For those who may not have seen this already, as the present and future of Library and Archives Canada is of concern to all of us . Daniel Caron is the keynote speaker at CLA this year.
Archiving the digital record
How does a traditional government organization move from archiving books to preserving blogs and other sources of digital information? Library & Archives Canada (LAC) is responding to the new digital reality. Daniel Caron, deputy minister of LAC, spoke with editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe about his vision for the future and how he plans to achieve it.
You’ve argued that “the convergence of Library and Archives is propelled by the attitudes and expectations of users in a modern information society.” What does that mean for LAC?
If LAC and similar organizations across the country want to be relevant and continue to contribute to democracy and literacy, they need to understand not only where citizens are going in terms of accessing material, but how they create it, preserve it and want to access it.
It’s difficult in the current environment to decide how to select what is going to become historical because there’s so much information produced out there. Traditionally, publishers had to legally deposit two copies of everything, and we were documenting the literates of the world. Now, everyone can produce something. So the first question we need to answer is how are we going to decide what we keep, what to acquire in our vaults? To do that, we need to change our business.
How will you decide what makes something worth keeping?
We are building what is called the All of Society Model. We went through the entire literature around librarianship and archival sciences, and we found that the techniques and approaches cover the ground from the moment you acquire something to the disposals.
We need to involve more than just librarians and archivists but also political scientists and anthropologists to understand our society’s functioning. Who are the major players? What are their roles? When do they intervene? And from there, identify the discourses in society. For example, Aboriginal issues have evolved in terms of discourse. We have, since the beginning of the ‘70s, a greater presence of Aboriginal people than we used to; before, it was totally the state that was keeping that discourse.
We’ve worked with the entire community across the country on the model. We have 800 archives and 2400 libraries across the country. It’s impossible today, in the digital environment, to think that one institution, one group of people, will have the answers to all of this. In the end, we’re going to have a system where, wherever you go, you will be able to know what is where and how to access it. It may be a province, it may be a local archives, it may be us if it’s of national importance.
When you talk about this network of libraries and archives, are they collectors of information, repositories of information, or both?
They can be both. Let me give you an example. Just after I was appointed I started this model, including the idea that we should locate material where it’s going to be used. I went to Newfoundland and brought them two Moravian dictionaries because they were being utilized by professors at Memorial University. Why have them travel to Ottawa if I know that the rooms there are state-of-the-art and can preserve them, and they’re going to be made accessible? Obviously you need criteria, you need standards and we’re working on that. Some provinces like Quebec and Nova Scotia have developed those standards and are already collaborating within the province. We’re trying to bring that model across the country.
What about the skills that librarians and archivists are going to have to have?
We need technical competencies of classifying and organizing. But there are two more streams. One is, obviously, the technological stream. People will need to be a lot savvier vis-à-vis technology because that’s where they can contribute. It’s no longer enough just to sit behind the counter.
The other stream understands the anthropology of the writing system or the anthropology on how we document. We’re in a digital environment that is changing the way we behave, the way we work. If you look at teenagers and the kids, they don’t react the way we traditionally react; librarians and archivists need to understand that because if they want to be able to put a value on, and to find a document that we need to acquire, they need to understand how people create information and what matters to them.
In the case of public libraries, we need to have people who are open to offering more than published material. People knocking at the doors now are no longer coming for a book. They found it on the web somewhere so they’re coming for different types of service, such as community services. Again, I see two streams. One is more intellectual, conceptual, in understanding the roots of how we create information as individuals, writers, historians. And the other is the technology that needs to be understood to a point where you will be able to certify that this is an authentic document, since that’s the role of archivists and librarians, to have the capacity to tell people that if you come here, what you’re going to find on our website has not been altered, that this is the real, authentic stuff.
I want talk about you as the leader of an organization that went through significant change over the last decade and is now, of course, going through change to reach your vision. There must be huge concern, if not resistance.
Both in fact. There’s certainly resistance but there is concern because we are changing the traditional role of this institution. What we need to understand is, first of all, when we put the two institutions together in 2004 we did the machinery stuff that we had to do to create a new Act and put together two institutions. Now the driver behind modernization is the issue of relevance. How can our role and contributions stay relevant in an environment that is moving so quickly and affecting all the work we’ve been doing in the past? For example, based on our backlog we could continue to work for 20 years describing what we already have and think we’re still relevant to society. But as we speak, a lot of information is being created digitally and a lot will be lost if we’re not working upstream to gather, to select, to do the triage. This changing environment is the driver to me.
So what process did you put in place to move the vision?
First of all I put it in a document, Shaping Our Continuing Memory, and from there led the pilgrimage inside and outside. This is the role of a deputy, I think: to convey the message and to listen. In my document I said clearly that we’re entering into a deliberative decision-making process which means that we’re going to listen to you. It doesn’t mean we’re looking for consensus, no. We have the authority, we have an Act, we need to move and to do our job. However, we’re going to be very deliberative in our discussions. We did a fact-finding exercise. I sent into the field a renowned librarian and a renowned archivist to talk to the community and to come back with the results. With those results, we began a real conversation with the communities.
At the same time inside we started to communicate those objectives. I have delegated to the organization the task of bringing solutions so it’s not something that is top down. What is top-down is the vision, the drive, the leadership, but the solutions will come from the professionals and from the communities. The way I approach it is to communicate, communicate and explain, explain, and listen to people. You have to listen and you have to show that you have listened. It’s not enough to say, “Oh thank you, yeah, I heard you.” No, you need to be frank, no bullshit. You’re frank so you have those meetings and if something is in line with what you’re trying to do, you say to them, “That’s a very good idea and we’re going to pursue that.” If it’s just resistance, you say, “Well, you may be right but we think the environment is changing and no, we won’t – we can’t have the status quo here.”
You know, you become a bit impatient because you want this to be implemented yesterday. You have to be patient and give time to people. We have done this with the communities over the last two years. Now it’s starting to pay off a lot. We see a lot of people coming to us happy; they want to contribute.
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