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Interviewer: The fantasy or futurist novelist, William Gibson, says in an article that there is no question of government control over the Web, that if people donít get the information they want with a government source theyíll move on, that itís wide open and there are nearly as many sources of information as there are individuals. To Gibson, the nature of information on the Web may be more about speed than content; it is formless, with only a random association with the kinds of knowledge that have come down to us by analogical means. Another contemporary philosopher, his kindred spirit, posits the notion that time is a sphere and our lives show up on its surface at various and random points in its rotation ...
Mr. Wilson: Not linear ... a sphere for time. Interesting.
Interviewer: ... and that when our time comes, one canít remark about it in terms of distance or in relation to a time earlier or one in the future.
Mr. Wilson: Certainly to a modern generation, with animation and other special effects on television, all times co-exist, whether itís Star Trek or Dinosaurs. They have equal reality with Sir Wilfrid Laurier. In fact, they probably have more reality than Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Ultimately, I think that our role in conjunction with some other partners like libraries, Historica, the museums and art galleries is to give a reality check on the Web, to say that part of our role is to offer authenticity, integrity and reliability around our information. And youíre right, if we donít have it on-line, surfers will skip across our site and assume it doesnít exist. Thatís what happens in a lot of research today in high schools, if itís not on the Web it doesnít exist so donít bother. Or for something like the War of 1812, if they donít find it in digestible form on our site, theyíre going to find it on U.S. sites and so the whole interpretation of the War of 1812, or the Loyalist experience, or of World War I, will be provided by the U.S. Itís clear that we have to get moving here on putting our material in its proper context so that all of the integrity and reliability that our Archives stands for is up there on the Web, and soon. Our students are looking for it.
I attempted to describe archives some years ago to a group in Ontario. Our ministry took over responsibility for communications and telecommunications and I had to go and talk with senior staff in communications about what archives did. In presenting the idea of archives to these people involved in telephone companies, broadcasting and broadcast regulation, I said that archives are essentially about communication in the fourth dimension. I suggested that they were involved in communication and regulating communication in three-dimensional space and wanted to know how quickly one could disseminate the Encyclopedia Britannica from here to there, while my concern was communication in time. Archives enable one generation to talk to another and that communication goes on everyday in our reading room.
In their reading, people are listening to the voices of those who went before. Itís a two-way communication as well because each generation is asking different questions of the past. As difficult as it is to imagine, it is a two-way dialogue between people in the twentieth century and those of the 18th and 19th centuries. Every generation is searching, asking different questions of the past, looking into the record for some kind of insight, some kind of assurance that we as a society have been through this experience before, and that somehow we coped or addressed the problem in one way or another. From out of this interchange across time we hope to gain some insight, not to know precisely what we must do in our own time, but at least to gain a view of the nature of our own society, its strengths and weaknesses, as we face the future.
The best work by archivists in reference services and in working with research clientele has always been in synthesis. The trouble is that theyíve always done it, perhaps subconsciously, itís never quite been articulated. Working with computer systems requires us to make it very clear what it is we do. How do you make those kinds of linkages? I know a number of U.S. archives are experimenting with intelligent systems. You ask a question of it and it does the kind of processing that a good archivist has always done. It makes some queries of the user, Ďthinksí it through and makes the linkages. Whether we can all be replaced by computers, I doubt it.
Interviewer: Politicians talk a lot about reaching out to youth and here at the Archives we want to extend a welcome to a young clientele, one that the museums and galleries have been able to attract. What is your vision in this regard?
Mr. Wilson: I posed a question to one of my students, a teacher librarian, when I was teaching a course in archival studies at the University of Toronto: how can archives develop youth programs like those at the Royal Ontario Museum? In the month of May they have 30 school buses parked out front every day. They have children coming through and teachers on staff to work with them. Other museums and libraries have had major success in dealing with young people; what can archives do to be a part of this? She suggested that we could engage students very early before they can even understand the ideas of history or time. They do understand organizing information they collect cards. You mentioned Pokemon cards earlier, they also collect baseball and hockey cards. But what are they doing with them because someone told them that Pokemon cards have value (I have no idea why) theyíre organizing them in series and sub-series and preserving them in Mylar sleeves.
Interviewer: In a fonds.
Mr. Wilson: Yes, ultimately theyíre a fonds. You can reach them on this level by suggesting that you can organize information in a much broader sense. Thatís precisely what we do. There are other ways of making this contact with children, through the Web, with games based on history. Iíve had a lot of fun with children I know going through the Science Centre with its interactive, hands-on attractions. We can make history interesting in similar ways making paper for example. What about old ways of communicating? Have you ever written with a quill pen, or carved a quill? Put out a couple of manual typewriters or an IBM Selectric rather than a computer. What about a telegraph or an early telephone? How would you get children involved in activities around communicating and recording and documenting information? I think that ways can be found, and I think that the idea of a discovery centre for the Archives and the Library has great potential.
Museums have done great things in attracting the interest of children. One of the things about museums is that it is a highly structured experience. You go there and see what they have out and leave. In archives our traditional approach has been that when you come in you can order anything in the building, but you create and structure your own experience. You canít do that on a mass scale except on the Web, where the user can use and extract the material he or she needs.
We can learn a lot from museums and libraries. We need to engage teachers; not just assume that since we have a nice exhibit people will use it if we put it on-line. The Archives had some professional teachers involved with the Prime Ministerís exhibit some years ago, to make the materials relevant to the curriculum. We need to do more of that and explore the potential ...
Interviewer: ... to try to make it different and attractive.
Mr. Wilson: Yes, and in a hands-on way, it canít just be, this is a beautiful document and look at it behind glass. Protect the originals, yes, but there are ways that we can reproduce documents that are very close to the original, have the same texture, appeal and quality. Is it worth doing, devoting the resources to it I think for the long-term interests of the Archives that it is. I think children have a right to access these materials as much as the most distinguished historians have, and that we need to develop a program to introduce this television generation to some idea of what it means to do research. We can offer a range of materials that are authentic and make it open to them.
We must also advise our young clientele not to assume that whatís on the Web is all that exists. Even in the most rosy predictions for the Archives, weíre only going to be able to digitize a small percentage of our 20 million photographs and kilometres of textual record. We must impress upon them that should they want to pursue a research topic, this is only a small sample of what you can find in the National Archives and the other archives across the country. This would have to come across very clearly if we are to introduce children to the wonder of exploration, discovery and new understanding to be found in the source material. Material that is authentic and original and real in a way that Star Wars or Jurassic Park are not. Kids, you can find out what really happened! Many of us enjoyed mystery stories as children, well, doing historical research is like being a detective.
One of the reasons that the Archives has not been accessible to children is stereotypical that our materials are fragile, unique, irreplaceable and cannot withstand a lot of touching or holding. Thatís true, some items have been withdrawn from circulation because theyíre wearing out. And microfilm has never been a good medium other than for certain types of research. These restrictions donít attract the interest of potential new clients and are not going to get school children involved when they need a high quality kind of experience.
With new technology to copy materials, archives are able to protect the originals for future generations, and offer new means of access today. We need to break down the stereotype I brought my nephew here some years ago to show him what I do as an archivist. We saw the exhibits and I managed to get him up to the third floor reading room which told him absolutely nothing, he had no idea. I talked with him about preserving papers and he assumed it was newspapers I was talking about.
Ian E. Wilson in front of the statue of Sir Arthur Doughty, Dominion Archivist 1904-1935. The inscription on the statue quotes Arthur Doughty: ďOf 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.Ē Library and Archives Canada photo.
I think we do a very poor job of telling children and the public what it is we do, and why itís important. Thatís the challenge of the next decade, to break this perception down and find ways, on the Web and here at home, and in working with the 800 other archives in the country, to give the public a better understanding of the role of the Archives. To point out their value and potential their real potential, and the excitement of reading an original diary or some actual letters from World War I or the War of 1812.
We want to thank Mr. Wilson for voicing his hopes for the future and his opinions on a number of issues in a direct manner, and wish him a successful tenure here at the National Archives.
Gerry Thompson and Denise Rioux,
Communications and Public Programs Division