Memory Institutions in the Digital Age

Speech

Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
December 5, 2018, 3:30 pm
395 Wellington Street, Alfred Pellan Room, Ottawa, Ontario

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Let me begin by acknowledging that we are gathered on the traditional land of the Algonquin Nation. We recognize them as the caretakers of this territory.

I want to thank my friend and colleague, Chad Gaffield, for taking the initiative to hold this Summit as part of the G7 Research Summits.

Chad developed the idea for this summit on May 30, 2018, while we were at the airport in Regina with Ursula Gobel from the SSHRC, waiting for our flight home to Ottawa from the Learned Societies Conference.

It was an opportunity for me to see Chad at his best. As we waited in line, we were able to determine the topic of the summit, develop the outlines of the program, and set the time and place.

And our Air Canada flight was not even delayed, which is just as incredible!

I was very open to the idea of talking about Memory Institutions in the Digital Age since the two reports that are its backbone – the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) report published in November 2014 and the Council of Canadian Academies report released in February 2015 – have been constant companions throughout my time at Library and Archives Canada since I arrived, in June 2014.

These reports have guided my work over the past four years because of the structural issues they raise, which demand fundamental solutions that will affect not only us but also the entire Canadian community, in the short, medium and long terms.

My colleague Robert McIntosh will review more systematically how LAC has responded to the recommendations in the two reports, particularly those dealing with our digital future.

For my part, I simply want to go over these recommendations to illustrate how they have had a profound effect on LAC.

In the case of the Royal Society, I will concentrate on the six recommendations outlined in the section of the report that focused exclusively on LAC.

The first of the six recommendations was that LAC should develop a five-year strategic plan in consultation with all relevant stakeholders.

We worked throughout 2015–2016 to develop such a plan, a three-year plan rather than a five-year plan because our world is changing so fast that it seemed overly ambitious to plan for five years.

We consulted not only our stakeholders, but also our users and our employees, through numerous town hall sessions, meetings and a user survey.

In late March 2016, we released our three-year plan for 2016–2019.

As a footnote, we resumed our consultation process this year, with an even wider scope, holding sessions in Halifax, Winnipeg and Vancouver, in addition to the nation’s capital, and we will publish the results in March 2019 in our 2019–2022 Three-Year Plan.

The Royal Society’s second recommendation was for LAC to participate actively in Canada’s associations of archivists and librarians, and to develop a regular schedule for working with these organizations.

This recommendation echoed one of my major concerns about LAC’s structure. Indeed, as a Government of Canada agency, not a Crown corporation, we have no board of directors. This means that if LAC is not careful, we could completely lose touch with our communities and become isolated inside a bureaucratic bubble.

We have therefore created or reinstated a number of advisory committees.

The first is the Stakeholders’ Forum, a group that comprises our 12 main partners, representing all types of stakeholders of the documentary community: librarians, archivists, museum professionals and historians.

We also set up three advisory committees, one to advise us on our services, another on our acquisitions, and a third on our public programming.

And we recently created an Indigenous Advisory Circle to help us implement our programs in a way that respects the cultural values of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

And we didn’t just listen to what our partners were telling us. We took action too.

For example, after listening just a little while, it became obvious that the documentary community desperately needed an assistance program so it could grow and play its role fully.  

We therefore created the Documentary Heritage Communities Program (DHCP), funded through our own budget without any extra allocations.

Through a collective effort, LAC has managed to put $1.5 million a year into the program and absorb all of the management costs.

Since its launch in 2015, the DHCP has provided $6 million in funding to 130 local documentary heritage organizations in support of 170 projects. This will continue on an ongoing basis in the future.

The Royal Society’s third recommendation was that LAC should address the problem of employee morale.

We sent a strong signal to employees from the outset that their professional expertise was valued and that we would invest in developing it further.

Librarians and archivists returned to national and international conferences and seminars, we developed a series of internal presentations that allow our colleagues to share their knowledge with one another, and we increased the number of round tables and conferences at our location at 395 Wellington Street, so as many employees as possible could stay informed about the latest developments in their fields.

Over the last few years, the workplace at LAC has improved significantly, which has resulted in increased employee engagement.

The 2017 Public Service Employee Survey results showed that 75% of respondents would recommend LAC as a great place to work compared to 58% in 2014. Our results for 2017 are above the average for the public service.

The fourth recommendation was that LAC should focus its efforts toward harmonizing library and archival cultures.

We made a commitment to respect the integrity of our professional, library and archival disciplines.

Let’s remember that in 2004, LAC was the first Western institution to be created by merging a national library and a national archives.

As a result, we did not have a model to follow, and we had to operate by trial and error.

To be honest, one of our errors was to go too far in expecting archivists and librarians to somehow become interchangeable.

We have backtracked since then, and LAC now has a Published Heritage Branch and an Archives Branch, which acknowledges the professional expertise of both groups, but still makes it possible to pool efforts and expertise.

The fifth recommendation: LAC should reassert Canada’s role in international library and archival circles. This recommendation is important for an institution like LAC that has two roles internationally: as a national library and as a national archives.

The RSC report did not go easy on LAC in this regard. Page 41 of the English version states, “LAC’s international relations were frequently described as ‘a national embarrassment.’ ”

With the support of members of our Stakeholders’ Forum, we therefore instituted a robust international relations strategy based on the premise that LAC could not view its place in the ecosystem of memory institutions hierarchically.

An example of this mindset is that, in our three-year plan for 2016–2019, we set as a goal to have 10 Canadian representatives on the major international documentary heritage organizations.

We did not have “10 LAC employees” as a performance indicator, but rather “10 Canadians,” recognizing that the country would be better served if, in each case, the best person was chosen.

Recommendation 6 was that LAC should engage Government of Canada decision makers to review and revise, if necessary, its enabling policies and protocols.

Beyond policies and protocols, it seemed a matter of urgency to me that LAC regain the confidence of the Canadian government.

To do so, we created more partnerships with agencies inside our own department and with other federal government departments.

Here are a few examples of our efforts.

We became a key player with Treasury Board in Canada’s open government strategy, and we work together on training employees in charge of departmental record keeping.

Since April 2017, through a partnership with the Canadian Museum of History, an exhibition room is dedicated to “Treasures from LAC,” which allows us to share the richness of our collection with the 1.3 million people who visit the museum each year.

In addition, since June 2017, our agreement with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 has made it possible for our Halifax office to be housed in the museum and for our archivists to interact with the tens of thousands of people who visit the museum annually in search of their genealogical roots.

More broadly, LAC has been, with the Canadian Museums Association, the originator of the GLAM movement in Canada, an initiative that brings together galleries, libraries, archives and museums and encourages them to increase collaboration and develop innovative programs and services.

The group has held two summits so far, and it has adopted the Ottawa Declaration as its framework. A third summit will be held in Montréal on Monday, May 13, 2019, and we are expecting 300 attendees, who will discuss the value of GLAMs and their shared future.

With the support of our department, Canadian Heritage, we embarked last year on a project to help preserve Indigenous languages.

We were allocated $14.9 million to develop two ambitious initiatives, in consultation with the communities themselves.

In my opinion, the fact that LAC was entrusted with such a sensitive matter shows that our work over the past four years to restore our credibility with the Government of Canada is starting to produce results.

* * *

The Leading in the Digital World report from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) offered more general recommendations, intended for the documentary community as a whole.

First, the Report showed how the digital revolution has radically changed relationships between memory institutions and the general public, and it draws attention to the development of a culture of citizen participation and to the need for memory institutions to build ongoing and lasting relationships with the public.

As part of the consultations that we held this year to prepare our next three-year plan, the main message we received was that the relationship between LAC and its clients is currently experiencing a drastic redefinition.

Technology-enabled activities such as crowdsourcing allow our clients to interact with our collection in a far more “hands on” way.

It is understandable that librarians and archivists may be concerned about seeing the hoi polloi engage in operations that were once their exclusive domain, but I believe that the experience with Wikipedia and its reliability demonstrates our users’ ability to self-regulate and self-correct.

The CCA Report also sheds light on the efforts required from all those involved in the Canadian system of memory institutions to help our country regain its position as a leader in digital initiatives.

It was in response to this call to action that we created the National Heritage Digitization Strategy (NHDS) in June 2016.

NHDS was developed by Canada’s major memory institutions: large public libraries, academic and provincial libraries and 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.

So far, 65 organizations have agreed to participate in the Strategy, and we have received initial funding of $1.1 million from the private sector.

***

I could go on and on discussing how the RSC and CCA reports transformed our way of thinking and operating.

But the time has come for me to let Bob McIntosh explore other avenues and – most importantly – talk about the future, keeping in mind the invitation in the RSC report to live “the future now.”

Thank you.


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