June 1, 2012
Speech delivered by Daniel J. Caron at the Association des archivistes du Québec conference, Lévis, Quebec
Check against delivery.
I would first like to thank the members of the organizing committee of the national conference of the Association des archivistes du Québec. I am pleased to have this opportunity to share with you my thoughts on the historical evolution of archives and archival practice as we move further into the digital information age.
I will start my presentation by discussing the transition of archives from a place similar in kind to an archaeological site to a place more deliberately structured but moving progressively, it seems to me, toward a virtual space where documentary heritage is more and more consciously sorted and tagged upstream, i.e. closer to the moment of creation.
In doing so, I will consider the etymology of the singular noun “archive” and its plural “archives,” and its subsequent development into the verb “to archive.”
I will then describe how conscious sorting and the archive in virtual space is beginning to play a role in how Library and Archives Canada treats government records using a whole-of-society approach.
I will close with an update on the steps taken at LAC to respond to the Government of Canada’s desire to offer its services to Canadians more efficiently.
Archives, like the archive, have a lengthy, almost millennial history as a concept and certainly more than millennial as a practice. The work of Ernst Posner and Maria Brosius showed that archives were used by a number of civilizations, including the Persians, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans(1
). This groundbreaking work helped us to understand the use and utility of written records in daily and public life. However, the act of “archiving” has never been clearly defined.
The construction of archival storage sites was therefore carried out idiosyncratically. The diversity of archives and what they contain from one site to the next reflects this long-standing problem. The work of Christian Jacob showed us this diversity of sites and functions.
Today, the quantitative and qualitative aspects of documentary production in our societies and the wealth of technologies supporting it further complicate the issue.
We need to go back to the origins of the archive, or “arche,” to better grasp the contemporary implications. Writing has produced two main categories of objects: the book and the document. Each has played a role and has had a certain social “utility.” If the document has appeared more intimate and more personal in its contents and has served more specific purposes such as the archive as vestige and proof, the book has had broader aims, a scope centered on dispensing learning, imagination, knowledge and, more simply, prevalent ideas.
Besides their known utilities, what united these two objects born of writing in human history is no doubt humankind’s desire to collect and preserve them for later use. The book and the document, whether objects of curiosity, works of art, scholarship, or legal entities, they have been treasured by all cultures with a writing system throughout the ages. They have not only fulfilled functions, but have also literally filled places. This shows us that the places and objects appear to have preceded reflection on the act of archiving. It is as though it was a natural instinct to preserve objects this way, as though they were an essential support for the future of societies.
While the archive and archives entered our vocabulary around the end of the 13th century; however, it was not until the 19th century that the verb “to archive” was formed. As a result, there was no need to take the action of archiving beyond the creation of the document. That is, of course, until writing proliferated and became more democratic, giving way to more entertaining, improvised texts and documents, without immediate “utility” and with less inherent use-related value, instead being more the product of the desire for expression.
So, put in order, the object (archive) and the place (archives) were created first and then looked after (archivist), until finally they were given a value (to archive) that fits within a certain intellectual organization beyond the simple creation of the document as such.
But, as in the transition from the spoken word to the written word, habits and behaviours related to writing, reading and all that is documentary production and its formal or informal “management” in our societies is now changing drastically in the digital environment. The source of the archive produces nothing more than “archives.”
Utility, whether personal or collective, has certainly guided the construction of archives. In this regard, the archive and archives as object and place have sometimes been perceived as a technical support to writing, to the training of the scientific mind, or simply as a source to develop the imagination. Over time, these various utilities have consecrated archives as central components in the development of societies, indeed of civilizations (2
), partly because they are associated with the memory of humankind (3
), the memory of civilizations(4
) and the construction of knowledge.
Some, indeed many places that will become archives are created randomly, a bit like a place filled with sediments and artifacts without a conceptual plan. This is often the case for personal archives, treasures accumulated over the years without a specific aim for the future. They serve as a remembrance.
This type of place is more or less organized, and the order of things informs us as much as the things themselves and their contents do, like an archaeological site or a cabinet of curiosities.
It is also the creation of such places in which to preserve certain types of objects that have importance to the individual or community that spawns the need, and soon thereafter the obligation, to organize and classify objects.
However, the need to classify and organize in itself does not inform us about what must be acquired or identified to be classified or organized. We have to intervene here, downstream from the unknown, and try to give meaning to this presence. Without a clear idea of why we are accepting objects into the archives, we are left in what is essentially a reactive and speculative position. This is perfectly acceptable for part of a society’s documentary production. There will always be documentary spaces of great interest, unexpected and unknown but rich and useful to the society, which become archives, in the sense of organized places.
But in our world today, how can we intervene to identify and preserve records with archival value? Because this space is increasingly fragmented, out of control and often ephemeral.
The luxury of waiting, waiting for objects to be delivered to us from someplace, might be disappearing. This is true for what we have traditionally qualified as published and unpublished material. The recent work of professor Bertrand Gervais at UQUAM clearly shows this trend away from creating within what I called the convention of the writing system.
It is also noteworthy to see our public administrations debating to ensure that important vestiges are recorded in official systems—I’m referring here to the famous PIN, for example. Because memory remains essential to the functioning of our societies. Memory is the instrument through which we build knowledge. In our writing societies, memory is always produced through the archive and archives. Metaphorically, it has to be cultivated to ensure that it thrives, to ensure its presence (5
Today, we are therefore facing two major problems. First, we can leave this memory to define itself, but there is a risk that it will not meet our needs. Is it then necessary to intervene? When and how? Second, and this is the purpose of this conference, in the digital world, how can we ensure the documentary presence, now increasingly out of control, extremely fragmented and remarkably ephemeral, is captured at the right time, that the archive, in the sense of archeion, is identified?
This leads to significant problems with regard to the role of archives and their capacity to fulfill their important social functions.
If, over time, archives have become a central component in the development of societies, indeed of civilizations, it is in part because they have played an instrumental role, associated with the memory of humankind, civilizations and the construction of knowledge.
But to function effectively as a memory institution, archives in the digital age must go beyond the accumulation, preservation and organization of sediments. Not to do so is to run the risk of incurring a type of amnesia so eloquently described in Voltaire’s essay entitled “memory,” where we do not have what we need to function individually, organizationally or as a society.
To facilitate memory and the construction of knowledge, archives or some part of them, there must be an ever more conscious sorting to make them useful to someone, an organization or a society.
To put together archives with such deliberation places us upstream from the process of construction and subsequent use of archives in what Aristotle calls the material cause.
It is my opinion that certain archives, like a national archive, should be instrumental in doing this and that, in this instance, “to archive” increasingly means “to document,” since such archives are places where the contents are anticipated and the fonds are not a random collection of documents.
For example, at Library and Archives Canada our acquisition process is increasingly directed by upstream deliberation. There is a growing need for intellectual intervention that is modeled on and evolves in the image of society’s functioning.
For an institution like Library and Archives Canada at least, this means intervening more and more downstream from the act of creating information so that it can be sorted to ensure the identification of material with real archival potential. This is an extraordinary challenge.
If we try to collect everything, especially given the exponential growth of content being produced in this digital age, we would fall into the trap of Jorge Luis Borges’ memorable main character in the short story Funes. Funes remembers everything in its finest detail and is cursed with total recall, but is unable to make sense of all that he remembers.
For us, fully comprehensive archives do not seem more useful to humanity than archives created from random collections.
This might seem simple, but it is a huge problem, and a problem that is growing as our documentary production becomes digital and is located in the digital space.
An upstream, rather than downstream, selection must be made to determine what will or will not be included in the archives.
It is not the document itself that is in jeopardy here. Instead, the fact is that digitization creates new ways of documenting and, in particular, ways of using documentation in new processes that shut down our usual bureaucratic methods. What we need is not necessarily to try to reinvent the document or to stop discourse and evidence. Instead, we need to try to understand the transformation of the discursive space of archives that brought us to the document and that is now leading us into unchartered territory. The “neo-container” of discourse today is the cloud. In reality, there is no longer any container or document, but rather vestiges and evidence of all kinds circulating outside the instrument for organized capture that can easily be indexed. How can we make our processes and our bureaucratic methods work in this world that is based on this neo-document? Are these rules and processes still possible? Can they be supported by appropriate, authentic and valid “documentation”?
These are some of the questions we have to look at in the digital transition.
It is when the archival value is no longer intrinsic to the document that “archives” and, above all, “to archive” must change as concepts.
We know that archives must be organized so that they satisfy the need to group together contents in a context, fragments of discursive statements or discourse itself.
Otherwise, archives are merely a collection of objects.
Today, documentary production and, commonly, what is expressed and recorded increasingly resembles the overwhelming collection of information that Funes must confront.
The 20th and 21st centuries have seen a proliferation of written documents and, above all, what is recorded, regardless of format or purpose.
By becoming the storage area of human expression, the digital space has radically changed the context of our expression and of archiving.
The immense corpus of information has, little by little, diverted attention from the basic role of the archive, archives and its original meaning. But, in exchange, it has raised again the difficult question of what “to archive” means.
Today, every individual with the technical means can express themselves and publish information through the written document.
These individuals are thus creating in excessive amounts what formerly had the quality of an archive.
Consequently, we live in a completely different world, one that must rely on new ideas and new tools.
For example, when determining the meaning and value of texts and statements, we can no longer disregard possible mixing and intertextual links.
Therefore, this raises the problem of ascertaining how and, above all, when to take the contents into consideration to ensure that it contributes to the scientific organization of the material.
Where the action of archiving is based on choice, we have the opportunity to proceed in this manner in order to be representative, by knowing the origin of and understanding the reason for writing, the written document and the written culture.
We can ensure that we accumulate material through a discourse model, the dispersal of discursive intentions and stakeholders in and through various organizational, institutional or societal components.
Such components are the foundation statements; they define both relevance and context, but no single unit can claim that “it” stands alone.
We must have points of reference, shared vestiges on shared themes.
What is an archive, and what does “to archive” mean when we address the ever more urgent matter of reasoned sorting of the documentary output produced by a society, an organization or an institution?
How can we reassess the archive and its derivatives, without also reassessing the creation of archives as a place and the representation of a certain reality.
Should the action of archiving have a more committed, conscious meaning in the future?
From the archeion in ancient Greece, from which we have created official places of public use called “archives” reflecting an “authoritarian” world and particularly controlled in its documentary production (the archive), we will move toward an action, to archive, that reflects democratized, fragmented documentary production.
We are speaking of a science that is not Borgesian and that recognizes the impossibility of keeping everything and also the pointlessness and indeed the danger of doing so.
It is a science that focuses instead on studying and understanding the motives and reasons for expression, the places of writing, the discursive universes, the contexts of creation, and the stakeholders and their role. It is not solely the science-based utility of an object.
It is a science that no longer organizes archives based on the archive-object, but on the basis of discursive statements that abound on the Web and in the space of our modern societies.
It is a science that ensures the sensible constructions of spaces in which we find content and less places of objects.
This movement away from the physical place that houses documentary heritage objects towards a virtual space in which documentary heritage content is captured in the modernized approach of LAC to the treatment of government records.
For example, by 2017, LAC will acquire and retain original government documents, in other words, in the original format in which they were created. We will be working with both analogue and digital documents in a hybrid environment.
Moreover, LAC will work in conjunction with the myriad of government departments and agencies to identify and tag their records of business value. This is done by using a common information technology infrastructure supplied by Shared Services Canada.
LAC will also exercise its mandated function, to identify, manage, and preserve records of archival or historical value, the archive, by extending its custody and control over the records into the digital sphere – the infosphere – without taking physical possession of them.
Does doing so represent the end of archives as the physical location of the memory?
It appears within this infosphere that the archive lives on as a result of its position in intellectual discourse, or better yet, in an ontology supported by a legal framework, information technology infrastructure, and societal context, rather than the fact that it resides in a physical location.
This becomes even more evident as we move on to determining their archival or historical value and disseminating them as documentary heritage on what has become our society’s principal medium of communication, the Internet.
The best example of the function of more dispersed governance in this area is undoubtedly the Quebec tuition fees debate—what people are now calling the Printemps érable.
There exists a large corpus of information generated by the Quebec government and communicated by traditional media. At the same time, there exists an even greater corpus of information generated by social media networks.
Is documenting this historic event through government documents sufficient? Who can document the event? Is it a shared, collective responsibility of archives?
For me, a society-wide approach here is promising; it helps identify the agents, their statements, their relationships and their communications standards.
We are moving beyond the controlled, media-covered and ordered communication emerging from government channels, to the uncontrolled, immediate, dynamic and often ephemeral communication that occurs on the Internet.
From an archival perspective, what does this mean with regard to the authority and authenticity of documents and other information resources emanating from the Internet?
Unlike the stable communications that arise from systems of writing, the digital encoding of information readily allows for the instantaneous transformation, remixing, and repurposing of information.
Once again, we face the important questions of how and when to intervene in time and space so that we can sufficiently document the unfolding of events, including our unstructured and dynamic communications.
I believe it will become increasingly difficult to remain in an archeion in a downstream archival management and preservation process.
Needless to say, the growth of the digital landscape and the environment in which Library and Archives Canada does business has had a substantial impact on the institution.
As you know, given the current global economic situation in Canada and within government, the Government of Canada is focused on protecting and completing Canada's economic recovery.
Library and Archives Canada is doing its part to support the Government of Canada in its efforts to reduce the deficit and return to a balanced budget in the medium term.
At the same time, LAC is moving forward with its modernization initiative to save money and adapt its services and technology to better meet the needs of Canadians, while continuing to fulfill its mandate.
The recent workforce adjustment announcement encompasses all of the staffing changes anticipated by LAC in response to Economic Action Plan 2012, in addition to LAC’s internal resource reallocation in support of modernization.
This means the elimination of certain programs, changes to the way some services are to be delivered, and the arrival and introduction of entirely new services.
We had to make difficult choices to ensure that the monies invested and the types of investments will yield tangible, sustainable results for Canadians.
As LAC focuses on its core mandate, it will continue to develop a national network for the preservation of Canada’s documentary heritage. This requires the participation of a variety of stakeholders from memory institutions such as universities.
LAC will continue to serve communities across the country in a more efficient manner using partnerships and the documentary heritage network.
LAC will consolidate its efforts and better serve Canadians while it contributes to the government’s effort to spend within its means.
For instance, LAC has changed its service model, shifting from an approach based on walk-in consultations in a downtown Ottawa location, to a virtual approach. This new reference by appointment service will be more accessible to all Canadians, regardless of where they live. Demand for this service was declining, and it is only responsible that we adapt our services accordingly. This measure is part of LAC’s long-term plan to virtualize its services in order to reach a greater number of Canadians more easily, and to provide Canadians with better service.
LAC’s new approach to service delivery includes the introduction of a reference by appointment service, and videoconferencing tools like Skype, to extend front-line services to clients across Canada.
Clients can book an appointment with an expert and meet in person, via Skype or by telephone. This ensures that the right expert attends the appointment and allows the expert to prepare, thus providing better service.
Virtualization will also eliminate, in many cases, the need to physically move documents to make them accessible, which in turn will reduce the risk of deterioration of the more fragile objects.
In the past, the interlibrary loan service facilitated access to Canada's published heritage.
The service acted as a broker between libraries across the country. If all existing copies were checked out or otherwise unavailable in the Canadian library network, this service made arrangements for LAC to be the lender of last resort.
This service will no longer be offered by LAC. However, the lending of documentary heritage among institutions will continue and will be supported by an online version of the National Union Catalogue managed by LAC.
In addition, to help clients become more autonomous, LAC is developing digital products to give users self-serve options.
For example, LAC’s recently launched Discover blog contains information on military and genealogical records.
A new orientation video will also be available shortly allowing clients to familiarize themselves with the services available at 395 Wellington Street before their arrival.
With advance notice of an upcoming visit, LAC’s experts will be able to prepare, therefore giving a better quality of service.
LAC is also currently making technological investments to upgrade its description processes for documentary resources. This will make its collection more accessible by importing preliminary descriptions and metadata provided by publishers. LAC will require this information for any new documentary heritage materials, thereby increasing the content available online.
LAC will make use of social media and “crowdsourcing” to complete its own description activities, thereby enabling individuals to participate directly in the description and enrichment of Canada’s documentary heritage.
Moreover, with regard to social media, we have been diligently working to achieve a comprehensive presence on the Web.
In 2008, LAC launched its Flickr account. It provides sets of thematic images from the collection, and to date it has been viewed approximately four hundred thousand times.
Our Twitter account was launched at the end of February and now has over 700 followers (630 Anglophones and 100 Francophones). It provides information to stakeholders and citizens, allows the organization to reach new audiences, and facilitates access to LAC’s services and collection.
This week has also seen new forays into YouTube and Facebook.
We have integrated the content from our four YouTube channels into a single departmental channel organized by theme in order to raise awareness about LAC’s holdings and activities.
And our official Facebook account was just launched yesterday. In addition to news about events and new product launches, LAC will initiate original features to engage with Canadians, such as “Today in History” and “What Have We Here? ”
Our podcasts feature meaningful elements of the collection. They share specialized knowledge and expertise that encourage the discovery of our collection and the participation of Canadians. This will be achieved using a variety of technical podcasting models, including audio records, audio records with images, and videos.
LAC has launched two podcasts so far: “Project Naming and Canada’s North”, and the “Lest We Forget Project.” Upcoming podcasts include the War of 1812 and the Double Take travelling exhibition.
Beyond our increased use of social media to reach out to Canadians, I am particularly proud of our efforts to bring more of our collections online with an emphasis on superior image quality and ease of use.
This week, we launched our online Portrait Portal, making more than 15,000 high-quality scanned images from the national portrait collection available.
This digitization initiative now offers Canadians across the country many thousands of works by renowned Canadian artists, ranging from portraits by Yousuf Karsh to works by William Topley.
Hockey fans can even find rare hockey cards, circa 1910, from the C.J. Haynes collection.
Moreover, in the coming years, thousands of new portraits will be added at a rate of approximately 2,000 per month.
This tool is an example that illustrates the commitment of LAC to adapt to the new digital environment by making the national portrait collection more accessible to all Canadians from coast to coast.
And it also demonstrates LAC’s strategic direction not to engage in indiscriminate mass digitization of our collections.
In closing, I would suggest that individual institutional responses to the daunting challenges of the digital age can only achieve limited success, especially considering that the digital environment is relatively new and fraught with complexity.
But if we work together in a truly collaborative and determined manner, taking advantage of our varied strengths and resources, I know that the members of the archival community will make a significant contribution that will impact the lives of Canadians.
Indeed, if we are to prosper as individuals and as a society, we need to be mindful of how we can all participate in the flow of information that distinguishes us as a community.
In so doing, we can all take our rightful place in society.
1. Ernst Posner, Archives in the Ancient World, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1972; and Maria Brosius, Ancient Archives and Archival Traditions: Concepts of Record-Keeping in the Ancient World, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003.
2. See Christian Jacob, Lieux de savoir : Espaces et communautés, Albin Michel, 2007. Jacob, in taking inventory of what these places are, amply illustrates the role and importance that these places and their contents have played and continue to play.
3. See Tzvetan Todorov, Memory as a Remedy for Evil, New York: Seagull Books, 2010. For another critical look at the same theme, also see Marie-Pascale Huglo, Eric Méchoulan, and Walter Moser, Passions du passé: recyclages de la mémoire et usage de l’oubli, Éditions L’Harmattan, 2000.
4. See, for example, the first volume of Pierre Nora, Rethinking France: Under the Direction of Pierre Nora, Rethinking France I: The State, Vol. 1, Chicago, 2001. Also see Éric Méchoulan, La culture de la mémoire ou comment se débarrasser du passé ? PUM, 2008, pp. 80–81.
5. “(…) La cave des archives peut-elle, elle aussi, devenir une clairière? Tout indique que les archivistes ont pris la succession des humanistes (…),” Peter Sloterdijk, Règles pour le parc humain, Mille et une nuits, Paris, 2010, p. 62.