The Future Lasts Forever. Memory Institutions: Not a Thing of the Past


Speaking notes

Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada

October 21, 2017
Faculty of Information and Media Studies
University of Western Ontario

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Let me first recognize that we are gathered on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg (ah-nish-nah-bek) Haudenosaunee (howd in oh saw nee), Attawandaron and Wendat peoples.

Thank you Dean Carmichael for inviting me to speak to you today and to share my experiences of the last three years at Library and Archives Canada.

I am especially pleased to be here on friendly ground, having signed a memorandum of understanding with Western on May 10, 2017.

The MOU formalizes our agreement to share expertise and knowledge through workshops, training programs and student placements.

Given the high quality of the programs, the professors and the students of the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, I am totally convinced that our collaboration will be mutually beneficial.

And since my speech today is part and parcel of what we want to achieve with our MOU, I do feel a bit of pressure to prove that your federal tax money is well invested in our partnership!

First, let’s go back to my experiences at LAC.

I decided to give you a behind-the-scenes tour of those experiences and to let you in on the motivations behind them.

When I arrived at LAC, in June of 2014, I wanted to share my vision of the future with employees and stakeholders.

Why? Because I felt it was important to rapidly deal with the uncertainty that follows a change in management.

I have lived this scenario quite often in my career.

Your head swims with questions.

What will the priorities of the new leadership be?

What will be maintained? Developed? Abandoned?

Positions may be eliminated, staff may be reassigned, programs could be abandoned, and new activities developed.

Even for employees as motivated and dedicated to public service as those at LAC, it can be quite unsettling.

I wanted to quickly reassure employees that, while there were improvements I wanted to tackle right away, my mandate would not be marked by a blank slate approach.

To communicate this accurately, I made a strategic choice.

I deliberately avoided the term “vision statement.”

LAC employees and stakeholders had experienced many grandiose statements over the years and had developed a natural mistrust of top-down visions that failed to take their realities into account.

So instead, I talked modestly of four “commitments” and presented them repeatedly to employees and stakeholders in the summer of 2014.

Since that time, the four commitments have taken off, and much like the characters in a novel who have managed to escape their author, they have found a life of their own.

In developing our Three-Year Plan for 2016 to 2019, my LAC management colleagues convinced me to promote the four commitments to the status of priorities.

So the action plan for those three years was built around them.

What are these four commitments and why did I choose them?

The first commitment was to make LAC an institution that served the needs of all its clients: government institutions, donors, academics, researchers, students, genealogists and the general public.

This commitment would seem to be the most commonplace, but in fact it is the most fundamental.

There were times in the past when LAC seemed to act as if it was the keeper of the one deep truth and it alone knew what was good for its users.

It must be said that LAC’s governance formula is especially suited to this drift.

LAC is not a crown corporation operating at arm’s length, but rather a government agency reporting directly to the Minister of Canadian Heritage.

Therefore, LAC does not have a legally constituted Board of Directors and user committees.

What this means is that, if you don’t pay constant attention, you can completely lose contact with your environment and your clients.

You can live virtually isolated in a bureaucratic bubble.

So we solved the problem rapidly by renewing our Stakeholders Forum, an advisory body with representatives from the 12 professional associations we work most closely with.

The Forum gives us the opportunity to present ideas upstream, and even if we are sometimes told that we are up the creek, so to speak, our relationship is such that we are not afraid to propose “out-of-the-box” projects and new ideas.

We know they will be considered with respect.

Then we set up a Services Advisory Committee, composed of members who represent our main clients: academics, genealogists, archivists, historians, librarians, departmental and museum staff.

We also have a whole host of other advisory committees to validate our initiatives: one for acquisitions, one for public programming and another for information technology.

In terms of this first commitment to our clients, I also want to draw attention to the mention of “the general public.”

There is a major trend in national libraries and archives right now: they are being visited regularly by the general public, both physically and virtually.

This is a territory that used to be inhabited mostly by researchers and academics, before the Internet and its powerful democratizing effects on culture and knowledge.

And this trend is surfacing everywhere.

The Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington and The National Archives in Great Britain, as well as many others, have reported growing numbers of visitors over the last decade.

It is vital that we pay attention to this trend if we are to stay relevant.

Now I’d like to present some of those characters who escaped their authors, and give you some examples of activities that have developed in the wake of this first commitment, to serve all our clients.

First of all, after listening to our stakeholders, we established the Documentary Heritage Communities Program (DHCP), which provides funding to Canada’s local archival, library and heritage communities.

The DHCP allows institutions who are funded to increase their capacity to preserve, provide access to, and promote local documentary heritage.

Since its launch in June 2015, the program has allocated 4.5 million dollars to some 140 projects led by archives, libraries and heritage organizations.

The funding has allowed them to digitize hundreds of thousands of pages and improve the visibility of their collections.

It has also given researchers across Canada and the world access to historical documents and information that, in some instances, would have been lost over time.

For example, a digital audio archive was created to preserve Inuit oral history, with the help of funding given to the Nunavut Bilingual Education Society.

In Oshawa, funding for a newspaper digitization project meant that local newspapers dating back to the 1860s were collected and digitized, creating a complete historical record of local life and times.

These are just a couple of examples: there are many more.

Another client-focused innovation is DigiLab, which we started in March 2017.

DigiLab allows us to engage with one of our most important clients, the general public, as well as researchers and students.

It’s our newest makerspace.

DigiLab completely disrupts traditional approaches to using archival collections.

For the better.

Thanks to DigiLab, clients can choose their digitization priorities, and then scan the materials themselves, using state-of-the-art equipment.

We provide this equipment free of charge in exchange for sharing their efforts with a broader community of users.

In its first few months alone, 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 will contribute to research in 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.

And there are a number of other examples of the first commitment in action.

One of the most endearing is one that involves crowdsourcing.

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 commemoration, LAC invited the public to transcribe the Coltman report.

This opportunity was made possible thanks to the introduction of new transcribing software on our website.

The report was handwritten in 1818 by William Coltman, a prominent lawyer at the time.

It remains one of the best sources of information on the fur-trade war, a reasonably fair-minded account of the battle, and a key document in the history of the Métis Nation.

The entire 521-page report was transcribed by members of the public in less than a month.

The chance to get up close and personal with our history proved to be a big draw, and the pilot project was such a success, we invited the public to transcribe another document: Lady Macdonald’s diary.

When Sir John A. Macdonald was building a national government for the new Dominion of Canada in July 1867, his wife, Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald, started writing a diary.

The diary is a fascinating first-hand account of the earliest days of the new Dominion.

It provides the viewpoint of one of Canada’s most prominent women of the time.

Not only does it offer a window on her daily life, it also gives us a vivid insight into the political culture of the new nation.

We put the diary up on June 29 and it was completely transcribed by August 22, in only 25 days.

To serve all of our clients, we also embarked recently on a project to preserve, revitalize and enhance Canada’s Indigenous languages and cultures.

LAC received 14.9 million dollars in the last federal budget to develop two ambitious initiatives in consultation with the communities themselves.

See Our History will permit us to digitize LAC records that contain content related to First Nations, Inuit and the Métis Nation, such as treaties, photographs, and Indigenous language dictionaries and lexicons.

The goal is to offer unrestricted and free online access to this wealth of material, as well as digital access tools.

Hear Our Voices will offer support and expertise to Indigenous communities as part of their efforts to preserve and revitalize First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages.

The focus here will be on oral histories and recordings.

As part of these two initiatives, LAC will also create dedicated project positions for Indigenous people in locations across Canada.

LAC will work directly with community elders and knowledge keepers, through advisory circles and other collaborative approaches.

This is quite a leap forward, and it ensures that we engage our clients and put their needs first.

It acknowledges the importance of language as an integral part of Indigenous culture, and ensures that anything we do will be implemented in a way that is culturally appropriate.

We are extremely proud to be a partner in this, and we also hope that by making more digital resources available, we will help to revitalize Indigenous languages.

The second of my four commitments was to make sure LAC was at the leading edge of archival and library science, as well as new technologies, thanks to the quality of all its staff.

I wanted to send a strong signal to employees that their professional expertise was valued and that we were going to invest to develop it.

By mentioning both the archival and library sciences, I also wanted to point out that I would respect the integrity of these two professional disciplines.

In this regard, one must remember that, in 2004, Canada was the first Western country to merge its national library and its national archives.

That meant that for LAC, there was no model to follow, no best practices to consult.

We basically had to operate by trial and error.

One of the mistakes we made was to push the pendulum too far, expecting archivists and librarians to function the same way.

Seen from afar, they may appear interchangeable, but close up and in real life, asking them to do each other’s work is like asking a dentist to do open-heart surgery just because surgeons and dentists are both health specialists!

We have since retraced our steps and now we have a separate division for published heritage and a separate division for archives, recognizing the expertise of each discipline.

In view of this commitment to being at the leading edge, I’d like to give some examples of the innovative spirit of my colleagues.

First of all, our specialists were not satisfied with our efficiency in digitization.

So they began to look for an alternative to the equipment that was commonly used in libraries and archives.

We are very proud of the technique they developed to digitize the 640,000 records of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War, a project that spans almost 5 years.

Once the project is completed, 32 million images will be available online, providing unprecedented access to records while protecting original documents.

To do this, our technicians took scanners designed to handle double-sided cheques at high speeds, and adapted them to scan fragile documents, photos, and unusual formats such as medical records and pay slips.

LAC was the first institution in the world to use BancTec scanners for heritage conservation and we are very proud of this achievement.

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.

Identities recovered.

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.

My third commitment was to make LAC a proactive institution that is engaged with national and international networks, in an open and inclusive way.

Needless to say, the key words here are “open and inclusive.”

Although we are part of the federal government, we must recognize that in a number of fields, other Canadian—and even more so, international—institutions are better placed than LAC to take the lead.

I used the concept of horizontal leadership because we should not look at our place in the ecosystem of memory institutions as a hierarchy.

On the contrary, I like to think of LAC as a link in a chain, rather than a pharaoh at the top of a pyramid.

I have often explained my position on this by pointing out that I don’t have to chair every committee I sit on.

A good example of this is the Steering Committee of the National Heritage Digitization Strategy (NHDS).

Some of you will remember that in February of 2015, the Council of Canadian Academies published a report titled “Leading in the Digital World: Opportunities for Canada’s Memory Institutions.”

In this report, the Council challenged memory institutions to work together to meet the digital expectations of Canadians.

As a result, LAC has taken the lead in developing the National Heritage Digitization Strategy, in close collaboration with the members of the Stakeholders Forum I mentioned earlier.

The strategy was launched in June 2016 and since then we have been developing it with a 21-member Steering Committee chaired by Sandra Singh, the Chief Librarian for the City of Vancouver.

LAC is a member of the Steering Committee and one of our employees acts as corporate secretary, but I do not chair the committee and LAC is only one player among 21 others.

The technical components and the governance model are defined and developed by a network of players, which is how it should be.

No institution in the world, be it the Library of Congress or the British Library, has the means to acquire, process and preserve everything.

Teamwork is needed to provide our fellow citizens with the kind of quality service they expect.

Teamwork is why we developed memoranda of understanding with eight Canadian universities, including Western, of course.

And it’s also why we adopted our international relations strategy, designed to deploy LAC’s international activities in a strategic, coherent and coordinated way, making use of existing networks.

This international strategy will help us further the skills and expertise of LAC professionals by sharing lessons learned and best practices;

as well as increase engagement and collaboration with international organizations and networks;

and support the foreign policy objectives of the Government of Canada.

Again, we developed this strategy in close collaboration with our partners and our stakeholders.

It has already enabled us to enter into partnerships and agreements with archival, library and museum institutions around the world, including:

national institutions in Argentina, China, Korea, France and the United Kingdom.

We’ve also welcomed over 20 international delegations to the LAC Preservation Centre over the past few years.

They have been consistently impressed by our expertise in the fields of restoration and preservation of our collections.

Finally, my fourth commitment was to make LAC an institution with greater public visibility, highlighting the value of its collections and services.

Due to major budget cuts in 2012, LAC had abandoned virtually all its public programming activities: exhibitions, book launches, conferences, film screenings, etc.

This is a temptation that threatens all national libraries and archives, in the name of focusing on the so-called core business.

Except that for me, the core business of documentary heritage institutions such as libraries and archives is not limited to acquisition and preservation, but it includes access as well.

As a matter of fact, if the goal of our work is not access, then what is the point of acquiring, processing and preserving these materials?

I am often quoted on Twitter as saying “preservation without access is just hoarding!”

And, if there is some truth in what I’m saying, how do we promote access if people do not know what is in our collection?

Do we let the popular image endure that our collections are just composed of old yellowing books and records?

We must show our works of art, our photographs, our audiovisual material.

We need to promote published artists through their works.

We must organize debates and round tables on topics that could not be explored without our archives and monographs. Etc., etc.

This fourth commitment has brought results that have far exceeded my wildest expectations.

We started organizing exhibitions and public events again, after a two-year hiatus, and in 2016–2017 we hosted more than 60 public events.

That’s an increase of 400 percent from the previous year!

We also renewed our contacts with the museum world.

Acknowledging that 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.

This is a key driver behind our efforts to display our collection at museums and galleries as often and as widely as we can.

From June 2017 until March next year, visitors can enjoy Canada: Who Do You Think You Are at our newly opened exhibition space at 395 Wellington in Ottawa.

Using many of our rarely seen treasures, it explores the idea of Canadian identity.

Another of our exhibitions, titled Hiding in Plain Sight, explores how the Métis have been portrayed historically, through reproductions of art and photographs in our collection.

It’s currently on tour out West, and also made its way to Paris last February, with the help of UNESCO.

Last summer, working with the Library of Parliament, we created an exhibition of foundational documents that represent key moments in our history, such as the Proclamation of the Constitution Act.

And I am also very proud of the exhibition that is currently at the Canadian Museum of History, in Gatineau, the first in a five-year series.

It is called Moments from 150 Years Ago and it paints a fascinating picture of everyday life in Canada in 1867.

It features 32 artifacts from our collection, 9 from the museum’s collection, as well as interactive components.

And I should add that photographs from our collection are on display in two dedicated spaces at the National Gallery of Canada.

Finally, I am proud to report that we have embarked on a five-year collaboration with the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

Starting in March of 2018, we will be showing portraits from our extraordinary collection in our own dedicated space at the Glenbow.

We are also discussing ideas for new exhibitions at Pier 21 in Halifax and the Vancouver Public Library, thanks to the co-location agreements we signed with them this year.

In total, more than 350 items from LAC’s collection will be out on loan next year.

Through all of this, we came to realize that museums have a lot in common with libraries and archives.

Indeed there is a term, GLAM—that is, galleries, libraries, archives and museums—that colourfully designates memory institutions.

The entire GLAM sector is facing challenges on two fronts: from the rise in the use of digital technologies, and from the growth of on-site attendance.

In an interesting twist, 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:

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.

We have to do both.

LAC has taken the initiative, in collaboration with the Canadian Museums Association and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, to gather together the key Canadian GLAM players.

We held a summit last December that drew some 300 people and led to the adoption of the Ottawa Declaration, which committed us to increasing collaboration between our networks and developing innovative programs and services.

And we are holding a second GLAM summit in Toronto, at the Royal Ontario Museum on January 30, 2018.

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.

The nature of these themes confirms that once again, LAC does not see itself as the lone skater on the ice.

We are perfectly happy to recognize that others may come up with better ideas than us.

* * *

The four commitments I shared with you today served as the framework for our Three-Year Plan 2016 to 2019.

What will drive the next plan, the one for 2019 to 2022?

Without yet knowing its exact content, I want to review with you the main elements of what I believe to be its key drivers.

First, from a technology standpoint, we will be devoting a lot of energy to coming up with ways to ingest the Government of Canada’s digital records.

Developing new standards and building the gateway.

How well we succeed in this area will affect our credibility and our relevance.

And still on the subject of technology, I strongly believe in the future of the Canadian Linked Data Initiative.

This is led by the University of Alberta, and LAC is participating.

Germany and certain other countries are already ahead of us in their use of open linked data, and I am pleased to see that we are starting to make the shift in Canada, too.

I am also quite intrigued by the possibilities of blockchain archival technology, especially for ensuring that information is valid and authentic.

Canada is fortunate to have one of the world’s top specialists in this field, UBC professor Victoria Lemieux, and naturally we are in touch with her.

LAC will also need to position itself to capture the content of Web and social media.

We have already carried out many pilot projects, and we have captured millions of tweets on topics such as Canada’s 150th anniversary and the First World War.

But we need to go beyond pilot projects and adopt long-term practices.

Just think of the world leaders using Twitter. Not only our friend to the South, but our own Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

Future generations will rightly say that we failed if we simply throw up our hands rather than dealing with the huge amount of content produced.

These technology-related issues go together with questions about the mandate of LAC.

Our founding statute dates back to 2004, a long time ago in these times of rapidly unfolding history.

Yet we are still in the process of developing a policy on the development of published collections.

This initiative will clearly have implications for legal deposit regulations regarding both analogue and digital formats.

I also believe that the coming years will bring legislative changes that enable LAC to develop its own revenue streams.

While maintaining quality services and offering them free of charge to our users, we could emulate many of our sister institutions—

museums, and even national libraries and archives, such as the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Library of Congress and The National Archives in the UK—

in developing complementary revenue sources, such as sponsorship and philanthropy.

Our ability to live up to our ambitions is closely tied to our openness to funding from other sources.

In terms of society’s expectations, I see some current trends growing and taking on larger roles in our day-to-day lives.

For example, the “right to be forgotten.”

So far, it has been limited to European countries, but it is very likely to cross the Atlantic.

How far are legislators prepared to go in granting citizens the right to have data pertaining to them removed from the Internet?

What will this mean for archivists in the future?

And historians?

The topic of “fake news is prominent at the moment. I see it gaining ground because of the crisis in traditional media.

If traditional newspapers, the sole drivers of the news dissemination ecosystem, were to disappear, then producers of fake news would probably step in quickly to fill the void.

The phenomenon is so likely to happen that I do not believe librarians and archivists will have the luxury of staying on the sidelines in this debate.

With so many resources, they will have the duty of helping their fellow citizens to see things clearly.

As the legal maxim Qui sentit commodum, sentire debet et onus suggests, having resources also means having responsibilities.

That’s why on Monday last we held a round table at The Globe and Mail in Toronto on this very topic.

I will close with some aspects of LAC’s specific situation that I expect will take shape in the years to come.

What does the future hold for the further integration of the national archives and the national library?

We have seen the pendulum swing away from making the disciplines interchangeable—for the better, I am sure—as the unique natures of our professions gain recognition and respect.

Is this new equilibrium solidly in place, or will changes in university programs and in our users’ needs take us in new directions over the next five years?

Speaking of collaboration between disciplines, I believe that another key feature in the coming years will be collaboration with the museum (GLAM) sector.

Of course, this would be a self-fulfilling prophecy, since I have been personally involved in efforts to build these bridges for over a year.

However, the very positive response to our initiatives and to the Ottawa Declaration leads me to believe that we have indeed identified something that is extremely promising and worth exploring.

This is what I see before us.

You may think it is a lot, but in the past three years, I have learned what LAC, its partners, and its stakeholders are capable of,

and what tremendous energy and exceptional expertise they possess.

So, I am very confident.

Thank you


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