Ontario Historical Society
May 7, 2005
In July 1916, as the Battle of the Somme raged on the Western Front, Arthur Doughty (1860-1936), then Dominion Archivist, had occasion to reflect on the value of archives and the passage of time even when the future was by no means certain. “Among national assets,” he observed, “archives are the most precious; they are the gift of one generation to another and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization.” The collections of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) are the most valuable assets owned by the government and people of Canada. Our national parks are a treasure, our sovereignty in the far North is important, the Parliamentary Precinct in Ottawa lies at the very centre of our identity as a nation, but how valuable are these assets without the archival documentation, documents that give us title to these lands and buildings? Some day, we may have to prove ownership of the Arctic, and it is basically a historical argument based on precedent, based on discovery, based on the Hudson’s Bay Company legal title. Can we prove in a court of law that we in fact have sovereignty? What is the value of this to Canada?
Our published heritage is a national asset, too. LAC holdings of printed and electronic materials include books, theses, maps, music, journals, newspapers, all of which are essential to the development of community. In large universities and colleges to small towns all across Canada, libraries are central to social, cultural and economic development, they are the repositories of knowledge, linking past and present with the future. Canadians need to be aware of the richness, the extent and the depth of the knowledge sources in our libraries and archives, and this information needs to be accessible quickly and in a reliable format. When the vast collections of the LAC are combined with the unique holdings found in other repositories, the magnitude of the national collection is breath-taking. To be successful, LAC must have a presence throughout the country from sea to sea to sea, a place where all Canadians can access our holdings.
Our goal for LAC, stated in a few words, is to become a leading-edge knowledge institution. Over the past two years, staff have worked diligently, not only to re-organize our work, but to re-think what we do and why. Much remains to be done, but our objectives are clear: to create a truly national institution to provide Canadians with access to the whole of their documentary heritage. Our focus is information about Canada and we will offer unparalleled access to our rich and diverse collections; we are developing sophisticated information architecture and systems to ensure that this happens. We want to meet the information needs of Canadians with multi-channel services on site or via the Internet with digital content, virtual reference, and digitization on demand. LAC will be a prime learning destination, a lead institution in information and knowledge management.
Access is clearly the primary driver in the creation of LAC, our focus will be on the client, the user, Canadians and those interested in Canada. We are developing strategic approaches to description and metadata. Bibliographic records are absolutely essential for the integrity and control of the collection; archival descriptive practices are well developed and through this, the evidential and contextual values are maintained. These are important and necessary, but they are not access points. Librarians and archivists are looking at this very issue, and the challenge is to develop another layer of description that will provide easy access to all of our holdings for all of our users. The future is digitization Internet and Web technology have revolutionized access to information and as more and more of our holdings go online, Canadians will be able to access their heritage as never before, in their homes, in their offices, in the palms of their hands. None of this will be possible without renewed leadership and strategic focus that brings together libraries, archives and partners all across Canada.
What are these collections? By bringing together the holdings of the National Library and the National Archives, we have an extraordinary consolidated collection of documentary heritage consisting of almost 19 million books, periodicals, newspapers, microfilms and government publications; approximately 156 kilometres of unique textual records; over 20 million photographs; 350,000 works of art; theses and dissertations; and gigabytes of electronic publications and official records. It is an outstanding collection of maps and architectural drawings; film, video, sound recordings and broadcasts; music; stamps; editorial cartoons, posters and pamphlets. This vast collection represents our knowledge of Canada, its history and peoples. Our priority is to disseminate this knowledge to Canadians and to reach our goal, we need to develop innovative programs that will make our holdings known. We are doing this on our web site (www.collectionscanada.gc.ca), through programs for schools and our youth, through the Genealogy and Family History and in the Portrait Gallery of Canada, to name only a few of the initiatives that are under way.
Our users are a diverse lot, as diverse as the country itself, and we are making efforts to reach youth, aboriginal communities, immigrants, academic researchers and scholars, persons with disabilities and thousands of Canadians who want to know more about their family history, the communities in which they live or any aspect of Canada’s past. How do we effectively reach Canadians? How do we share even a small portion of our heritage resources with them? For LAC, the dissemination of knowledge is a priority and we are determined that the vast documentary heritage preserved by this institution will be accessible to all Canadians.
In addition to the traditional uses of archives and libraries, it is important to keep in mind that information supports the public good: social inclusion, democracy and citizens’ rights, universal access and literacy. Libraries and archives are an integral part of the supporting fabric for these public objectives. But how do we influence public policy? If libraries and archives are important to society, we need to build capacity for leadership and innovation, we have to collaborate with partners to develop national strategies on a number of important issues to Canadians: literacy; First Nations; linguistic minorities; programs for the print disabled; and above all, making known and available our services and together, we can re-unite Canadians with their heritage. Libraries and archives can advance nation-building and community development, contribute to a sense of identity and make a real and significant difference to the quality of life of all Canadians.
The documentary heritage in the custody of LAC is the most valuable asset owned by the people of Canada more valuable than our resources, our national parks, our very sovereignty. It does not belong to librarians or archivists, it was created by and belongs to the people of Canada. And it is this that we hold in trust for all Canadians. Arthur Doughty was so perceptive when he described archives as a precious asset for here one finds the fundamental documents of our democracy, records that establish our borders, that protect our rights, that tell our story across the centuries as a nation, as communities and as individuals. We are the stewards of these priceless and authentic records, these are the archives that we maintain for future generations. Knowledge as found in our libraries and archives is essential because it helps us to understand our past, it informs our present and prepares us for the future; it is the intellectual capital of a modern society.
How will we accomplish this? How will we reach our objectives? LAC is creating an organizational and governance structure that will permit us to move forward and to build on our traditional strengths; we will also be able to meet the challenges now and in the future on the road to becoming Canada’s knowledge institution for the 21st century. It is a huge undertaking, but we are not alone. LAC is committed to the development of partnerships with libraries, archives and museums all across the country to provide unfettered access to Canada’s documentary heritage; a national strategy is needed to acquire, preserve and make available the treasured holdings of cultural institutions, large and small. The preservation of this heritage, our heritage, is of critical importance, but sustainable solutions must be found because we are the trustees of this great inheritance for future generations of Canadians. In this way, we can contribute to a strong sense of national identity and cultural awareness; in doing so, we can make a real and lasting difference to the quality of life for all Canadians by creating and sustaining a nation of learners. All of us in the information and knowledge community can actively contribute to a cohesive, confident and creative democratic society in Canada.