Doing more with more: the real value of memory organizations
Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Ontario Museums Association conference
Four Points by Sheraton,
October 12, 2017, 9:45 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
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Let me first acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples.
Thank you for inviting me to share with you my thoughts on the future of memory institutions, the so-called GLAM sector.
Thank you also for inviting me to celebrate my 67th birthday with you, by taking a Thousand Islands cruise last night.
I’d like to start this morning with a premise.
That in this age of post-truth, fake news and alternative reality, people need memory institutions like libraries, archives, galleries and museums more than ever…
We are often told we are on our way out, but I’d like you to use your imaginations and picture the following:
Walking into a library.
And finding no books, no magazines, no newspapers.
Imagine heading out for a night of theatre, the ballet, or the opera.
And finding only dark, empty stages.
Imagine galleries with no art.
And museums with no artifacts or historical documents.
In other words, imagine a country with no culture.
Or, to quote my friend Simon Brault, the Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, imagine a country with: “No Culture, No Future.”
Somehow, the idea of our absence speaks more eloquently on our behalf than our presence.
So, why are we still working so hard to justify our existence as cultural institutions?
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 those of us who spend countless hours with artifacts, 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 every day, 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 look at some of the negative comments that were published in our local Postmedia 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 the reality is counterintuitive.
Canadian museums attract an impressive 62 million visitors every year. That’s up 10 percent from 2013.
The new Halifax Public Library received double the expected number of visitors in its first year in 2015, i.e.: 1.9 million compared with the 900,000 expected.
The proposed new Ottawa Public Library is expected to welcome at least 1.5 million visitors every year.
The number of visits to public libraries in the U.S. actually increased by 4 percent last year.
So, more people than ever are visiting memory institutions.
Perhaps it explains this interesting quote I found recently about libraries: “beloved in theory, embattled in practice.”
Last year, we held a GLAM summit in Ottawa, with the Canadian Museums Association and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.
The meeting’s theme was Taking it to the Streets: Summit on the Value of Libraries, Archives and Museums in a Changing World.
Our objective was to deal with the questions of value and relevance I have already mentioned, and also to find new ways to work together.
During the Ottawa summit, Maureen Sawa, the CEO of the Greater Victoria Public Library, nailed it on the head when she said that instead of looking at doing more with less, our goal must be to do more with more.
More collaborations, more partnerships, more public outreach, more relevance.
Because it sums up all of the wonderful possibilities that working together can mean, I think it bears repeating.
More with more.
As a mantra for the GLAM sector, I like it very much.
A good example is the collective called Libraries, Archives and Museums Nova Scotia, formerly known as Libraries Nova Scotia.
Although the collective had included members of the archival community for a number of years, it now includes the museum community as well.
At a historic joint conference held in 2015, which brought together the Nova Scotia GLAM sector, the organizers included this African proverb:
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Together, we can help break down the silos that have separated us in the past.
Working across the sectors and making use of many disciplines can help us solve the numerous issues that are common to all the GLAM sector.
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.
Which brings me to another good example of doing more with more.
The British Columbia Library Association recently signed a historic agreement to formalize co-operation 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 British Columbia and the BC Museums Association, and the work has paid off.
British Columbia and Nova Scotia were the first provinces to strike such agreements, and I sincerely hope others will follow suit.
Now let’s take a closer look at the conclusions of the Ottawa summit.
- One of the most important conclusions we reached was that technology is not our enemy.
We were treated to many real-life examples of successful innovation in the GLAM community, much of it due to technology.
Technology, which allows us to reach our users where they are, which is mostly online.
But there are challenges, too.
The need to find the resources to acquire the technology, and to hire and train the people who will make the most of it.
But it is our lack of experience in locating, attracting and retaining these people, the quote-unquote “talent,” that is creating the greatest bottleneck for innovation in our sector.
An additional challenge stems from the fact that the more people use the Web to access our resources, the greater their appetite for visiting our actual physical spaces.
Our galleries, our libraries, our archives and our museums.
And that’s also why the British Library, in its statement of vision and purpose for 2015 to 2023, pointed out:
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 we can’t simply “de-invest” our in-person services to invest in the virtual ones.
The GLAMs have to do both.
Our own DigiLab is a good example of this dual approach, and one I am quite proud of.
It’s a hands-on digital lab at 395 Wellington Street that we created to provide free access to scanning equipment and description tools.
Researchers now have direct access to high-performance scanners, computers and other tools.
In its first few months, DigiLab has enabled over 24,000 pages of textual material and over 1,000 photographs to be digitized and made available to the public.
Things like records that track the rain, thunder and lightning over Ottawa in the 19th century…
…which contribute to the study of climate change.
Photographs that show the Relief Camps established by the Canadian Government to support unemployed labourers at the height of the Great Depression…
…to be featured in an upcoming documentary film.
Half a century of action in the Logistics Branch of the Canadian Armed Forces.
A 100-year-old road trip from Montreal to Vancouver.
The legacy of Japanese-Canadian internment camps.
These are just some of the fascinating materials that are now accessible through the DigiLab.
* * *
Technology has also allowed us to continue the dialogue of reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
And to 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.
The idea was to digitize and identify the Inuit peoples and communities seen 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 Project Naming took on a life of its own.
Since 2001, we have digitized over 10,000 photographs and it is still going strong.
Some 2,500 people and places have been named.
Families have been reunited.
And mysteries solved.
All of this information, along with the images, is 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.
Project Naming uses social media technology to help members of Indigenous communities connect with their past.
As a result, many of our Indigenous peoples see themselves reflected accurately in the records for the very first time.
And if you will allow me, let me give you another example of technology helping with reconciliation.
In June of last year, the Manitoba Metis Federation celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Seven Oaks, a battle that 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 in less than a month.
A fully searchable PDF is now available in LAC’s database.
We just launched a second project—the 91-page diary of Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald, the wife of Sir John A. Macdonald.
It’s already been transcribed.
Citizen archivists were eager to make a personal connection with history.
Of course, I don’t have to convince the museum community that technology has changed our world.
Museums and galleries have been at the forefront of technological change from day one.
But I want to stress the link between technology and accessibility.
For example, the National Heritage Digitization Strategy we have developed, over the past year, as a co-operative initiative by large public libraries, academic libraries and archives, provincial archives, national associations of archivists, librarians, historians and, of course, galleries and museums.
The idea is to make accessible, through a single search instrument, all the Canadian material that has been digitized by our combined heritage institutions.
The strategy will cover out of copyright, 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 and video, audio recordings
- and more.
The success of this strategy will depend both on the best use of technology, and on ensuring that access remains the key goal.
The degree to which we can reach our users will spell our success or failure.
Let’s look at one example from my own backyard.
LAC has digitized more than 75 percent of the 640,000 Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) personnel service files from the First World War.
By 2018, 16 million pages of the most heavily requested materials we own will be fully accessible on our site.
This includes the records and 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 little-known soldiers whose families are searching for information about them.
This is our biggest mass digitization project to date, but it is also one of our biggest draws.
We even have the military records of Wolverine!
As it turns out, James Howlett had 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.
His are not real papers or authentic documents.
But using Wolverine’s fake CEF file for our 2016 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 coverage, the story was picked up on Forbes.com and even by Entertainment Weekly.
Not bad for an institution supposedly on its way to extinction.
And just one of many ways that—thanks to new technologies—GLAMs can attract new audiences and then, once they are hooked, show them what else we have up our sleeves.
And while the CEF project is attracting new audiences with the help of technology, the Greater Victoria Public Library is reaching out to new publics in a more traditional way—in person.
The library had already established a good working relationship with the Belfry, a local repertory theatre.
So when the University of Victoria Librarian suggested they hold their annual lecture series at the Belfry, all three—the public library, the theatre and the university—reaped the benefits.
The event was an interview with the acting Librarian of Congress, David Mao by CBC radio personality Shelagh Rogers.
By all accounts, not only was it a success, it reached new audiences in a way that could not have happened if the University of Victoria had worked alone.
These few examples demonstrate that thinking and working collaboratively can be wildly successful.
One of the most pervasive examples of this is Wikipedia.
As a historian, I shared the mistrust of many when it was suggested that Wikipedia would be just as reliable as the Encyclopedia Britannica.
And if you own a set, you are showing your age!
Yet, Wikipedia has become the standard for many people when looking for information.
It gets millions of views every day, and it can be read in hundreds of languages.
So while museums and other GLAMs have the knowledge and the records, Wikipedia has a reach that none of our institutions could ever match on its own.
At LAC, we began a Wikipedia pilot program in January of this year.
We are working with Wikimedia Canada, the non-profit body that aims to increase Canadian content in Wikipedia.
The idea was that our expanded presence on Wikipedia would attract new users to our website and our collections.
LAC now has over 3,000 images embedded on Wikipedia article pages, and in turn this results in roughly 30 million hits a month on LAC materials.
And we think we can do even better.
Allowing us to Do more with more, if you forgive me for saying it again.
- Our second conclusion from the Ottawa summit is that GLAMs are playing new and vital roles in today’s society.
For example, as public spaces.
Millions of dollars are being invested in libraries, museums and galleries around the world.
And it’s not just old folks like me that are using them.
According to a new Pew Research Center study, 53 percent of Millennials visited a library at least once in 2016, more than any other generation.
According to a young librarian at one of Boston’s public libraries: “One of the biggest values of the library, for all ages, is that it’s a free place where you can be outside of your home and outside of work.”
The article points to libraries, but the same applies to all GLAMs.
Some think we are being replaced by digital, but in fact, we are offering a valuable complement to it.
There is a real need for quality spaces.
Here is an example from the world of business that illustrates just how pervasive that need really is.
Hudson’s Bay executives were well aware of the fact that online purchasing threatened the future of their brick-and-mortar stores.
So they decided to invest in the quality of their spaces, making the “in-store” experience better and more satisfying.
And there is a magic to our spaces.
I remember when I was the CEO of the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec, in Montreal.
During the Red Square movement in 2012, every day, for more than a hundred days, thousands of students marched the streets of Montreal 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, Montreal’s central library was right in the heart of it, in the centre of Montreal, 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 sirens. It was quite scary.
But not once did the protesters come in 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 Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt telling me similar stories about the library being protected by the students during the so-called Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
I think these stories illustrate an important point.
GLAMs 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.
Public spaces can also give people the tools they need to adapt to change.
To make our cities and our communities more livable, more welcoming, and more sustainable.
That is why, in the spirit of public engagement and partnership, we relocated our Nova Scotia offices. They were in an industrial park in Dartmouth, a little out of the way.
We moved them to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax last June, so we would be closer to our clients.
Not to mention the thousands of clients who visit the museum each year.
And in November, I will be in Vancouver to celebrate the move of our staff from another industrial park in Burnaby, British Columbia to the beautiful Vancouver Public Library, built in the heart of Gastown.
And in 2018, we’ll be opening up 2,000 square feet of dedicated LAC gallery space at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary to feature some of our portrait collection.
The first exhibition will take place between March and December 2018, with the artist self-portrait as its theme.
Upcoming themes will include historical and contemporary portraits, as well as a feature exhibition of the portraits of Canadian photographer Roloff Beny.
Our work with the Glenbow allows me to raise an interesting point.
Technology offers us the chance to “democratize” a great deal of information.
But there is still a power to exhibiting authentic objects that exceeds the digital world.
My colleague Jack Lohman, the CEO of the Royal BC Museum and member of the working group on the Ottawa Declaration, 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.”
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.
You, of all people, know that there is an emotion, a visceral response that happens when you come in contact with an original document that nothing can replace.
This is a key driver behind our efforts to display our collection at museums and galleries as often and as widely as we can.
In total, more than 350 items from LAC’s collection will be out on loan next year.
And we’ve complemented all of this with Flickr series, blogs and podcasts, which invite people to discover who we are and access what we have.
There are so many possibilities for partnerships, and for new ways to reach our audiences.
Unfortunately, many of the new initiatives I mentioned are virtually unknown to the political, economic and media elites, because they spend very little time in GLAMs, those who purchase rather than borrow, and whose economic status means that free services are not really necessary.
Cultural consumption for these groups has a very different meaning than it does for most of the Canadian population, yet these are often the people we need to reach to demonstrate our value.
And to garner support and financial backing.
This is a challenge that we all share.
How do we reach them in ways they will appreciate and understand?
I think this is yet another challenge we can meet by working side by side, and not in separate camps.
- The last conclusion we reached at the summit was about the place of memory institutions in the creative ecosystem.
In the digital era, you can’t simply reduce their role to the functions of collecting and preserving works downstream from the creative act.
GLAMs are present at the very 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, directors.
This is a little-heralded role of the GLAMs, which are often seen as being simply the final resting places for finished creative work.
The graveyard, rather than the maternity ward, if you’ll forgive me that metaphor.
Even I was surprised to learn just how much artists and creators rely on us.
We created a Twitter hashtag known as LAC Muse to let artists tell us how they have used our collections to realize their creative projects, and the results have been remarkable.
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 was quick to point out that his film could not have been made without the Inspiration Lab.
It gave him 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 Canada 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 can be 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 other 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 in the library and archives researching a novel called Deafening, which went on to be published in 16 countries.
She spent an entire week in our building listening to recordings of songs from the First World War, conjuring up the times in a way only music can.
Jeff Thomas is an Iroquois artist and photographer who was so inspired by seeing the famous portraits of the “Four Indian Kings” from our collection, he went on to develop an entire series of his own unique works of art, called “Red Robe.”
I am especially proud of the work of artist Sarah Hatton, who works at LAC.
She took hundreds of brass fasteners—all removed by hand from the service files of the Canadian soldiers who served in 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.
We are definitely part of the “creative ecosystem.”
And if you’ll allow me to digress for a minute, I’ll say that this is in step with Minister Mélanie Joly’s vision for a Creative Canada.
You will remember that Canadian Heritage held public consultations over the last 18 months on how to strengthen Canadian content in a digital world.
As the result of this consultation, a policy framework for creative and cultural industries was developed by the department and was shared widely on September 28.
This policy framework is based on three pillars:
- Investing in Canadian creators, cultural entrepreneurs and their stories;
- Promoting discovery and distribution at home and globally; and
- Strengthening public broadcasting and supporting local news.
Arguably, the GLAM sector is part of all three pillars. But I think pillar one is best aligned with the principles of the Ottawa Declaration.
If we invest in creators so they can come up with the best ideas, enabling them to conquer domestic and foreign markets, GLAMs and the power they have to inspire must be seen as part of this very first pillar.
We provide access, we showcase diversity, we promote collaboration, and we support innovation.
So let’s make sure this message is articulated and heard!
Now, getting back to the summit.
At the end of our discussions, we collectively adopted the Ottawa Declaration.
The Declaration is a commitment to moving forward.
Based on a shared recognition of how much we have in common, and how great it would be to work together.
Just to refresh your memory, we agreed to the following:
Increase collaboration between our institutions to catalyze new partnerships that spark creativity and enhance engagement;
Develop innovative programs and services to empower us to engage our publics; and
Enrich and expand access to our collections to ensure we contribute significantly to the public good and sustainable development.
Leaving the summit, we knew that we needed to keep the momentum going.
So, we created a working group to put the Ottawa Declaration into action.
It is co-chaired by myself and John McAvity, the Executive Director of the CMA, who needs no introduction!
Our six members, with expertise from across the GLAM sector, have a mandate to flesh out the vision of the Ottawa Declaration.
Paul Gilbert, Jack Lohman and Chris Kitzan are from museums and galleries.
Christine Lovelace is an archivist at the University of New Brunswick.
Loubna Ghaouti is head librarian at Laval University in Quebec.
And Maureen Sawa, from the Greater Victoria Public Library.
Our mandate is to explore and study how GLAMs bring value to Canadian society.
And to take an active role in identifying areas where partnerships could be developed.
Let’s see where we’re at, 10 months after the summit.
- First we are working on creating a template for a study on the value of the GLAMs.
Which reminds me of a quote from Oscar Wilde.
He described a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
But we do need to prove our value and to do it efficiently.
Of course, there have been studies on the value of libraries in the recent past.
For instance, it has been estimated that for every £1 of public funding the British Library receives, £4.90 is generated for the United Kingdom’s economy.
This 5 to 1 ratio is similar in Canada, according to recent studies done for the Toronto Public Libraries and the Ottawa Public Libraries.
But—to the best of the collective knowledge of the working group—there has never been a study on the value of the whole GLAM sector.
So we are working on scoping out what such a study should look like so that we encompass the reality of all types of memory institutions.
- The second activity the working group has undertaken is to identify new partnerships that spark creativity and enhance engagement.
We started the work by developing an inventory of examples where institutions from the GLAM sector have successfully engaged with organizations outside the sector, for instance performing arts institutions.
The Canadian Urban Libraries Council had surveyed its members on this very subject last summer, so we are using their results to expand and include museums, galleries and archives.
- And one last thing we have undertaken is an environmental scan of the cultural policies of Canada, Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom.
Our goal is to explore the gaps and potential need for a national cultural policy in which the GLAMs would play a key role.
We found that all five countries strive to increase:
- participation and public support in cultural activities;
- public-private collaboration and financing—including crowdfunding;
- decentralization of cultural funding and management;
- openness of the definition of culture by including activities such as architecture, design, video games and fashion.
In each of the five countries we surveyed, there are driving factors that influence their approach to policy development, and they include collaboration, inclusion and access.
These concepts were also echoed in the Ontario Museum Association’s 2025 Strategic Vision and Action Plan, as well as Ontario’s Culture Strategy.
I mention them here because both documents contain a strong commitment to being inclusive, and to serving diverse communities, qualities that were found in our environmental scan and that we also emphasized during the December summit.
Both documents support creativity and innovation, as well as partnership and collaboration in education as well as in the government, not-for-profit and private sectors.
And they both highlight the need to demonstrate the social and the economic value of culture and cultural organizations, and their key role in the creative economy.
So, if great minds think alike, I dare say we’re on the right track.
On January 30, 2018, we are holding a second GLAM summit at the Royal Ontario Museum.
We have decided to focus on four topics that will act as drivers as we move forward:
- working with the community;
- initiatives with Indigenous peoples;
- relationships with the private sector; and
- government priorities.
We are looking for input on possible speakers, especially to present the point of view of our partners outside the GLAM sector (the private and not-for-profit sectors, communities, government and Indigenous peoples).
I hope many of you will be able to join us in Toronto and join the Ottawa Declaration movement.
Let’s work together so all of us, individually and collectively, can do more with more.
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