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Symposium 2008

2008 Irish Studies Symposium: November 3 & 4

Official Welcome
Dr. Ian E. Wilson, Librarian and Archivist of Canada

Downloadable formats
Listen [MP3 8,583 KB]


I am told there is an old Irish proverb and I think there is an Irish proverb for every occasion. But there is one that says, "May you never forget what is worth remembering or remember what is best forgotten".

I don't think we, here or with the National Archives of Ireland, can really agree to the latter half of that statement or you know, forget what is best forgotten. We, the National Archives of Ireland, Library and Archives Canada form the continuing memory, the recorded documentary memory of our respective countries and our respective people. The memory that we seek to preserve, to gather must be inclusive, it must reflect the full complexity and multicultural nature of our societies, it must be truthful, it must be direct, it must be honest and the archival record and the library record cannot be selective. It must preserve our heritage, painful at times, truthful, something from which we need to learn as we deal with the difficult issues of the twenty-first century.

It is also very clear that the archival record is increasingly international. For multicultural, immigrant societies, North America but also many other parts of the world now, it is very clear that the archival heritage of Ireland is also very much part of our heritage, part of the heritage of our families and of our communities and people who chose to come here to settle, to build a new country.

So this led to our partnership with the National Archives of Ireland to assist in the digitization of the Irish Census returns for 1901 and 1911. County Dublin 1911 was the first segment made available online last December with a full searchable index, counties Antrim, Down and Kerry will be online within the coming weeks with the rest of 1911 and 1901 to follow. These records represent so much more than just the names and the numbers. They tell us the stories that define who we are, that allow us to move from our sense of individual and family identity right up through the broader perspective of our collective identity as a people, as a nation, as a country.

With up to one fifth of Canadians claiming Irish heritage making this resource more widely accessible is just one of the ways that Library and Archives Canada assists Canadians in understanding their history and I am delighted to see this symposium launching. The Census, these symposia are simply a couple of the ways in which we're working together with the National Archives of Ireland. In March 2006, we launched a website entitled The Shamrock and the Maple Leaf which featured prominent Irish documents from our collection including photographs and some sound recordings. The September which followed 2006, we hosted the first Irish Study Symposium.

This year, we've gone further along with a second symposium, we're hosting a photography exhibit from the National Library of Ireland, a book launch on the Irish immigrants' experience and even a Flickr/YouTube project that will deliver Irish-Canadian images and videos across computer screens around the world, reaching our young people frankly where they're living and that's online.

The scope and variety of these projects support the broadest possible attempt to advance Irish-Canadian studies and understanding and research and to reach as many people as possible. One of the key objectives of these symposia is to open up a dialogue with the Irish-Canadian research community to further explore areas of research and Irish and Irish-Canadian studies and ultimately to share this information with a broader world by the website, The Shamrock and the Maple Leaf, through YouTube, through Flickr and the National Archives of Ireland's website. It is the kind of collaborative resource sharing thinking that really informs the community and enables research to proceed.

Every year, around July 1st Canada Day and November 11th Remembrance Day, we see results of surveys done by the Dominion Institute which indicate that Canadians and particularly Canadian youth don't know very much about history. Can't name, you know, so many — 80% cannot name the first Prime Minister, 75% can't give the date of Confederation. It is an interesting question. Why is that when you look at the television series and the books that accompanied Canada: A People's History based heavily on our collections — best and highest rated in television programming documentary in Canadian experience. We ran the program with CBC this past year, Who Do You Think You Are, thirteen episodes looking at aspects of genealogy, a phenomenal response that far exceeded anything CBC expected. We look at our own website, one and a half million users per month now on our website and that grows and grows, it doesn't drop off.

I think what we are seeing is that Canadians, and particularly Canadian youth are looking for authentic, real information about their history, their experience, the experience of their families and their communities in this country. You see for them, and I think when we pose these questions, sort of the "trivial pursuit" approach to Canadian history, we're going the wrong direction. We're assuming things that for my generation was normal. Yes, we had memory work in school, I don't hear kids talk about memory work anymore. Because you know, for them, memory is something that hangs on a ribbon around their neck. That's memory and there are so many facts out there to memorize, you can't hope to cover them. But you ask them who is the first Prime Minister of Canada and zip, out comes the portable electronic device, out comes the computer, here's the Dictionary of Canadian Biography for Sir John A. MacDonald, here are the portraits, here is a list of all the books written about John A., here are the political cartoons, etc., etc.

The youth of today are learning their search strategies, they're not necessarily having to internalize and remember the facts, they know how to find it. And what we need to do and I think what this joint project with the National Archives of Ireland is doing is very clearly providing them the source material that they can draw on in those searches. And I think it really is taking the archival record, that unique very fragile record and taking it out to reach a broad population, not just in Canada but throughout Ireland and around the world.

And finally, one of my predecessors, Sir Arthur Doughty who remains the only Canadian public servant for whom there is an official statue. If you have time at lunch, just go down the back here around the side to see the official statue of Sir Arthur Doughty, Dominion Archivist 1904 to 1935. Engraved on that statue is something he wrote that struck a chord with Mackenzie King, the Prime Minister and his close friend, he wrote "Of all national assets, 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". Very powerful statement — obviously, archivists and librarians refer to it quite frequently. "Of all national assets, archives are the most precious", absolutely. "The gift of one generation to another" and I keep reminding my colleagues, the archivists across the country, he wasn't saying it was the gift of one generation of archivists to another, that wasn't the intent of one generation to another.

And you know, finally, the web and all of its potential both for text as well as for manuscript, for video and film, for sound recordings and images, we are finally able to share the extraordinary content of our archives, of the Archives of Ireland with the broad population that is really searching for it. The gift of one generation to another, that's what we're working on.

Delighted to have you here and I look forward to hearing the results of these discussions. I think it's going to be a fascinating couple of days.

Thank you all very much. Merci.

Session I

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