Remarks at the opening of the 3rd National History Forum

Introduction

Good morning, and welcome to Canada's History Forum 2010, and to Library and Archives Canada.
 
I am delighted to join with so many academics, teachers, museum curators, archivists, public historians, writers, media producers, members of Parliament, and of course students of history, a description which applies to us all.
 
As Canadians we join with countries around the world who are re-evaluating the perception of history, of how it is taught, of what the collective memory has come to mean in an increasingly collective and democratic world.
 
This is the first year the forum is being held at LAC, and it seems fitting, given both our mandate and our joint desire to engage Canadians in developing a better knowledge and understanding of our past, present and future.
 

History in 2010

What do history and memory mean in a digital age?
 
How do we manage the very substance of our public memory, the documents which allow us to function as a democracy?
 
And how do facilitate access to our documentary heritage? How do make sure what we keep can be seen and studied?
 
How do we transmit the importance of the passage of time and experience to a generation which lives in the powerful here and now afforded by technology?
 
These are some of the kinds of questions we will likely be considering during this forum, in one shape or another.
 
They are of particular interest here as our different roles complete one another for librarians and archivists assess and preserve our documentary heritage while historians are tasked with interpreting it.
 
How we answer them will have a profound effect on the way we perceive our identity as a nation, both now and in the future.
 
 

Our Digital Identity

In today's world, it is almost impossible to talk about history and identity without making a reference to digital technology itself.
 
The digital age is forcing all of us to rethink our attitudes, our practices and our teaching methods.
 
We live in an age where search is everything and value is defined as searchability.
 
We have moved from a preoccupation with websites to the broader issue of web presence itself.
 
In an age of social media, our communities, our clients and our students gather online using multiple channels and mobile devices.
 
We don't need to look very far to find evidence of these new approaches: as you know, the presentations delivered at this conference will be live-stream broadcast online as well as recorded for later video and audio podcasts and possibly webinars.
 
I bring this up because the way information is packaged and relayed has a considerable effect on how and indeed whether it is used. It is interesting to note that YouTube is rapidly catching up to Google as a leading search engine, shifting user behaviour in ways we have not even anticipated yet.
 
In this landscape, finding, managing and developing our documentary heritage and collective memory has become complicated, but also exciting.
 
Collectively we all need to reassess our roles and functions, as teachers, as researchers, as historians.
 
Yet we are always battling the clock – the evidence of today's history is ephemeral and shifting in form and function at a rapid pace.
 
And it isn't just technology which we need to consider, it is business processes and social change.
 
 

Modernizing LAC

This is one of the reasons we are modernizing at LAC.
 
We have reached a time in our history where a collaborative approach is absolutely fundamental to support the development of a pan-Canadian network for documentary heritage.
 
We need new ways of interacting, new ways of engaging with each other and sharing resources, new forms of collaboration to cope with this new world of information literacy and the changing face of our collective memory.
 
In the past, information professionals have exercised the sole responsibility of ensuring the fate of our collective memory and documentary heritage. They decided what would be preserved, and what would be remembered, now and in future generations.
 
But the construction of public memory, and thus history itself, is now undertaken moment by documentary moment by all those involved in the production and dissemination of information in a primarily digital environment.
 
There is a seamless moment of time and space within the remembering process that occurs when communities confront the instability, fragility, and ephemeral nature of memory.
 
This is the moment when society must make decisions about the communication, capture, treatment, and management of its information resources.
 
The onset of the Digital Age has completely transformed the documentary moment.
 
Decisions about the value and purpose of information have to be made before, during, and immediately after the act of creation, not fifty or a hundred years later.
 
This changes everything about how we view and value history.
 
It means that forums like this one, where we have a chance to sit down together and share the insights associated with our varied yet related disciplines, are more needed than ever.
 

Conclusion

 
We are often told that students today don't value history, or are uninterested in the stories that define our past.
 
I beg to differ. I have been speaking recently to students participating in the expanded Lest We Forget program, now offered in partnership with LAC, the Canadian War Museum, and the Canadian Urban Libraries Council.
 
Through this program, students benefit from hands-on access to copies of military service files from the first and second world wars, providing a rare glimpse of the real life experiences of the men and women whose names mark the cenotaphs in our communities.
 
What I have seen is thousands of students embarking on primary research into history with enthusiasm and with a passion for uncovering the stories that bring the past to life.
 
By fostering and supporting this interest, we ensure collectively the long term preservation of Canada's collective memory, for these young people are our future.
 
May I wish you the very best with the forum.
 
Dr. Daniel J. Caron, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
 
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