Because it is 2017: Recent initiatives at Library and Archives Canada


Speaking notes

Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada

Webster Library, Concordia University
Concordia Library Speakers Series
November 23, 2017
Montreal, Quebec

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Good afternoon.

Guylaine, thanks for those kind words, and for inviting me.

I am happy to find myself among old friends this afternoon, if you’ll forgive me using the word “old” !

As I look around and see the transformation that has taken place in the Webster Library, I am reminded that libraries are truly magical spaces.

But before talking about libraries of the 21st Century, let me invite you to travel with me backwards in time.

We are all familiar with the Mona Lisa.

That enigmatic smile that seems to follow you around the room.

How did Da Vinci do it?

In a recent issue of The Atlantic, Walter Isaacson – who has just published a new biography of Leonardo – reviews what he calls the science of creativity, and the technology behind Mona Lisa’s smile.

It turns out the smile was no accident. It was the result of careful study that combined both art and science.

Anatomy, optics, the use of glazes, light rays, the way the brain affects movement, the relationship between the lips and human emotions…just a few examples.

Now, you may think I am straying a long way from today’s topic, but bear with me.

In creating the Mona Lisa, Da Vinci had to rely on the information available to him at that time.

He was curious, he was creative, he was an innovator.

He even dissected cadavers to discover how the cheek muscles moved the lips.

Just imagine what he could have done if he had access to the kinds of technology that are available today!

Access to scanners, 3D printers and blockchain.

It boggles the mind.

And that’s where I’d like to begin.

Documentary heritage is the cornerstone of all democratic societies.

It supports our economic, social, legal and cultural domains and perhaps most important for our world today, it fosters innovation.

All over the world, memory institutions recognize the importance of contributing to innovation by making their collections available online.

And they are busily developing strategies to make this happen as fast as they can…working together, as well as with the private and non-profit sectors.

I remember when I joined Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec, back in 2009, archivists were battling the idea that "if it is not online, it does not exist".

We have evolved considerably since then. Even as we battled, we understood that this way of thinking was so widespread, trying to fight it would be about as useless as trying to stop the tide from moving in and out.

The documentary heritage community - both libraries and archives - heard the message loud and clear, and has been making every effort to provide online access to as many documents as possible,

even if at times the task may feel like emptying out the ocean using only a shell, as in St. Augustine's vision.

Some of you will remember that in February of 2015, the Council of Canadian Academies published a report entitled "Leading the Digital World: Opportunities for Collective Memory Institutions in Canada."

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

So Library and Archives Canada did a survey of some of the major digital initiatives going on around the world.

The Netherland’s Koniklijke Bibliotheek plans to digitize 90 per cent of all books published in the country, as well as the most relevant magazines and newspapers from before 1940.

In Sweden, Digisam provides coordinated help to national heritage institutions as they develop their own digitization strategies.

In New Zealand, Digital NZ serves as a central hub for content about the country, and also provides help and guidance on digitization in general.

And then there is the Digital Public Library of America.

The DPLA hub network is a unique nationwide collective that works towards a shared goal of bringing the riches of the nation’s cultural heritage organizations to a broad public.

A portal of discovery.

The DPLA brings together a collection of over 16 million items from dozens of hubs and thousands of contributing institutions.

Millions of people, from students to seniors, have taken advantage of the free and open resources offered through the DPLA.

Just imagine what Da Vinci could have created with access to this kind of information!

(Or perhaps a visit to the Webster Library!)

The success of the DPLA is due largely to its network of partners, and their willingness to come together to achieve a common goal: maximizing public access to shared history, culture and knowledge.

The DPLA model was very much top of mind when we created Canada’s National Heritage Digitization Strategy.

The NHDS was announced in June 2016, and it’s based on the best practices we saw in other countries.

It was developed by Canada’s major memory institutions:

large public libraries, academic libraries and archives, provincial archives, national associations of archivists, librarians, historians and museums.

The idea is to coordinate our approach to digitizing the hundreds of collections found in Canada’s memory institutions.

Its scope includes access, discovery and preservation.

And it covers both published and unpublished digitized material from archives, libraries, museums, galleries, historical associations, and other memory institutions across the country.

Things like:

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

The plan is to make the most important digital collections of Canada easily accessible to all.

…linking Canadians everywhere in their quest for culture and knowledge.

Our goal is to digitize, over the next ten years:

  • 90 per cent of all published heritage before 1917
  • 50 per cent of all monographs published before the 1940s
  • All scientific journals
  • All microfilm
  • Select audio and audio visual materials
  • Select archival fonds and finding aids
  • All historical maps; and
  • All archival material of genealogical interest.

It’s exciting, I’m sure you agree.

And it’s doable.

We’ve already started.

Our steering committee includes organizations from across the cultural and academic sector, such as the Internet Archive, the Canadian Museum of History, the Writers Union of Canada, and numerous universities.

And we’ve had a lot of interest already from the broader community, wanting to get involved.

As of September 2017, 46 organizations pledged their intent to partner with us.

We’ve created working groups, with more on the way.

And we have received initial funding from the private sector.

I take a special pride in the way NHDS works as a co-op, because it is my belief that Library and Archives Canada should not view 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.

And the Steering Committee of the NHDS is a good example of this is.

The strategy was developed initially by a 21-member Steering Committee that is 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 46 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.

NHDS is building momentum with its early successes and I’d like to draw your attention to a couple of these.

As we all know, newspapers are a terrific resource for all kinds of research, from the casual to the academic.

Many countries are involved in large scale projects to digitize as many newspapers as they can.

But the work is not without its challenges:

First, there are issues of copyright and intellectual property.

Combine this with fragile materials, fragmented collections and multiple formats, and you see immediately it’s no easy task.

These are some of the reasons the steering committee proposed a pilot project to gather information on newspaper digitization in Canada.

As a first step, we held consultations with organizations across the country who had experience in the field, and could contribute their own best practices.

This included BAnQ, Canadiana, Our Digital World, along with Simon Fraser University and the University of Alberta.

Secondly, we launched a small project to digitize three First Nations newspapers, with funding from the Salamander Foundation.

So, with the blessing and permission of the publishers, we are now in the process of digitizing Windspeaker, Turtle Island News, and Ha-Shilth-Sa.

The results of this pilot will be shared in a report that will inform larger projects as we move forward.

And from small beginnings, good things follow…we can apply what we learn through this project to bigger newspaper collections in the future.

On a different scale, we are also offering a uniquely Canadian contribution to an ongoing global discussion…

This spring the NHDS joined an international consortium led by the DPLA and Europeana.

Rights provides 12 standardized statements that can be used to communicate the copyright status of digital cultural objects to the public.

This is an extremely important and often contentious issue.

By working together, with the DPLA, Europeana, and representatives from India and Australia, a flexible system has been created.

It will allow cultural heritage partners, who hold digital works, to clearly communicate to their users what they can or cannot do with the objects they discover.

We will be testing out these statements in Canada, to see how they apply here.

Another development of NHDS I want to share with you is the creation of a prototype discovery tool, a portal as it were, which will help identify and find digitized material across the country.

It will allow us to share collections and provide access to data from a broad range of Canadian cultural institutions.

The tool is still being tweaked, but we’ll be sharing it with the community for feedback in the next few months.

As you can see, there is a lot going on.

And not just in terms of the National Heritage Digitization Strategy.

I want to share with you what we have done with the Documentary Heritage Communities Program that we established 3 years ago, to the tune of 1.5 million a year.

The program provides funding to libraries, archives and other heritage organizations to process, preserve and share their collections.

The response has been considerable and shows no signs of slowing down.

Since its launch in June, 2015, the program has allocated $4.5M to some 140 projects.

While the program covers more than digital projects, the majority of proposals received since we introduced it three years ago have been for the digitization of materials.

Hundreds of thousands of pages were digitized to improve the visibility of Canadian collections.

Researchers across Canada and the world can now access historical documents and information that, in some instances, could have been lost over time.

We’ve funded organizations as diverse as the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation,

the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta, t

he Women’s College Hospital Foundation

and the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives, to name a few.

Recipients have been doing some incredible work.

The Manitoba Historical Society uncovered hundreds of hard-to-find local histories and digitized them, making it easy for all Manitobans and anyone with ties to that province to access them online.

Through the New Brunswick Queer Heritage initiative, archivists launched a new website to share their heritage records, which has increased the general awareness of a vibrant community.

The Avataq Cultural Institute digitized and described the personal funds of two notable Nunavut residents, Yves Michaud and Georges Filotas.

The latter collection includes original audio recordings about key developments in the Inuit community and self-government initiatives going back to the 1960s and 70s.

It is fascinating stuff.

Using a collaborative approach, and making use of digital technology, we can help to preserve valuable collections and ensure that more Canadians have access to them.

These kinds of collaborations can have dramatic benefits.

Like the pieces of a puzzle, they allow fragments of history to be reunited.

Another good example from the world of 2017 is the digitization of our First World War personnel files.

These files are a major resource for genealogy and historical research.

We receive over 3,000 requests a year for this information, but the original paper documents are thin and fragile.

So, our staff is diligently taking the Canadian Expeditionary Force files, digitizing them, and putting them up on our website.

We started with box number one, and we’ll be going in order all the way to box number ten thousand, six hundred and eighty six!

By the end of 2018, all 640,000 files will be online.

As of November, we had already digitized over 81% of the total.

These include 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. 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 and even Entertainment Weekly.

Not bad for a library and archive!


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

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 now choose their own digitization priorities and then scan the materials themselves, using state-of-the-art equipment.

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

In its first few months alone, DigiLab enabled over 24,000 pages of textual material and over 1000 photographs to be digitized and made available to the public.

Things like records which 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 easily accessible through the DigiLab.

We’ve also been looking at ways to get our public involved through crowdsourcing and transcription.

In June of last year, the Manitoba Métis 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 web site.

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 report, some 521 pages, 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.

I am really not surprised. Her diary makes for some fascinating reading.

Here is a little sample, from her entry on July 5, 1867, just a few days after confederation.

“It has been a hot, fusty day, but these are fusty times.

This new Dominion of ours came noisily into existence on the 1st and the very newspapers look hot and tired with the weight of announcements and Cabinet lists.

Here in this house the atmosphere is so awfully political that sometimes I think the very flies hold Parliament on the kitchen tablecloths!!”

Worth a read, wouldn’t you say?


One of the great things about the digital world is its democratic nature.

Its ability to transcend borders, to reach everyone, and to unite people and ideas on an equal footing.

This is part of the spirit behind a new project at LAC to preserve, revitalize and enhance Canada’s indigenous languages and cultures.

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

See Our History will digitize LAC records that contain First Nations, Inuit and Métis-related content 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 révitalize First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages.

The focus 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 a step in the right direction towards meaningful reconciliation.

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.

Technology also allows us 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 re-united.

Identities recovered.

And mysteries solved.

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

Even though each of the initiatives I have described illustrates the power of digital, I cannot leave you without mentioning one of the great paradoxes of our times.

It seems counter intuitive, but in the digital age, more people are using memory institutions than ever.

And the Webster Library is a great example of this phenomenon.

Even if the concept of memory itself can seem obsolete.

With the mind-blowing speed of their algorithms, aren’t Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter good enough for “remembering”?

Yet, in fact, the patronage of libraries and archives is increasing. The number of visits to public libraries in the U.S.A. increased by 4% in the past year.

The new Halifax Public Library received double the expected number of visitors in its first year (1.9M compared with the 900,000 expected),

It reminds me of our own Grande Bibliothèque, which was expected to receive 1.5 million visitors a year and now gets between 2.5 and 3 million.

As for the archival sector, the Survey of Heritage Institutions, soon to be published by the Department of Heritage, will show that the number of physical visits to the archives are up 66.1% since 2011!

Counter-intuitive data like this led the British Library to conclude:

“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.”

* * *

I began this talk with one of the world’s best known creative thinkers, Leonardo Da Vinci, and I’d like to close with another.

Last month, I attended a press conference that represented one of the high points of my career: the inclusion in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register of the Marshall McLuhan Collection that is preserved at LAC and at the University of Toronto.

This is the first time part of LAC’s collection has been recognized by UNESCO.

And how fitting it is that, in the digital era, the first one happens to be McLuhan, the man known as the “prophet of the digital age”.

By celebrating the legacy and memory of a great thinker, who belonged to the world as much as he did to Canada, we celebrate not only his creative genius, but libraries and archives themselves, and their contribution to creative thought and innovation.

Let’s work together so that all of us, individually and collectively, can go as far as our imaginations permit.

Let’s make Marshall and Leonardo proud.

Thank you.

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