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Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Ian E. Wilson


The State of Canadian Confederation:
To Know Ourselves

The Extraordinary Symons Lecture
Toronto, February 28, 2008

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  • It is a distinct privilege and honour to be invited to deliver this extraordinary Symons Lecture on the state of the Canadian Confederation. The lecture this afternoon has been deemed 'extraordinary' as it is a mid-year lecture, given in Toronto for the first time rather than Charlottetown. 'Extraordinary' may or may not suggest anything regarding quality. I just hope I may aspire to the standard set by the distinguished group who preceded me.

  • It is, perhaps, courageous of Dr Symons and the organizers of this lectureship to invite a speaker with the ponderous title of Librarian and Archivist to address this select audience. I have found in the course of my career that stereotypes abound, for both librarians and archivists. Such stereotypes have never been part of Tom Symons thinking about libraries or archives.

  • We are just beyond the 30th anniversary of the publication of Dr. Symons' influential report To Know Ourselves, a study prepared for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada in 1975.

  • I first met Tom while he was preparing the background for this study. I was a junior member of the committee at Queens University which was wrestling with the challenge posed by his mandate: whether Canadian studies was a legitimate field of study or whether it should best be approached through the perspectives of the various traditional disciplines; history, geography, politics, economics, etc. The debate was worthwhile, though Queens' response was predetermined by the entrenched discipline-based approach.

  • His study indicated we had come a long distance from the point when my predecessor as dominion archivist, Arthur Doughty, had urged McGill University to establish a chair in Canadian history, following the example of Queens with the Douglas Chair in 1921. The response from McGill was clear: there was not enough in Canadian history to justify a full chair but a chair in Imperial studies was possible.

  • In assessing the state of Canadian studies in our universities, the Symons' report devoted a full chapter to the state of Canadian archives. The response to this chapter, both positive and negative, led Tom to arrange for a full study of Canadian archives, through the Canada Council, subsequently published by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in 1980. This report took as its inspiration a powerful declaration from Tom's original report: "Canadian archives are the foundation of Canadian studies, and the development of Canadian studies will depend in large measure upon the satisfactory development of Canadian archival resources."

  • Subsequent commentators, such as Jim Page and David Cameron have noted that no other profession has been as engaged as archivists in building on the Symons' Report. Over the last 30 years, a Canadian archival profession has emerged, with graduate programs in archival studies, dynamic and growing professional associations, professional journals known throughout the anglophone and francophone communities and providing international leadership. Certainly Tom's report, with its confident assertion of the vital role of archives, has sustained me through the vicissitudes of my career. I thank you, Tom, for that! And thank you for allowing me to use your key phrase today, To Know Ourselves, as the best summary I have found in explaining the social role of libraries and archives.

  • As any consultant will tell us, in any planning exercise, whether for an organization or for a society, we need to know ourselves, the strengths and weakness of our society, as we plan for the challenges of the 21st century. This self knowledge must be honest, warts and all, not just celebration, if we are to be truly prepared for the future. This is the highest role of Canadian studies: it is the mission of the archival system.

  • The chapter in Tom Symons' report on archives built in turn on the most ambitious statement on archives animating our profession. My eminent predecessor, Sir Arthur Doughty, asserted that "Of all national assets, archives are the most precious. They are the gifts of one generation to another and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization."

  • The central place of the library was immortalized in the perceptive humour of Canadian writer and economist Stephen Leacock in 1922: "If I were founding a university I would first found a smoking room; then when I had a little more money in hand I would found a dormitory; then after that, or more probably with it, a decent reading room and a library. After that, if I still had more money that I couldn't use, I would hire a professor and get some text books." Today we might debate the smoking room, but the centrality of the library to a knowledge society remains fundamental.

  • Libraries and archives increasingly work together, sharing knowledge, expertise and a clientele who care less about the source of information and more about whether or not they have access to it. Over the last decade, librarians and archivists have been exploring a new world: the virtual world of the web. This new knowledge frontier is a different place both for us as information providers and for our varied clientele. It is a world which presents superb new possibilities for broad public access to our rare and unique resources. At the same time it is demanding, testing our professions and our response.

Settlers in Web world

  • As libraries and archives we are all settlers in Web world, exploring new landscapes, pushing the frontiers of who we are and what we can do. And in order to settle successfully we need to shed some of our old, comfortable assumptions about knowledge itself, the ones we grew up with, and address the realities and the expectations of a world driven by the Web.

  • Today, our children enjoy a seamless kind of infosphere, where the boundaries between work, play and study are virtually gone. Yet we grew up in a time when the essence of library and information work was to separate everything. When the seamless generation enters the world of libraries and archives, increasingly online, they expect an interactive experience, not separations and divisions which make no sense to them.

  • So when we make use of the Web, we must make sure that we are not recreating, repeating and perpetuating online the boundaries and practices that have developed in the physical world. The Web world has little patience with institutional walls and boundaries, and even less patience with an information priesthood that tries to insert itself between the inquirer and the source material, or to limit access. It is up to us to invent a new, seamless kind of knowledge institution.

The creation of LAC

  • Library and Archives Canada is a good example of this integration. It combines the extensive multimedia holdings of its two predecessor institutions, the National Library and the National Archives. While we are still very much a work in progress, we are exploring synergies, questioning old habits and being guided by the broader needs of modern society.

  • But the power and potential of the information we hold, its ability to bridge the distances between past and present, between memory and fact, and between space and time, remains the same. We enable a dialogue to proceed across the generations and into the distant future.

  • Library and Archives Canada has embarked on a remarkable journey, bringing together traditionally different professional cultures and a technology that despite its sophistication is still in its infancy. We have integrated staff expertise, which is known throughout the world, and we have a state-of-the-art building and laboratories to match. A vital part of this integration is the established tradition of service, innovation and a willingness to use all documentary media to record the Canadian experience.

  • The Government of Canada has challenged our professions to collaborate and create, not simply a federation of the two former institutions but somewhere beyond-to build a new kind of comprehensive knowledge resource expected, and possibly demanded, in the new century.

  • Library and Archives Canada contains the collective imagination of an entire nation: in books, pamphlets and newsletters; in letters, diaries and official records; in films, broadcasts, photographs, portraits and landscapes; and in the maps and globes that maintain the voices, the images and the hopes of those who came before us.

  • We also make available the records we create now, the evidence of the creative and intellectual output of our digital age preserved as carefully as a book or a work of art.

  • Our combined institutions have more than 180 years of experience in the acquisition of documentary materials relating to this country. This is an extraordinary collection, one that includes 20 million books, periodicals, newspapers, microfilms, literary texts and government publications, including over 200,000 rare books and manuscripts. Our treasures range from a prayer recited by members of the Belcher expedition who set out to search for Franklin in 1852 to decrypted messages sent from enemy spies during the Second World War to archived websites like Canada's Commitment to the Kyoto Accord.

  • LAC is also the guardian of 167,000 linear metres of government and private textual records, 3 million architectural drawings, maps and plans going back to the 16 th century, 24 million photographs and 350,000 hours of films, video and sound recordings. Our musical collection includes 547,000 items, including 65 versions of "O Canada," autographed manuscripts, digital audio recordings of 78-rpm records at The Virtual Gramophone, and the digitized version of every musical chart printed in RPM Weekly, the publication that helped shape the face of Canadian music for over 36 years.

  • I could go on and on. We have the national stamp collection, we have newspapers, we have radio broadcasts. Oh, and I almost forgot, we have about 3.18 million megabytes of information in electronic formats, including more than 26,000 Canadian periodicals and books available online as of August 2007. In fact, we have one of the largest collections of electronic publications in the world.

  • In any event, it is an extraordinary and unique collection of multimedia information, a collection that paints the portrait of our history and the evolution of a nation. So how do we reach Canadians, thirsty for knowledge, with this incredible resource?

  • In this context, let's consider the debate around the location of the Portrait Gallery, the Portrait Gallery being one aspect of the LAC mandate. Part of the debate is a healthy one, with a national discussion on what is meant by capital and how the various regions of the country perceive it. Yet part of the debate I find restricting, with some wanting to confine the activities and role of the gallery in very traditional museological terms.

  • LAC has built and nurtured the portrait collection as an integral part of its role to document the Canadian experience through more than a century of active collecting. The collection links closely to our large collection of documentary art, by generations of artists attempting to capture the Canadian landscape prior to the Group of Seven, and to our 22 million photographs. As in other aspects of its inclusive mandate, LAC never imitated other national portrait collections by limiting the subjects to the famous and the known but instead chose to document all of society.

  • And the portraits need to have context, so that in showing the portraits of authors we can place manuscripts and books; portraits of politicians with letters and diaries; portraits of Aboriginal leaders with treaties and landscapes, and portraits of explorers with maps. Each informs the other and both provide context for our story.

  • The Portrait Gallery of Canada has not and cannot be confined within 4 walls. The collection must be visible on the canal and in the market, in regional exhibits and this summer throughout historic Quebec. The portraits are and must be on the web, as we now experiment with 3 dimensional interactive web presentation for the gallery.

  • Yet in the rush to label the portrait gallery a museum, where is it writ that a major library or archives cannot run a major national exhibition program? People relate to portraits and they work with the documents to give life, personality and voice to the Canadian experience. My continuing frustration as I walk through our stacks and our vaults is how to share this experience with the public.

  • We have worked with Canadian Museum of Civilization to make the complete stamps of Canada available both in the museum and online. And we have collaborated with them most recently on the Glenn Gould Exhibit and with other institutions from coast to coast and internationally to bring original works to the public. But we hold nearly 2 million maps of Canada; over 100,000 landscapes, broadcast archives, newspapers, and thousands of editorial cartoons illuminating the issues of the day over the centuries.

  • We hold the constitutional documents of Canada, the proclamation of our new flag and the treaties signed with our First Nations. These too deserve a place in the public sphere. The web is excellent for research but it is also creating awareness and demand for access to the originals. It is time we laid aside the old stereotypes about libraries and archives and recognized the value of this gift from previous generations to ours, making it a national knowledge base and using its exhibit and educational potential to the full. The portrait collection is just a sample of the treasures in our vaults that deserve to see the full light of day.

Changing history

  • In some ways the Web provides the very foundation for a knowledge-hungry society. Content and the Web are made for each other. And we have already found that simply by putting print material online, digitized and searchable, Canadian history is changing. New details are emerging which frankly were impossible to find in the past. For example, many of you probably don't realize that one of the burning issues in our history is where the first hockey game was played in Canada, and that we have information that can settle this once and for all!
  • By putting information online we can have an incredible impact, on knowledge acquisition, on human lives, on family history, on teaching and research, and finally, on the quest for self-knowledge, both as individuals and as a nation.

Re-assembling the past

  • In this quest, the Web can help us to recall that the past was a holistic place, where documents, artifacts, paintings, books, historic sites, and photos all existed together, informed each other, and collectively formed part of the context of any historical action.

  • The Web is the great unifier. Our history is divided among museums, archives, galleries and libraries, while the Web allows us to reassemble the past into a seamless, holistic fabric. In this way the Web can add to the understanding of any object, its meaning, its place in the story.

Meeting the demand for online services

  • Once again, the Web is our ally. It is estimated that 84 percent of information searches begin with a search engine. The majority of Canadians have also told us they want their information from LAC on the Web. Since the introduction of our site in 2004, we have become one of the biggest and most heavily used sites in government, with over a million visitors every month. In fact we experienced a 254 percent increase in pages viewed on our site from 2005 to 2007.

  • Through federated search our clients will be able to search the entire union catalogue, containing 38 million records of material held in 1,300 libraries and 7 million records spanning our archival collections and those of 200 archives across the country. We are constantly trying to come up with new and user-friendly ways to open up and integrate material and to use these gateways as access points into our entire collections. For example, we placed 14 volumes of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography online, in both languages. But what is the best way to use this information? Why not link it to the published biographies, to the portraits, to the papers, to historic sites, to recordings and moving image archives, to museum collections? In this way we can truly enrich our understanding of history.

Canadians, their history, their self knowledge

  • Canadians have had an interesting and enigmatic relationship with their history, blessed with little in the way of revolutionary conflict and often accused of being uninterested in their history. This latter point is a curious cliché, a kind of national myth, because in my experience as the Librarian and Archivist of Canada I have always found Canadians to be exceptionally proud of and fascinated by their history. And as Vincent Massey once said: "We don't have to make our history interesting. It is interesting."

  • The Dominion Institute was very quick to point out last year that eight in ten, or 82 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 24 failed a basic history exam, and that less than half of those surveyed could name Canada's first Prime Minister.

  • What received less press was the fact that on the eve of Remembrance Day an Ipsos-Reid survey revealed that young peoples' knowledge of Canadian military heritage was considerably up over the last decade.

  • The co-founder of the institute, Rudyard Griffiths, was understandably concerned about the results of the survey. In fact, he went as far as to ask " …whether Canadians will possess a common national memory a generation from now, given that three-quarters of high school graduates were unable to give the date of Confederation - a ten percent decline in ten short years."

The other side of the coin

  • Yet the first season of "Canada: A People's History" was the most watched television documentary in Canadian history. Home videos of the first season were national bestsellers; volume one of the companion book was on the top of the bestseller list for over 20 weeks.

  • Similarly, when Library and Archives Canada partnered with the CBC and the Bell New Media Fund to produce "Who Do You Think You Are," a Canadian spin-off of the wildly successful BBC television series that traces the family histories of celebrities, the results were clear. The first night it aired, we received 92,000 searches on, and since then, we have had a 50 percent increase in visitors to the Library and Archives Canada website.

  • What's going on? Some Canadians may not score well on a history quiz, but they'll tune in each week to find out how to research their family histories. They can't name the first Prime Minister, but they rank pride in their history higher than sports or scientific achievements, according to the Association for Canadian Studies. And when Parks Canada asked Canadians across the country about their attitudes towards Canada's history, 79 percent agreed that it is important that the stories of Canada's history be passed on to future generations.

  • Perhaps we have been focusing with the wrong lenses, equating the memorization of facts with a passion for our history. Maybe we failed to recognize it isn't that Canadians lack interest - but that the pathways into history itself have to change. The new generation now in university are working and living a Web 2.0 world. I do not recall hearing from young friends about that 'memory work' most in this room endured while we were at school. Colleagues, teaching religion or philosophy tell me that they can no longer assume any familiarity on the part of the students with The Great Code, as Northrop Fry termed it, which underlies the imagery of western literature.

  • The Web 2.0 generation has focused on relationships and on search strategies, not facts. Memory is external, on a cord around the neck. And while they may not be able to name the first prime minister, in a flash they can find that detail, bring up the full DCB (Dictionary of Canadian Biography) entry, retrieve a few portraits and political cartoons, summon an image of his gravesite and find the biographies. The characteristics that influence the "nexters" generation and how they seek information are profoundly different from the generation that went before, and certainly our generation: these knowledge seekers are globally concerned, diverse, cyberliterate, media savvy, and collaborative multitaskers. They want more than "just the facts".

  • The great god Hermes decried the move away from the oral tradition heralded by the invention of writing because he feared that it would lead to a loss of collective memory. We are witnessing a similar transition in the knowledge society when students are threatened to be overwhelmed by facts and choose instead to focus on mastery of search. Their future is as appealing and mystical as William Blake's imagery from 200 years ago:

  • "To see a world in a grain of sand
    And heaven in a wild flower
    Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
    And eternity in an hour."

History as first person singular

  • Delving into individual history allows us to absorb history as first person singular. I'd like to go back for a moment to that less publicized fact about how young Canadians are more aware of their military history now than ten years ago, and I'd like to tell you a story, about a remarkable teacher, a remarkable group of students, and a team of archivists from Library and Archives Canada.

  • Maybe they can't name the first Prime Minister, but a whole classroom full of students knows about Arthur Sheppard, a shoemaker in Smiths Falls who enlisted in the war and whose body was lost in the mud after the Battle of Passchendaele. A soldier of the great War who did his duty and whose body was never recovered, but whose memory now lives on.

  • History as first person singular means citizen participation, and the Web makes this participation so much more possible. We hold an extraordinarily detailed amount of material, which many academic historians have ignored. For example, the personal details of 630,000 Canadians who served in the First World War. But individual Canadians do want to see their great- grandfather or great- grandmother's service record from that war. We have this kind of information. For decades this material sat largely unused, but an increasingly broad public, thanks to the Web, is now discovering it for the first time. Immigration records, passenger lists, census records, war diaries, city directories, maps and newspapers - they are all becoming accessible and increasingly searchable.

  • History is usually written in terms of general themes and we are all familiar with the text books. But history now can be written in the first person - my family, my history, my community. Our sources are deeply personal, and the Web is enabling us to make these accessible in ways that we couldn't even touch before because we (and the documents) could not handle that kind of use!

  • When Arthur Doughty talks about archives as being the gift of one generation to another, the underlying truth is that each successive generation also creates their own narrative from objects, ideas and records laid down by living beings in another time.

  • When we begin our historical research as first person singular, we take a time and a place that may seem distant and whose dates appear as no more than numbers without context and we make it our own. This is what kindles our interest, our passion, and our memories. Once we have made the human connection, the facts and the dates and the particulars make sense.

  • History loves the sweeping thematic backdrop, but it is the details which articulate the truth about events in the past. We preserve those details and through digitization we make them accessible to all.

The Canada Project

  • This generation believes that everything is available on the Web, yet there is a major gap between what's available digitally and what's in publication. 95 percent of Canadians want their documentary heritage preserved for future generations, and 93 percent want access to their documentary heritage online, yet only 25 and 30 percent are satisfied with the quantity and quality of Canadian content online. This is the gap we must address, and we need to take it seriously. Meanwhile, millions of volumes sit in archives, in libraries and in storage facilities across the country, unused.

  • To be a leader in the digital world, Canada needs to harness knowledge and harvest its value for the benefit of its people.

  • The Canada Project is the vision of business, government, and academic organizations partnering to mobilize the accumulated knowledge of the nation and seize the opportunities of the global information economy. Their goal? To make accessible all Canadian knowledge to all Canadians.

  • Thanks to efforts like Schoolnet Canada is becoming the most connected country in the world - the best connected to American content! It is vital that we undertake a major and systematic effort to make Canada a true knowledge society with its own open content online. By combining contents and cutting-edge information technologies, the Canada Project will help ensure that today's and future generations of Canadians have an unparalleled infrastructure to turn knowledge into innovation, profits, cultural and environmental advances, higher quality of life, and a stronger society. I challenge all governments to put their research, their studies, their information online. The same goes for universities and other major institutions.

A shared vision

  • Library and Archives Canada, the University of Waterloo, Open Text Corporation, Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec and the Canadian Association of Research Libraries are joining forces to incite institutions, organizations and businesses across the country to pool their contents to create a unique showcase of our nation's ingenuity, and a made-for-Canadians digital space to learn, dialogue, innovate, create, and drive our economic competitiveness in coming decades.

A national knowledge platform

  • Bringing together content and technology, the Canada Project will create a knowledge platform-a digital centre of Canadian creativity and excellence-to serve as the foundation of national and business success in the 21st century.

  • Vast quantities of analog and digital contents are presently scattered across the country and under utilized. The Canada Project is our generation's opportunity to tap into this exceptional intellectual capital and to create a national advantage for research and development, knowledge transfer, and commercial applications. The Canada Project will also help enhance creativity and nurture cultural innovation by offering youth and artists from all disciplines a vibrant and enduring source of inspiration. Finally, it will contribute to stronger national identity and pride by establishing a unique digital space where Canadians everywhere are able to communicate and learn about themselves, their ingenuity, their values, and their democratic institutions.

  • The Canada Project is the first initiative under the Canadian Digital Information Strategy, which was adopted after the national summit of publishing and media producers, creators, rights bodies, academics, provincial and federal officials, and memory institutions.

  • The vision for the Canada Project is based on five key principles:
    • Open collaboration with no transfer of ownerships or rights;
    • Maximum public access to a growing body of content;
    • Respect for copyright and intellectual property;
    • Linguistic duality and cultural diversity; and
    • Long-term access for future generations.
  • As a first step, the organizations behind the Canada Project are working to digitize their own collection and to make available the expertise and technologies needed to exploit this enormous national potential. In a second step, cultural institutions and groups, content producers from all sectors, and the academic community will be engaged in a dialogue to identify effective models for the collection, preservation, promotion, transfer, and use of data and contents in many formats.

  • Canada is ready to embrace the information age. A vast majority of Canadians wants online access to contents about themselves but only a minority is satisfied with the quantity and quality of information presently available.

  • With the explosion of information technologies and the widespread access that exists in every corner of the country, Canada is at the cusp of a new revolution-the information revolution. The Canada Project is a timely vision to ensure that Canadians are able to seize the cultural, social and economic opportunities of the digital age, to compete in the global innovation economy, and to lead in the 21st century.


  • I'd like to close with a statement that former Canadian Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, made over 100 years ago. When the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta joined Confederation, he went to Edmonton and spoke to the people - largely immigrants - of that new province. This is what he said:

  • "I see everywhere hope. I see everywhere calm resolution, courage and enthusiasm to face all difficulties, to settle all problems. We do not anticipate and we do not want that any individual should forget the land of their origin or their ancestors. Let them look to the past, let them also look to the future. Let them look to the land of their ancestors, but let them look also to the land of their children."

  • Laurier understood something about history that we are still wrestling with today. He was making a statement about cultural continuity, bringing together the past, the present and the future, bringing ancestors with their overseas traditions together with the hopes of their children in the new world. He understood that history is not a fixed document or narrative; it is a process of dialogue between and across generations, and that to know ourselves means to know our past and our history as well.

  • So what does it mean to know ourselves in 2008? The social forces that influence the state of confederation today are so vast and so new we may not completely understand them even as we experience them every day. Their influence on the growth and spread of knowledge is enormous, and in the world of Web 2.0 they will only be tolerated if they don't stand in the way of access to that same knowledge. The whole notion of memory gets turned upside down when we realize we can get an encyclopedia on a stick - so what does it mean to gather a collective consciousness as a nation, a collective memory?

  • The here and the now, the past and the future, they are everywhere at once, as the great poet Octavio Paz observed. And it is now up to us, and indeed possible for us, to also be everywhere at once, to be simultaneous, multilayered, timeless. This is the world Web 2.0 sets before us…a world where memory can always be called up, and where knowing ourselves means knowing we are in constant flux. What grounds us, what gives us weight in this ethereal universe, is to know that we are still passing on the stories that define us, from one generation to another. How we do it has changed, but that we do it - this is eternal.

  • Dr Symons, 33 years ago you asserted that Canadian archives are the foundation of Canadian studies. I am sure you meant to include Canadian libraries in this. I am pleased to report that Canadian studies are on a solid foundation both in the world of our ancestors but also in the new virtual world which our children increasingly inhabit.

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