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Message from the Librarian and Archivist of Canada: Modernization

September 9, 2009 - Last April, I accepted with great pleasure my appointment as Librarian and Archivist of Canada. Now, after some months at the helm of the institution, I would like to take the time to share with you what path I think our institution should follow in order to play the crucial role that Canadians expect of it. The challenge is colossal. Today, digital technology has radically changed our practices and expectations and, to remain relevant, we will need to tackle the issues, communicate and collaborate more than ever before with others who share our goals. Creating strategic alliances will become increasingly essential for all stakeholders, particularly in light of the migration to digital, which, as we all know, does nothing to reduce the challenges we continue to face. We still have unanswered questions regarding the best way to preserve such things as documents on acid paper, nitrate photos and films, masses of audio-visual material, or simply to ensure access to all the records that are still on analogue media. We cannot switch from one world to the other – we are condemned to live in both worlds, analogue and digital, at the same time. That is our biggest challenge. It will require a lot of compromise, imagination, innovation, daring and dialogue all around. However, I believe that our path into the future is realistic. I also firmly believe that we will all be farther ahead if we walk together and that, in the end, Canadians will be all the better served.

The institution now known as Library and Archives Canada has a brilliant past. We have been leaders in several key areas of collective memory management and we have played a significant role in the development of better national and international practices in the fields of library science, archivistics and records management. Founded in 1953, the National Library of Canada has contributed significantly to the development of Legal Deposit and description practices and undertaken the herculean task of building a collection of publications better known as Canadiana. Since its foundation in 1872, the National Archives of Canada has made it possible to constitute an impressive fonds comprising multiple collections that are used today by the government to support its daily business, genealogy experts across the country and historians and researchers, among others, as sources of solid and authentic information. This brilliant past shone bright again in 2004 when the institution became one of the first in the world to initiate a promising media convergence project by proposing to fuse the two institutions responsible for national records. Such a program was ambitious and it has not yet come to full fruition, to be sure. Among other things, we need to refine it and continue ongoing work, with a view to reconciling and harmonizing the paradigms that guided the two founding institutions up to their fusion.

The current environment is far from stable. Whether we are called library, archives or records centre and whether we are local or national, we are affected by all of the social transformations around us and the daily challenges they put in our way. The world of acquisition, preservation and access has been totally turned on its head. The foundations we have taken for granted for a long time are getting shakier by the day. Our relevance in the medium and long term is also called into question in this new environment. If we have so far been able to understand and control, at least up to a point, the acquisition of published material, it is a different story today when everyone is their own publisher. The notion that personal and government archives could, up to now, be potentially housed in a more or less limited and finite fonds has been exploded by digitization, and archival fonds have less and less "territorial status." They are, day by day, becoming more virtual and elusive in a physical world. Publications on paper and publications on canvas have had the same fate - they no longer come in a hard-copy, physical format, necessarily.

At the same time, this new environment is very promising. Material has never been so accessible to and from every corner of the country, as demonstrated by our virtual portrait collection, the portal to the New France archives developed in cooperation with France and Quebec, and the online Irish census developed in cooperation with Ireland. We are less and less constrained by the need to travel to another physical location to access other elements of our collective memory. By the same token, we can now have access to what Canadians are saying and thinking by simply accessing their blogs and using other social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Such a sampling will give us a better idea of what Canada is and who Canadians are.

These are unprecedented and dizzying opportunities because, when possibilities are multiplied, new issues and new challenges arise. Nobody can claim to be able to harness this environment successfully on their own. Everyone needs to get into the act because society and knowledge institutions in general, and information managers and professionals in particular, all have increasingly bigger stakes in common, above and beyond their more specialized, specific and immediate interests. The issues and the challenges we face are far too complex and too crucial for us to ignore the urgency of uniting our efforts to tackle them and deal with them. How do we remain relevant in an increasingly fragmented and to a certain extent uncontrollable environment? How do we make sure that we continue building a memory for tomorrow from what is today an amalgam of analogue and digital, with the digital increasing exponentially? How do we choose? What do we choose? How do we preserve the old and the new? Are our legal deposit policies adequate? Do they allow us to collect what is essential for building this part of the collective memory? How do we make what we collect accessible? Users and fields of interest have multiplied. Knowledge and access to it have become more democratic, and the passion for memory and its artefacts keeps growing day by day. How do we rationalize our choices in the face of this torrent of specialized demands? These questions merely scratch the surface of our challenges.

There is nothing really new in all this, but we do need to resolve these issues so we need to work at them until we can come up with practical and functional solutions. This is a challenge we have to face together. I myself hope to be able to work with all others who also seek to resolve these issues practically and constructively, through collaboration and mutual respect for each other's obligations and mandates. To this end, we will need to properly understand our missions, define and communicate our priorities and determine what we can do best with the means we have. And we should take this opportunity to rethink our approaches, where necessary.

Thus, we should aim to work together to come up with the best way to use the skills and the abilities we can muster, with a view to tackling the challenges presented by acquisition in an environment that combines our analogue past with our digital present in an increasingly complex society. We must not forget that the digital images created today are the Winkworths and the Karshes of tomorrow, and that the rare book of tomorrow is the last online version of Didier von Cauwelaert's serial story entitled Thomas Drimm. The significance we assign to our past must be weighed against the value we place on creation in the present so that we can make sure that our acquisitions are an accurate reflection of what Canada is and who Canadians are. We do not want to discover, twenty years down the road, that there is a "blank in our memory."

Acquisition, preservation and accessibility, they all hang together: what will be accessible tomorrow is the acquisition that is properly preserved today. What is properly preserved today is the acquisition that was selected yesterday. We cannot keep everything. We cannot keep everything in one place. One institution cannot preserve everything. We face huge challenges involving technical and technological collaboration, as well as task-sharing. We belong to a huge network and we need to capitalize on this strength to make sure we know what is acquired, how it is preserved and where it is stored in order to make it accessible. The ultimate aim is, after all, to make accessible the records of our heritage in all its various forms: documents, books, maps and portraits. Even here, our relevance depends on our ability to implement the best work procedures and marshal the most effective and efficient combinations of available expertise. The place of knowledge in our lives and the places where knowledge is stored have been profoundly transformed and we have to recognize this. More and more, we have to go where the people are – to the extent possible. Virtual vaults and presentations by experts in classrooms, online, via podcast and webcast – these are the ways of tomorrow. More traditional research environments and exhibition rooms will undoubtedly remain an appropriate approach for several more years but, even here, we face a dual world of physical access and virtual access. Solutions will need to be balanced to suit this new order and they should not lose sight of the fact that the institution's fonds must, above all, be accessible to as many people as possible over a vast territory, and yet allow experts to access the more esoteric sections.

Lastly, we have to make sure that we do what we were set up to do: preserve the collective memory and make it accessible. This is our role. Our institutional and professional needs and identities notwithstanding, we have to work together to identify our common interests and form alliances to tackle the modern challenges we need to deal with to fulfil this role. We have access to extraordinary talent, both in our institution and in society at large, that we can call upon to design and construct the requisite new approaches.

Daniel J. Caron Ph. D.
Librarian and Archivist of Canada