Speaking Notes - Canadian Historical Association Roundtable on Archives, Archivists and the Work of Historians

 
1) Evolution of Professions
 
The work of archivists has evolved over time but not as markedly as other professions.
 
The medical profession, for instance, has been forced to adapt to major changes in the pharmaceutical industry and to new technologies. Moreover, social behaviour has also influenced the medical practice itself: nowadays people are much better informed about their illnesses before going to see their doctors. In particular, they have Internet access to consult multiple blogs and health lines of all kinds. This has been going on for the last 30 years and has transformed the workplace of healthcare professionals.
 
These types of transformations now affect a wide range of professions, from plumbers who have been forced to rethink their work with the introduction of plastic pipes, to archeologists who now work with geospatial archaeology using detection by satellites.
 
For archivists, as information professionals, the story has been different somehow. The relative stability of the writing system—that is, writing and its conventions of publishing, access, secrecy, format, privacy, transparency, printing, copyright, etc.—has created an environment where information professionals have full authority and are rarely questioned with respect to thier decisions.
 
2) A New Environment 
 
The arrival of the Digital Age has completely transformed the contextual phenomena previously associated with the documentary moment.
 
In the process, the Digital Age has effectively undermined many of our assumptions and approaches around the construction and constitution of documentary heritage. In other words, the circumstances and the environment of the documentary moment have substantially changed to the extent that some of our former value propositions and acquisition outcomes may no longer be appropriate.
 
This has a direct impact on the contribution made by archivists.
 
For example, the initial attempts to apply analogue collecting strategies to cyberspace—typically in the form of web harvesting—are already being called into question for a variety of reasons, and documentary heritage institutions are now beginning to recognize the enormously complex scope and scale of the paradigm shift represented by the transition from analogue to digital communication.
 
This new information resource environment is both redistributing and complicating the development of public memory far beyond the confines and semantics of analogue information resource intelligence and learning experience.
 
It is shifting the context of information resource and memory development from relatively formal, controlled and ordered relationships to the uncontrolled, disordered, informal experiences and unlimited communications relativity of cyberspace.
 
Consequently, the new information resource environment has ended the public memory monopoly once exercised by archives, libraries, museums and other institutions, and this has a huge impact on those information professionals who interpret a society’s causa materialis, the raw material of its documentary heritage.
 
3) Issues
 
a) The value and meaning of what we acquire or what we should acquire
 
The primary issue is that archives have little or no experience with rich communications and social media, neither in terms of the technology involved nor in terms of the documentary products being produced, including their characteristics, the extent of their distribution or the nature of their repurposing or reuse, and especially not in terms of the potential memory value of the information resource inputs and outputs. To put it simply, there are really no precedents or antecedent reference points for memory value within the digital context of social media.
 
If selecting or collecting or other analogue memory strategies are not viable or feasible within cyberspace, how will institutions adapt and continue to evolve their public memory interventions?
 
Within these processes of social transformation and socio-technology convergence, the distinctions of significance, authority, meaning, and value that have been previously assigned to or established between information resources based on their status or provenance—for example, whether information is published or unpublished, or the nature of the communications medium in which it is transmitted or distributed—have all largely become 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.
 
It is no longer a given that the source, status, and medium of information constituted in the form and format of its container (e.g., book, document) automatically convey authority and value from contemporary social memory perspectives.
 
b) How to preserve and describe with integrity and applicability?
 
Directly linked to the issue of overwhelming information resource generation and productivity is a fundamental problem of information preservation insofar as society’s capacity to create and produce information has far outdistanced both its physical and virtual capacity to store and preserve it. Moreover, this gap continues to grow exponentially.
 
The real cost of information preservation lies not in the physical storage of data but in the administration, management, and accessibility of the information objects inside the storage containers—regardless of how big or small—over time, and these costs are rapidly escalating out of sight.
 
It is entirely possible and increasingly logical, for example, to propose that the preservation of public memory should transpire through various interventions and mediations made within cyberspace rather than through physical transfers of virtual civic goods from creators to a dedicated repository. Is it possible that public memory could become a network or a persistent "computing cloud" within the Web?
 
What space does the public archive occupy and what roles do archivists and information professionals play in an information ecosphere dominated by new information service providers, consortiums, and consumers?
 
4) The new landscape: a call for renewal of the professions
 
Society has moved well beyond having its public memory, culture, and history contextualized and mediated by dedicated memory specialists.
 
In the Digital Age, archives and archivists will continue to play prominent roles and fulfil key responsibilities, but I also think that these roles and responsibilities will need to be focused, formulated, and implemented differently, with substantially different goals, objectives, and results in mind.
 
There is a growing consensus that the public memory challenges of the Digital Age need to be met by collaborative strategy and research and that potential solutions and interventions will not succeed through independent unilateral actions but will emerge through institutional and occupational convergences.
 
And I think that we are all beginning to realize that this collaboration cannot be confined to ourselves as memory professionals and memory institutions. We are beginning to understand that the construction and constitution of the civic goods of public memory are a collective social responsibility requiring broad participation across all sectors.
 
Finally, the rapid growth of Internet resources and digital collections is accompanied by a proliferation of metadata schemas. Each metadata schema has been designed based on the requirements of the particular user community, intended users, type of materials, subject domain, the depth of description, etc. Problems arise when building large digital libraries or repositories with metadata records prepared according to diverse schemas. Most users do not and should not have to know or understand the underlying structure of the digital collection; however, in reality, they are experiencing difficulties in resource discovery and access. How to enable a "one-stop" seamless search presents considerable challenges.
 
For all these reasons, the archival profession needs to be renewed, and this renewal is urgent: more computer technology, literature, history of writing, and anthropology of writing systems to decode and understand how people produce information today, and more social sciences to understand who produces what, and how it is important in the ever-changing constellation of social agents and their contributions to society.
 
Archivists also need to gain a certain distance from users: historians, genealogists, writers. This means they must first produce critical and scientific work that passes the "rebuttal test" in addition to the work of record production interpreters. These interpreters have very specific needs that vary with the choice of research and writing, and the periods involved. These needs are certainly important, and to fulfil them, archivists need to forge ties with users and have them take part in the thought process. But their work is fundamentally broader and they must, above all else, ensure that they are building the most exhaustive record base they can—one that is representative, accurate, authentic and complete. It is certainly important to serve today’s users, but although archivists work for current generations, they are also working for future generations.
 
When I completed my doctoral degree in Canadian Studies, Applied Human Sciences, with anthropologist Rémi Savard, I discovered this shortfall or deficiency in the construction of the French and British regimes archives group. The research tools—those that existed—were designed to answer questions about the era in which the records were created, and they were not neutral in terms of the passage of time. They were anthropocentric, built with a view of the world at that time, rather than in a way to serve future generations of researchers.

This is a major challenge but just an example of what lies ahead. This means that we need to broaden the intellectual framework that informs the work and the training of information professionals.