” of our country—and the unique and enduring role of archives themselves.
To make the point, the exhibition brings together records from the broad spectrum of our collecting areas: heraldry, music recordings, stamps, oil paintings, and census documents.
Books and published materials are side by side with unpublished manuscripts, and of course, records of private citizens as well as those of the Government of Canada.
And all of it helps to remind viewers of the role of records in preserving Canada’s national story.
Think of archival material as a kind of connective tissue that not only links memory institutions, but also links each of us, as individuals to our past, our present, and our future.
I invite you to visit 395 Wellington Street and check out the exhibition for yourselves. It’s open weekdays from 10 am to 7 pm, and weekends from 10 am to 6 pm.
For the 150th anniversary of Confederation, LAC is also doing something called On This Day, on Facebook and Twitter.
Every day we explore an important event in our country’s history.
Another project has been organized with the Toronto International Film Festival and cinematheques in Montréal and Vancouver.
It presents the 150 most historically significant Canadian films.
These are the kinds of collaborations that are now a fact of life for modern memory institutions.
And they all face outwards, toward a public which is becoming more and more interested in the past.
As I mentioned, the success of these kinds of projects reminds us of the unique experience of coming face-to-face with original materials.
But in an interesting counter-intuitive twist, we are also finding that technology can be extremely useful in generating interest in originals.
As services and functions are shifted into the digital realm, society is likely to place greater value on those experiences which cannot be made digital—experiences that take on a special significance precisely because they can’t be digitized.
This puts the emphasis on face-to-face interaction, and one-on-one discovery.
In a sense, there’s never been a better time for archives to assert their importance and their value.
I like to quote Jack Lohman, the CEO of the Royal BC Museum, on this:
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.
And as I am fond of saying, 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.
That’s why Canadian museums attract 62 million visitors a year, up 10 percent from 2013.
And that’s also why the British Library, in its statement of vision and purpose for 2015 to 2023, pointed out that:
At a time when the provision of knowledge and culture is increasingly digital and screen-based, the value and importance of high-quality physical spaces and experiences is growing, not diminishing.
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.
So, it is one of my most deeply felt commitments to see that we exhibit as many original archival documents as possible.
I am especially proud of the exhibition that LAC has on right now at the Library of Parliament.
It includes the Canadian Bill of Rights and the Proclamation of the Constitution Act, foundational documents which are vital to an understanding of our history as a nation.
But there’s more to it.
Once again, there is that genuine emotion that happens when you come in contact with an original document that nothing can replace.
As archives, we can build on that emotion to help Canadians understand not only their history, but to truly learn to know themselves, and each other.
As we head into our birthday, I can think of no greater gift to our country.
Last year we invited our users to look again at LAC, at what we do and who we are.
At the same time, we invited them to take a second look at all memory institutions: galleries, libraries, archives and museums—the so-called GLAMs.
By looking again, we can help break down the silos that have separated memory institutions in the past.
Working across the sectors and making use of the expertise of many disciplines can help us solve issues that are common to all the GLAMs.
Preservation, conservation, sustainability, and the need to become good advocates for ourselves, to explain our value to the public not just as individual institutions but as a cohesive sector.
I was very glad to see that the British Columbia Library Association just signed a historic agreement to formalize cooperation among that province’s GLAM sector.
To explore, identify, share and consider new ways to work together.
I know they have been working hard on this, with the Archives Association of BC and the BC Museums Association, and the work has paid off.
They are the first province in Canada to strike such an agreement, and I sincerely hope others will follow suit.
The more institutions come together as networks, the greater the chance for broader cooperation across the sectors and across the country.
By working together we can also develop and enlist new technologies, especially for use in the digital world, and we can share best practices.
I think of looking again as a call to action—to find new ways to augment our visibility, and for the GLAMs to work side by side.
It’s an open invitation, to come and play in our sandbox.
In a traditional model of archives, the kind of collaboration I am advocating might be seen as disruptive.
But, as we’ve found out, it’s also healthy, effective, and powerful.
Because the mandates of the GLAMs are closer than they appear.
Most museums have libraries and archives. Libraries hold exhibitions. Galleries can display archival documents. It makes sense for us to work together.
As far as I know, the first summit on the collaboration between GLAMs was held at the University of Miami in January, 2016.
The university hosted a working summit for the heads of art museums and libraries from 14 academic institutions to explore the barriers to, and opportunities for deeper collaboration.
The Miami Summit recommended formal structures for collaboration, shared budget strategies and joint advocacy.
Now Miami in January, is certainly a better venue for a summit than is Ottawa in December!
That said, I think our own Canadian effort was more than worthwhile.
My motivation for holding the Summit on the value of memory institutions stemmed from my realisation that, as a community, we had a responsibility to make sure that both the “powers that be” and the general public understood the important role that GLAMs play in the digital world.
So I enlisted the Canadian Museums Association and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, and together we invited our members and friends to join us that cold December day in Ottawa.
In the end, the Summit attracted nearly 300 people and some 30 speakers, a number of them from outside of Canada.
I’d like to share with you some of the conclusions we reached at the Summit.
First of all, and this was no surprise, technology is not our enemy.
If we can accept that we are not going to be replaced by technology, then we can reap some of the benefits that it has to offer.
The Summit reinforced the fact that technology is a source of both challenges and opportunities.
Technology allows us to reach our users where they are, which is mostly online.
But we need resources to acquire technology, and we also need to hire and train the people who will make the most of it.
But perhaps the greatest challenge comes from the fact that the more people use the Web to access our collections, the greater their appetite for visiting our actual physical spaces.
Essentially, we cannot de-invest in our in-person services in order to invest in our virtual services.
We have to offer both, and technology can help.
One of the greatest benefits of using both collaboration and technology is to increase access.
DigiLab is a good example.
It’s a hands-on digital lab at 395 Wellington Street that we created to provide free access to scanning equipment and description tools.
DigiLab has already enabled members of the public to put some fascinating archival materials online.
Case in point, Nicole Yakashiro.
Nicole is completing her Honours BA at the University of Toronto.
She has both a personal and an academic interest in the work of Landscapes of Injustice, a project that gathers and shares information about displaced and dispossessed Japanese Canadians in the 1940s.
As part of that project, Nicole used DigiLab to digitize Second World War records at LAC which help tell the story of this sad chapter in our history.
As a result, over 130 related files will be placed online for anyone to consult.
Another interesting example is that of Marjolaine Sylvestre, the Archivist for the Jardins de Métis in Quebec.
She spent a couple of days in the lab digitizing and describing photographs taken by William Reford during his trip across the country from Montréal to Vancouver in the late 1800s.
There is also the work of John Reid, who is digitizing 10 years of early Ottawa weather records from the late 1800s.
John Reid holds a PhD in Atmospheric Science and he proposed this project to help support contemporary research into climate change.
* * *
Technology has also allowed us to continue the dialogue of reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
For example, our Project Naming initiative uses social media and innovative technology to help members of Indigenous communities connect with their past.
To date, Project Naming has helped identify and digitize over 10,000 historical photographs from our collection.
Some 2,500 people and places have been named.
Families have been re-united.
And mysteries solved.
All of this information, along with the images, is available in our database.
And the project is still going strong.
By providing authentic historical records, archives, and especially community-based archives, we can provide a voice for marginalized groups such as our Indigenous peoples.
In turn, these groups are able to see themselves reflected accurately in the records, often for the first time.
You have probably also heard that Library and Archives Canada received $14.9 million in the latest federal budget to develop projects in consultation with Indigenous communities.
We will digitize and provide digital access to some of LAC’s existing materials, such as photographs, treaties, Indigenous language dictionaries, portraits, maps, and the journals of early explorers.
And we will contribute to an oral testimonies project designed to support Indigenous communities who are working on projects to preserve and revitalize Indigenous languages.
This will also feature a Web portal of oral testimonies.
Together, these initiatives will place Indigenous youth who are interested in library and archival science, information management, or Indigenous history and cultural studies, in jobs within their communities.
This work will be undertaken in close consultation with Indigenous communities, drawing from advisory circles with elders, leaders, and knowledge keepers.
You may also remember the agreement we signed with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation on Residential School records.
The agreement signals a shared commitment 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.
The second conclusion we reached at the December Summit was that memory institutions are playing new roles.
For example, the National Heritage Digitization Strategy, which will make more content accessible to Canadians.
It 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 the following:
- books, periodicals and newspapers
- government records
- posters and maps
- theses and artifacts
- photographs and documentary art
- film and video, audio recordings
- and more
To make this a success we’ve engaged our national networks across all memory institutions.
We’re also working together with our local heritage communities through the Documentary Heritage Community Program, which supports both libraries and archives.
We just announced $1.5 million to support 48 projects (including 38 new projects) by archives, libraries and documentary heritage institutions throughout Canada.
And I am especially proud of the work being done on the acquisition of private archival material.
The Canadian archival community has always collaborated in this area, but we are now looking at broadening the adoption of tried-and-true principles such as best fit and significance.
The new roles of GLAMs that we identified at the Ottawa Summit also involve libraries and archives as public spaces.
As you know we’ve also relocated our offices on the east coast and the west coast with the intent of reaching more people and working more closely with institutions who are natural partners for the work we do.
So our Dartmouth, Nova Scotia offices are moving to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, on June 18, and our Burnaby BC offices will be moving to the Vancouver Public Library next fall.
And in 2018, we will be opening up 2,000 square feet of dedicated LAC gallery space at The Glenbow Museum in Calgary.
The archives of the future will be built on these kinds of linkages, those that offer access to materials through broad networks of memory institutions, and that enhance that experience for members of the public by sharing expertise and taking advantage of collaboration across the GLAM sector.
Because above and beyond sharing knowledge, the Ottawa Summit revealed a unity among memory institutions, which had tended to focus on what makes them unique and different, rather than what they have in common.
In fact, taxonomic distinctions have been crumbling away for a number of years, as you are well aware.
All major museums host archives and even libraries—from the Glenbow Museum in Calgary with its rich archival collection, to the Centre Pompidou, whose Bibliothèque publique d’information is the busiest library in France.
This 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.
The implications of this new role for archivists are broad and profound, giving them the tools to work collectively for social justice and the public good.
As more and more of the past is revealed, much of it dark and disturbing, new stories are emerging about our history.
Archives and other memory institutions add meaning to that story by transforming raw materials in new ways and sharing them.
Following this approach, we can truly make a difference, and contribute to the truthful narrative of our nation.
Archives can also invite the public to help by building collections that tell our stories to a wider audience.
In June of last year, the Manitoba Métis Federation celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Seven Oaks, a battle which marked the emergence of the Métis Nation.
To support the anniversary, we introduced software that lets people transcribe authentic historical documents.
The first document to go through the process was the Coltman report, written in 1818 by William Coltman.
The report provides one of the best sources on the fur-trade war and it’s a key document in the history of the Métis Nation.
The entire 521-page handwritten report was transcribed by members of the public eager to make a personal connection with history.
A fully searchable PDF is now available in LAC’s database.
Working alone, one person may have taken years to complete this transcription.
Instead, it took members of the public less than a month.
We are about to launch a second one—the 91 page diary of Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald, the wife of Sir John A Macdonald.
The last conclusion from the December Summit I want to share with you is about the role of memory institutions in the creative ecosystem.
During the Summit, we realized that this role could not be reduced to the simple function of collecting and preserving works.
GLAMs also have a role to play 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 an area of rapid growth for all memory institutions, including archives.
We are often seen as the final resting place for creative work, as opposed to a source of inspiration at the start of the creative process.
It may surprise you to learn just how much artists and creators rely on us.
One of the liveliest presenters at the Summit was Eric Chan, a digital artist known as eepmon, who fuses computer code and drawing, to portray his artistic vision.
Eric spoke at length about the importance of GLAMs. Well beyond simple sites for research and exhibition, GLAMs are creative mediums in and of themselves.
There are numerous examples at LAC of this very fact.
Examples that show how raw material from our collection takes on a second life through the creative interpretation of artists from all disciplines.
Like Jeff Thomas, an Iroquois artist and photographer who was inspired by seeing the famous Four Indian Kings portraits from our collection and who went on to develop an entire series of his own unique works of art, the Red Robe series.
And I am especially proud of the work of artist Sarah Hatton, who is an employee at LAC.
She took hundreds of brass fasteners, removed by hand from the personnel files of Canadian soldiers from the First World War, and used these to create 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.
Some of you might be familiar with a play that was put on in Edmonton entitled, Witch Hunt at the Strand.
Darrin Hagen, a self-professed history buff, wrote the play to illuminate a dark and little-known period in Edmonton’s history—the attacks on gay men in 1942.
Many of these men worked at the Strand Theatre.
Edmonton City Police and the RCMP charged ten men with gross indecency, and six of them went to jail.
For a long time, this particular slice of our history was largely unknown.
To understand the story, and to get a grip on what life might have been like back then, Darren went to the provincial archives.
He dug up transcripts, and evidence logs, and perhaps most exciting of all, the transcripts of the actual trials.
And he wrote a play, based on these facts, which has been seen by thousands of people.
This is an excellent example of archival material contributing to a collective understanding of our history, through the collaborative process of art.
Clearly we 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.
If we open ourselves up to the possibilities, then these are truly exciting times for archives.
The December Summit came to an end with a beginning.
We adopted the Ottawa Declaration, a commitment to keep going, a recognition that archives and other memory institutions share more than they thought.
There are three main goals contained in the declaration.
One, that we will increase collaboration between our institutions and our networks, at both the local and the national levels.
Two, that we will develop innovative programs and services, and adopt the technologies that empower us to engage our publics.
And three, that we will enrich and expand access to our collections to ensure that we contribute to the public good and sustainable development.
We are now developing a plan based on the ideas that emerged at the Summit.
We have a working group of eight members, and this group is developing a concrete three-year plan of action founded on the principles of the Ottawa Declaration.
The working group is co-chaired by myself and John McAvity, Executive Director of the Canadian Museums Association.
The group is composed of six experts from across Canada, representing various GLAM sectors, including academic libraries, museums, archives and private consultants.
LAC will support the working group by providing secretariat support, which includes planning, coordination, and administration of meetings and other activities.
We had our first conference call on April 21st and another on May 26th.
Our first effort together will be to define the parameters of a study on the value of GLAMs that we hope to launch in 2018.
But what direction should the study take?
How can we ensure that it benefits each sector of the community, while at the same time benefitting the GLAM sector as a whole?
These are some of the questions we are asking, and I am looking to each and every one of you for ideas and answers.
A second thing that we are contemplating is how best to explore the needs and the gaps with respect to cultural policy in Canada.
The working group is also considering some environmental scans:
- First, to get a handle on the cultural policies that exist across Canada and on the international stage
- And second, to find examples of institutions from the GLAM sector who have successfully collaborated with other groups from outside the sector—with the music industry, with theatre organizations—you get the picture.
Our hope is to share the work of this group with the GLAM sector again, by holding a second event this coming December.
I am excited by this, and I hope you are too.
As I mentioned before, in an age of alternative facts and fake news, recognizing the value of authentic documents is more critical than ever.
And these documents are often in the hands of the archives.
We preserve the originals so the facts are never lost.
The need for us to work together is not only being recognized here, but around the world.
Once we start combining the worlds of archives with other memory institutions, we get more than just increased visibility.
We get lots of new opportunities.
Because the solution is not to build walls, but to break them down.
There is no doubt in my mind that by working together and breaking down the silos of the past, we will meet the challenges we face.
And our value will be demonstrated.
Better that we do this together—rather than alone and from behind a wall.
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