Let’s Start at the Beginning: Archival Origins


Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Association of Canadian Archivists Conference
June 6, 2019, Toronto, Ontario

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Thank you for inviting me to share what I have taken away from my five years at Library and Archives Canada (LAC).

This overview of the recent past is perfectly in line with the theme of this year’s conference, Let’s Start at the Beginning: Archival Origins.

Mind you, I am the last person who would object to this theme. My early training centred on Ancient Greek History, and I spent years of my life studying phenomena dating back 25 centuries, firmly convinced that understanding them helps us understand the present.

As soon as I joined LAC five years ago, I wanted to share my vision for the future with employees and partners.

I quickly wanted to make it clear that I had no intention of starting my term with a blank slate, but I nevertheless hoped to tackle certain improvements straight away.

Without a detailed agenda, and with nothing more than a few vision-oriented items, I also wanted to take the time to understand this highly complex institution as well as the Government of Canada’s modus operandi, which differs considerably from what I was accustomed to within the Government of Quebec.

I was in a hurry to share a vision, not a program.

For strategic reasons, I wanted to avoid the term “vision.”

LAC employees and partners had heard many grandiloquent statements over the years and were a little wary of grand, top-down visions that disregarded their realities.

I therefore spoke of four “commitments,” and I tried to make them as straightforward as possible to make them easy to remember.

Not only were they  straightforward, they were deliberately few in number.

To turn them into something of a mantra demanded that their number be small.  

These four original commitments have gained ground over the years.

As we were developing our 2016–2019 Three-Year Plan, my LAC management colleagues convinced me to turn these four commitments into priorities.

As a result, our action plan for the next three years – 2016–2019 – revolved around these very commitments.

And since, all four of the original commitments have taken on a life of their own, a little like characters in a novel who write their own stories, independently of the author’s will.

New activities grew from our four commitments organically, not as part of an initial plan.

I will give you some examples as we go.

What are these four commitments, and why did I choose those and not others?

The first commitment was to make LAC an institution decidedly oriented to serving clients of all types: government institutions, donors, academics, researchers, students, genealogists and the general public.

This commitment seems the most trite, but is in fact the most fundamental.

LAC had stopped considering the different needs of its users and behaved as if they were all the same, both those who, once in a while, consulted its documents on the Web and those who spent 12 months a year in its premises on Wellington Street: researchers, professors and graduate students.

Direct relationships between researchers and archivists were discouraged. Front-line services had been developed for use by generalists, and when it came to reference, LAC conducted itself a bit like the public library of an average-sized city.

Even more essentially, LAC acted as if it possessed the absolute truth and it alone knew what was best 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 do not pay constant attention, you can completely lose contact with your environment and your clients. You can live virtually isolated in a bureaucratic bubble.

As a result, we rushed to establish a full set of advisory committees to validate our initiatives: one on services, one on acquisitions, one on public programming and, recently, an Indigenous circle and a Youth Advisory Council.

Above all, we revived the Stakeholders’ Forum with representatives from the 12 professional associations of which LAC is a member, including the Association of Canadian Archivists, of course.

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.

The rule is to keep our conversations discreet, so that our partners have the scoop before anything is officially announced, and so that we are unafraid to propose projects before they are completely ready to roll out.

But listening is not enough.

We also need to act on our ongoing dialogue with our partners.

And, by listening – even a little – it was easy to hear how desperately the documentary community needed a program to enable local communities to evolve, maintain their capacity, and fully play their unique role across the country.

That is why I established the Documentary Heritage Communities Program, the DHCP, my personal crusade.

Of course, I was able to do it thanks to the help of my colleagues at LAC and the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage.

The net result was that LAC has managed to invest $1.5 million annually, from its own budget, with no additional funding, in the new program and to fully absorb the associated administrative costs.

This is a significant achievement, and I mention it not to take credit myself, but to share the circumstances with you as a reminder of how the DHCP symbolizes our commitment to meeting the true needs of our partners.

Still in relation to this first commitment, I also wanted to mention “the general public” in the list of our clients, to acknowledge a strong trend in memory institutions, especially libraries and archives. In the digital world, these institutions are used more and more, physically and virtually, by the general public, not simply by researchers and academics.

This is true of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library, as well as the National Archives and Records Administration – NARA – in Washington and the National Archives of Great Britain, as well as many others.

LAC is determined to join this movement by forming closer ties not only intellectually, but also physically, with public libraries.

In November 2017, we moved our Vancouver offices, formerly located in a technology park in the distant outskirts of the city, into the central library of the Pacific Coast metropolis, which, as its name suggests, is located in the centre of the city.

This connection to our audience is already a success, not only in terms of attendance, but also in terms of our employees’ openness to their new colleagues and clients.

And to further transcend borders, what could be more symbolic than our recent plan to relocate our public services to a new building shared with Ottawa Public Library by 2024?

The limits on this innovative project, which joins a national archive and national library with a physical library, will only be those of our imaginations.

* * *

My second commitment was to position LAC at the forefront of archival science, library science and new technologies, drawing on the strength of all of its staff.

Again, I knew this commitment sounded mundane.   Name me an institution that does not want to be at the leading edge! But I hoped that the commitment would call attention to three different things.

First and foremost, I wanted to send staff a strong message that their professional expertise was valued and that we intended to invest in developing it.

Second, in referring specifically to archival science and library science, I wanted to show that I intended to respect the integrity of these professional disciplines.

Keep in mind that LAC was the first Western institution created from the merger of a national library and national archive in 2004, and by the way, we celebrated our 15th anniversary this year in fact!

We therefore had no role model and had to find our way by trial and error.

One of our mistakes was that we pushed the pendulum too far, expecting trained archivists and librarians to become somehow interchangeable.

Since then, we have backtracked, and today LAC has a published heritage branch, and an archives branch, in recognition of both professional expertises.

My third message, by including new technologies among LAC’s areas of expertise, was to reassure our employees and partners that the reinstatement of our separate disciplines would not mean turning our back on digital innovations.

We needed to emphasize the importance of our in-person services, but not to the point of overshadowing the incredible efforts we deploy to democratize knowledge and culture through digital platforms.

To reach the leading edge of our disciplines, we had to take into account a new trend that redefined our relationship with our users in recent years.

It seems to me that thanks to the service models developed by Amazon, Google and especially Wikipedia, our users now demand to transcribe, translate, label and describe our documents.

Therefore, our users are now more partners than clients.

To quote Marshall McLuhan, “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”

I know that the new order of things creates some discomfort for many of our colleagues, concerned at seeing the hoi polloi engage in operations that were once their exclusive domain.

However, I believe that Wikipedia’s experience and reliability demonstrates the ability of our audiences to self-regulate and self-correct.

To illustrate the paradigm shift brought about by client empowerment, I would begin with the example of our DigiLab, a novel initiative launched in March 2017.

The DigiLab completely alters the traditional approach to our collections by allowing users to set digitization priorities.

Our users select the documents they want to have in digital format, and as long as the documents are not copyright-protected, users can digitize them themselves with cutting-edge equipment.

We provide the devices free of charge, and they in return agree to share the results of their work with the community by leaving us digital copies of the documents they have scanned.

In April, based on the success of the DigiLab, we launched Co-Lab, a user-friendly crowdsourcing tool that allows the public to transcribe, label, translate and describe any digitized records and manuscripts from our collection.

To encourage people to engage with Co-Lab, we also suggested nine challenges related to nine collections representing over 2,000 images.

Our challenges included pages from personal journals, love letters written by a former minister to his fiancée, war diaries and documents on the Spanish influenza.

And, always, the work was completed in record time, making these documents now available for consultation and accessible to everyone.

* * *

My third commitment was to make LAC an institution proactively engaged with national and international networks in an open and inclusive way.

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

It is no secret that relations between LAC and its partners had grown tense.

The Royal Society of Canada’s Report titled The Future Now: Canada’s Libraries, Archives, and Public Memory that was released in November 2014 had some disparaging words for LAC in this regard.

It reads, “LAC’s international relations were frequently described as a ‘national embarrassment’ ” (page 41).

And it quoted two prominent members of the community who said, “We are also deeply concerned with a profound lack of respect for the Canadian library and heritage communities with regard to consultation and collaboration ...” (page 45).

But the truth is that, on many topics, other Canadian institutions, especially international institutions, are in a much better position than LAC to advance certain files.

I use the phrase “horizontal leadership” to explain that we cannot conceive of our place within the ecosystem of memory institutions in a hierarchical way.

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.

In practical terms, no institution in the world – even the Library of Congress or NARA – has the means to acquire, process and preserve everything.

We must work as a network to provide our fellow citizens with services that meet their legitimate expectations.

One good example of this approach is the implementation of the National Heritage Digitization Strategy, or NHDS.

In February 2005, the Council of Canadian Academies released a report entitled Leading in the Digital World: Opportunities for Canada’s Memory Institutions.

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

LAC responded to the call and developed the NHDS in close collaboration with members of the Stakeholders’ Forum mentioned earlier.

The Strategy was launched in June 2016, and since then, 63 of Canada’s leading documentary institutions have become members, including public libraries, university libraries and archives, provincial archives and national associations of archivists, librarians, historians, writers and museologists.

Our plan is to develop a coordinated approach to digitizing hundreds of collections from Canadian memory institutions.

So far, we have received $1.1 million from the private sector to finance 23 projects from sea to sea to sea.

LAC is a member of the Steering Committee of the NHDS, and one of our staff serves as the initiative’s Corporate Secretary.

But I do not chair the Committee, and LAC participates only as one of 63 players in defining the Strategy’s technical aspects and governance model.

* * *

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

Major budget cuts – known as the 2012 Deficit Reduction Action Plan (DRAP) – had led LAC to abandon all of its public programming activities: exhibitions, book launches, lectures, film screenings and more.

This is a temptation that threatens all institutions in the name of the “core business.”

In my view, however, the core business of libraries and archives is not only acquisition and preservation, but, ultimately, access.

Unless the ultimate purpose of our work is access, what good is acquisition and preservation?

And how do we promote access if people do not know what our collection contains?

Are we going to feed the popular misconception that we contain only paper books and old, yellowed documents?

We must showcase our artwork, photographs and audiovisual collections.

We need to highlight the work of people who use our documents to publish and create.

We need to organize conversations and round-table discussions on topics that would not otherwise be explored if not for our archives and monographs. And so on ...

Furthermore, from a selfish point of view, one may reasonably wonder why any private or public donor would provide funds to an institution it never sees or hears from, and therefore, an institution they know nothing about!

This commitment led us far from my wildest expectations.

As I mentioned earlier, we started holding public exhibitions and events again, after a two-year hiatus, and that allowed us to resume contact with the museum world.

And that made us realize how much museums had in common with libraries and archives.

As you know, there is an expression, GLAM, covering galleries, libraries, archives and museums, that describes the reality of us all being a part of a common sector.

The entire sector is redefining itself with the rise of digital technology and growing use of its premises.   

LAC took the initiative, in collaboration with the Canadian Museums Association, to bring together the key players from the Canadian GLAM community.

So far, we have held three Summits.

The first took place in Ottawa, in December 2016, and was attended by 300 people. It led to the adoption of the “Ottawa Declaration,” whereby we agreed to increase collaboration among our networks.

The second Summit was held in Toronto in January 2017 with 280 participants.

The key conclusion of the second Summit held that memory institutions urgently needed a common narrative demonstrating their role and relevance and the benefits they have to offer private, public and non-profit partners.

The third Summit took place a few weeks ago in Montréal, on Monday, May 13.

We received the initial findings of a study we commissioned from the Oxford Economics firm on the value of the GLAM sector.

And we discussed the first version of our narrative during interactive workshops, including young users of our services, as well as the usual suspects.

Once again, LAC is not alone in this GLAM endeavour, and we are perfectly content to accept that others may have better ideas than we have.

* * *

Reviewing five years in a matter of minutes is quite a challenge.

LAC has completed dozens of initiatives since June 2014 that time prevents me from mentioning.

To my colleagues who led these initiatives, I apologize.

However, they know my firm belief that LAC’s transformation in the past five years is primarily the outcome of an incredible group effort.

Without the immediate and enthusiastic support of our 1,000 employees, my four commitments would have gone nowhere.

And the same is true of the support of the Association of Canadian Archivists.

The Association has accompanied us along every step of this journey with unfailing trust.

I thank you one and all.

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