Memory Institutions in the 21st Century: The Need for Convergence and Collaboration

Archives Society of Alberta (ASA) 2010 Conference
May 13 - 16, 2010
 
Theme: The War of Independence Reconsidered: Librarians and Archivists -- Past, Present and Future
 
Remarks by Dr. Daniel J. Caron, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
 
Agenda notes: Dr. Caron will address the overall need to think of memory institutions in a new context and how to begin to build the interrelations between archives and libraries to meet the enhanced expectations of Canadians in the 21st century.
 
Thank you to the members of the ASA Program Committee for inviting me to share my thoughts on the challenges facing memory institutions in the 21st century.
 
As you can imagine, your choice of theme for your annual general meeting "The War of Independence Reconsidered" brings to mind thoughts concerning the American Revolution also known as the War of Independence from Britain.
 
In the folkloric recollection of the events, there is a tendency to focus on the iconic moments that underscore the desire of the colonial Americans to take control of their collective destiny and to declare their independence from British rule. For example, in the popular memory, we are reminded of the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere, immortalized by the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the idealized but historically inaccurate portrayal of Washington Crossing the Delaware River, made memorable by Emanuel Leutze's famous painting, and, of course, the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, which includes what many feel to be the most potent and consequential words in American history: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
 
But if we dig a little bit deeper, as historians and archivists are apt to do, we discover that the American Revolution cannot be simply reduced to a quest for independence. There were other forces at play, most notably, the international struggle amongst Europe's imperial powers for control over the rich treasure trove of natural resources to be found in the new world. Indeed, the War of Independence does not end until the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which, in fact, corresponds to more than a single agreement between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Great Britain to end the war. Britain also sought to bring to an end other conflicts with its historical rivals and at the same time signed agreements with France, Spain, and the Netherlands in order to renegotiate the control and trade from distant colonies.
 
Moreover, the quest for independence also put into play a second and more important narrative line that entailed the manner in which the 13 colonies would subsequently seek out terms of union. Each one of the States had much to gain should it enter into agreement with other States to advance common interests, but the process to articulate the terms would turn out to be long and at times arduous. 
 
In short, once the colonies had gained their independence, they set out to articulate the initial Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Having first convened a series of constitutional conventions, the Congress of the Confederation approved the constitution it received and then put into place a timetable in which each of the States in turn would ratify the terms of union. Importantly, the ratification process brought out a historical debate best captured in the Federalist Papers, where the founding principles and institutions of the newly born republic were hotly contested. The most significant contribution to emerge from the exchange of essays would turn out to be the initial amendments to the constitution, which are now commonly referred to as the American Bill of Rights.
 
In retrospect, it is remarkable, given the economic and cultural differences between the northern and southern states, that Americans would go to such great lengths to preserve their union, imperfect may it be, and fight a civil war in order to prevent the Secession of the southern States.
 
That being said, I am not trying to suggest that librarians and archivists are about to come to blows. Heaven forbid.
 
Yet, if we look closely at the historical process of the American Revolution beginning with the Declaration of Independence, including the adoption of the US Constitution with its famous Bill of Rights, and ending with the defeat of the Confederate States in the War Between the States, what is truly remarkable is not the escape from imperial domination, but the preservation of the union and the extension of those rights enshrined in the Constitution to all Americans regardless of the colour of their skin. In this case, the commitment to core values triumphed over the pursuit of factional interest.
 
Moving away from our extended metaphor to the perceived gulf separating archivists and librarians, it should be noted that there is no common foe other than both professions becoming irrelevant to the society at large. Indeed, looking at the context in which these information professionals ply their trade, they have, more than ever, a shared interest to work together to serve the increasing demands of a public that wants to access information at the click of a mouse or by the touch of a finger on a screen.
 
Although the emergence of the digital landscape points to the convergence of these two honoured information professions, we do realize that the traditional professional identities of librarians and archivists are composed of significant distinguishing characteristics. For example, their respective missions are not always the same, nor are their clients. Their procedures for processing information, the research services they offer, the training they provide in researching information, and the tools they develop and use to provide services have special features that help to define their distinctive characteristics.
 
In looking at the literature, Anne-Marie Bertrand (2003) states that librarians' work is essentially a vocation based on a fundamental and common value of sharing knowledge and culture. This work is also based on other values related to listening to users, being attentive to their needs, and being available to assist them. Dominique Arot (2000) defines a librarian's values as being a more permanent set of requirements and references related to the fact that librarians carry out their work in a public area. The author adds that the desire to make the collections that they conserve and develop understandable and useable is another fundamental value.
 
According to Jean-Yves Rousseau and others (1988), the mission of an archivist is basically to acquire process and provide access to recorded, organic information. Elizabeth Diamond (1994) states that it is becoming increasingly obvious that archivists are distinguished from other professions by their role in preserving and transmitting documents. Archivists therefore acquire, process, preserve, provide context, arrange and make archival documents physically and intellectually accessible. Carol Couture and others (1999) suggest that there is a need for a genuine integration so that the archivist's main function would be to support research and conserve archives; to manage process and provide access to information; and to work with other disciplines to resolve the challenges of the information explosion.
 
Yet, in spite of these distinguishing characteristics, archivists and librarians both work with documented information and the meaning or significance it conveys; they both serve the public, and carry out similar activities regarding document processing, research and client service; and they must have expertise in automated document management as well as skills and abilities in the design and maintenance of document information systems. 
 
Moreover, the new technological environment and its impact on organizations as well as user needs, which are growing increasingly more complex, provide many arguments for co-operation, and even convergence, between the two professions. 
 
This environment has led to questions on both sides about protecting confidential information, copyright, the complexities of electronic documents, etc. Each profession must master very specific aspects of information and communication technologies. 
 
Librarians are well versed in technologies related to such areas as marketing, the dissemination of information and reference services. Archivists focus on preserving the quality and integrity of documents, analyzing context, and the process of creating information. These areas provide potential avenues for co-operation and convergence. 
 
Therefore, as society transitions from an analogue to a digital environment, librarians and archivists are forced to re-evaluate everything from acquisition policies to preservation processes. Archival acquisitions of boxes filled with diaries, photographs, and forms are being replaced by a memory stick filled with PDF documents, blog transcripts, and digital photographs. As a result, questions surround the applicability of fundamental archival principles, such as original order, provenance and authenticity. Moreover, software considerations, readability issues, privacy concerns, and version control are just a few of the expected (and increasingly encountered) challenges of the 21st century.
 
As CNRS researcher Tzvetan Todorov wrote in 1995, "… collective memory is at risk today not because records are disappearing, but rather because there is too much available …." Today more than ever, information in all forms (films, documents, portraits, photos, etc.) is ephemeral, instantaneous and highly dynamic. And there is lots of it. Far too much information is recorded, and this directly affects the capacity of memory institutions to identify, preserve and ensure access to their holdings. As a result, most countries are reviewing their policies, practices and legislative frameworks in order to respond to the challenges posed by the digital age. Here at home, Library and Archives Canada—as a key player within Canadian Heritage and across all other government departments—has a critical role to play in contributing to these discussions.
 
Like many memory institutions, the mandate of the ASA indicates the importance of accessibility and the preservation of Alberta's documentary heritage. Likewise, the mandate of Library and Archives Canada is to preserve and make accessible the documentary heritage of Canadians, including that of the Government of Canada. By acquiring and preserving the most relevant and significant materials, we ensure that it will be accessible to Canadians over time.
 
Without question, meeting our mandate in an electronic world presents unique challenges and opportunities. Increasingly, memory institutions are joining forces to gain strength from one another. Although libraries and archives operate under varied circumstances, they share a common goal of communicating a shared documentary heritage from one generation to the next.
 
Certainly, building and preserving Canada's documentary heritage in this new environment requires new approaches, new ways of working and, above all, new forms of partnership and collaboration. To meet this challenge, memory institutions, including LAC, must change the way we do business. Increasingly, coordinated collaborative efforts are required to identify relevant documentary heritage and to bring about a comprehensive approach in the areas of acquisition, preservation and access. By understanding the unique position of libraries and archives in the broader information world, and valuing their distinctive features, strong partnerships can emerge.
 
The evolution of new information and communication technologies has fundamentally changed the way Canadians create, safeguard and retrieve information. In this setting, Canadians expect all of their information needs to be met instantaneously and, more often than not, electronically. Many organizations, like the ASA, have taken the lead by developing online exhibits, collections, and educational resources and have shown that the digital environment offers many wonderful opportunities to support our goals of acquisition, preservation and access.
 
We must also work together in identifying and preserving the content created in the ever-growing social media networks, like Facebook and MySpace because our digital and digitized documentary heritage must be made accessible to Canadian cultural industries, genealogists, historians, lawyers and Canadians in general. In this way, we will enable direct access from coast to coast to an important but under-utilized public resource. These assets can in turn be used to further literacy development, uphold our democratic institutions, and be repurposed for a wide variety of uses.
 
Also, the development of information and communications technology has brought new rules into effect, the development of new lines of questioning, and even the revision of certain legislations and the establishment of new international standards on multiple aspects. These are exemplified by the introduction of new legal instruments that are changing the nature and scope of institutions to which they apply and can redefine "new economic or social inferences", such as the merger of the National Library and the National Archives into Library and Archives Canada in 2004.
 
More than a simple administrative exercise, the merger of these two institutions is a partial response to the changing environmental changes in the field of information. In this sense, the Act to establish Library and Archives Canada is a legislative instrument, integrating both institutions leading to the creation of new roles and responsibilities for the new organization's information professionals.
 
As previously mentioned, the world of the information professional is subjected to drastic and continuous changes with the emergence of digitally produced information, impacting the collective identities, the professional theories, and the activities of the workplace culture in the information technology field. Several factors influence these changes and create a new environment defined by communication and information technologies. In addition, users and clients play a new role and consequently have more expectations. New laws, legislations and regulations are also encompassing the professional parameters of information professionals. The adoption of international standards also supports convergence. These factors exert more and more pressure on the traditional roles of all information professionals.
 
As well, the world of information resource management has made sweeping and important changes to these professions. 
 
First, the landscape of information resource development and management has almost entirely shifted from structured, ordered, formal experiences, within a controlled environment to unstructured, disordered, informal experiences within the limitless environment of cyberspace. As an example, users no longer want visible intermediaries; they want research solutions that are comprehensive and transparent, such as search engines where the focus is on content rather than format or media.
 
Second, the information environment has changed substantially in the last decade: superabundance; rapid creation, sharing and remixing by individuals; multiple formats; unprecedented access; ever-present and expanding user influence, points of view, skills and engagement. This picture is in direct contrast to that of the past, which was characterized by limited creation and quantity; mediated access and decisions; authoritative sources; specialist interventions; limited number of fixed formats; limited sharing; and fewer players. Every second a new piece of information is created or discovered somewhere in the world that may be relevant to Canada's continuing memory. The digital images of today are the building blocks of tomorrow's memory. And tomorrow's "rare book" will be the latest version of today's online success. 
 
Among other things, the information framework we are building for Canada to support its continuing memory must reflect the rapidly shifting digital landscape. For example, in the pre-digital world, editors acted as filters to determine what was to be published. In the digital world, that buffer is increasingly reduced. These changes result in fundamentally transformed relationships between creators, publishers, distributors and users and contribute to the major challenge of defining "published" and "unpublished" resources. Moreover, the nature of the communications medium in which digital information is transmitted or distributed has rendered this question irrelevant to creators, producers, users, and consumers of information in the digital environment. In other words, the value, utility, and mediation of information resources transcend the status, medium or mode of their creation. In the digital age, communication is primarily all about the production and consumption of the information resource and not about the nature or status of the information resource container. 
 
All of this call into question the very basis of the traditional practices and theories that have driven the management of information, librarianship, documentary heritage and the development of Canada's continuing memory. Information professionals now need to determine how to achieve optimal results in this constantly evolving environment to stay relevant to Canadians.
 
Third, and probably more importantly, is the coincidental and ongoing social transformation that sees a merger of culture, technology and people. It is this merger—enabled by technologies—which is effecting our previously and collectively held convictions, reference points, institutional and regulatory frameworks, and traditional roles surrounding the creation, use, storage, and communication of information, and its perception, understanding, truth and meaning.
 
Information professionals must remake themselves, not simply through peripheral adjustments but through a complete reinvention based on the original use of their assets and in line with the imperatives of the new environment. In my view, the anchoring that will help the information professions transform themselves remains unchanged: to ensure that the information and documentary production needed to build society's collective memory is acquired, preserved and made accessible for current and future generations—regardless of type, origin or format—for collective use with a view to maintaining the public good, and to build a socio-economic knowledge base for research, or for personal use. 
 
We can affirm that the characteristics of the digital world present major challenges for information professionals by imposing constraints (e.g., loss of control of over documentary production and its capture), and by the emergence, imposition and pre-eminence of unstructured material. 
 
Historically, the invention and organization of printed material gave librarians and archivists stable physical material to work with: books, holdings, and archival documents and prompted the development of philosophical principles on which standards and practices were built. 
 
The advent of the digital world challenges these tenets and calls into question the foundation of work practices and, consequently, of the professions. At the same time, the digital environment creates endless opportunities for rethinking our approach, including a complete redefinition of the way we organize, explain and manage documentary production. Ultimately, it is not the purpose of the professions that is being challenged or called into question, but rather their methods and organization.
 
To return to the analogy of the War Between the States, the two sides should not engage each other in a turf war over traditional ground that our clients have vacated in favour of cyberspace.
 
In conclusion, archivists and librarians need to explore new avenues in order to transcend the frontiers of the pre-digital world in a productive and respectful value-driven spirit to ensure the continuously relevant contribution of all information professionals to the literacy and democracy of their country.
 
Thank you.
 
 
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