May 31, 2012
Speech delivered by Daniel J. Caron, at the Canadian Library Association National Conference, Ottawa, Ontario
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I would like to thank the organizers of this year’s Canadian Library Association National Conference for inviting me to share my thoughts concerning the future of libraries and the role that the library community can play as it seeks to secure its place in today’s digital society.
As you are all aware, there is hardly a week that goes by in which we don’t learn of the launch of a new Internet application, an announcement from the publishing industry, or a change in the regulatory environment that has the potential to alter the relationship between libraries and their users.
That being said, I would like to suggest that knowledge repositories since their inception have always been on the cusp of social change. These knowledge repositories play an instrumental role in the dissemination of information and the subsequent impact that this can have upon the evolution of a society.
During my presentation, I would like you to keep in mind three key points.
- First, society has never been in control of the production of information regardless of its form: oral, written, or digital.
- Second, with regard to written systems of production, we have gained much in the way of understanding their methods of production, dissemination, and classification. We know how the systems work.
- Third, this is not the case for digital information. We are only at the beginning of the transition from analogue to digital. There remains daunting challenges in understanding what is currently happening with the production and dissemination of digital texts. This is especially true for impacts surrounding questions of authority and authenticity of information.
Finally, I will close with a resumé of some of the emerging opportunities that the digital landscape affords the library community and an overview of the measures that Library and Archives Canada is in the process of undertaking.
To begin, I would like to suggest that we have entered into a new iteration of the expansion of literacy with the arrival of the digital information revolution, but one that is qualitatively different from those that have preceded it.
In some ways, I would say that the change that occurs when we make the transition from analogue to digital communication is similar in kind to the historical shift that occurred when oral cultures adopted writing systems as their privileged means of communication.
The rise of the Internet and the advances in information and communications technologies is in the process of transforming humanity at a global scale. Some would even argue that these affect the evolutionary path of our species.
To many, it appears that we are in the process of leaving the print paradigm behind.
Never before have so many people been able to communicate so much information to so many others, so quickly, and at such a low cost.
With regard to the social sphere, the ease and speed in which digital communication takes place inevitably raises the question of the continued pertinence of many of the institutional practices that arose when information was encoded in physical formats.
Indeed, by transforming the principle medium by which we develop, preserve, and communicate knowledge, we transform the pursuit, creation, and dissemination of knowledge at its epistemological core.
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If I were to point out the most fundamental change that the digitization of information brings about, I would say that when information is encoded digitally, it is liberated from its container.
Importantly, once information is liberated from its container, it undergoes what I would refer to as a phase transition, turning from something that is solid to something that is much more fluid in nature.
Now that the digital landscape has arrived, I believe we need to ask ourselves a fundamental question: are the time-honoured methods that were appropriate for an analogue world transferable to the digital realm?
Certainly, with respect to reading a book in print as opposed to reading a digital text, the effect of information and communications technologies is to transform a linear experience into a multi-directional one.
This experience includes many voices emanating from interactive platforms like blogs and wikis.
These other voices create a polyphonic effect in which the author’s voice is just one among many. Within a digital hypertext, there is no one single linear sequence of text becausereaders vary their reading experience by the links they decide to follow.
As a result, we need to acknowledge that changing the book's environment is in effect changing the manner in which long-form thinking is carried out. This means changing our assumptions about how knowledge is created and disseminated.
Historically, the core principle informing libraries has been the democratic access to information.
Today, this core mission should also include the facilitation of the democratic access to the participatory process in which information is now being created and disseminated.
Literacy in its traditional sense of being able to receive and send written text has been enriched by the arrival of a multitude of electronic mediums, blogs, wikis, videos, and podcasts, to mention just a few.
At the same time, economic barriers to the democratic use of these mediums have been brought down considerably as the cost of computing power and programs continues to fall.
Consequently, in addition to basic literacy we need to also be educating citizens on how to navigate through the myriad of available information resources and how to use of the opportunities to participate meaningfully in the many electronic forums.
As we move forward in the twenty-first century, transliteracy becomes of paramount importance for an informed citizenry.
And within our emerging digital society the library is no longer simply a knowledge repository. It has instead become part of an integrated communications circuit within a knowledge network, one that facilitates dialogue rather than one that enforces silence.
Not only is a library a learning commons, but a knowledge production centre as well.
More than ever, individuals are inserting themselves as active participants into the communications circuit that disperses information and knowledge.
Effectively, this process unleashes uncontrollable forces and as a consequence brings about unanticipated results.
In the 21st century, for example, in what could be described as a break from more than 700 years of tradition, books as a manifestation of long-form thinking are no longer the pre-eminent format mediating the transmission of knowledge.
This important role has been taken over by the Internet.
Looking closely at the matter, we note that the demise of the pre-eminent role accorded to the book has been brought on by its bounded nature.
Previously, the information contained within a book was created and controlled through the mediation of the print publishing process that selects for potential readers what texts are to be consumed and how.
This is not the case with the flow of information on the Internet. The information previously presented in books has pierced through the boundaries of the physical container and can be consumed, re-purposed, and re-mixed according to the desires of the reader.
Traditionally, librarians helped people navigate through the maze of physical information containers through the use of a cataloguing system in which everything has its particular place.
Today, more and more librarians are helping people navigate through a single unbounded, incorporeal, electronic network found on the World Wide Web. And on the Web, everything has multiple copies that can be consulted simultaneously by an extraordinarily large number of users.
In other words, the rules of the game have changed.
Now for some, this might be perceived as a significant loss.
But I think that we would do well to remember what Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman so aptly brings to our attention.
As humans we are predisposed to have a cognitive bias which focuses on the aversion to loss that often masks opportunity for future gain.
Before outlining those opportunities, I would like to point out that a movement away from the importance traditionally associated with the book is in no way to renounce the principle of the democratic access to information that has always been part of the drive to expand levels of literacy.
To use an analogy, although the milkman has stopped making home deliveries, people are still drinking milk.
Similarly, although long-form thinking is giving way to shorter units of interactive discourse, people are reading and creating more texts than ever before.
Literacy in the digital age, however, requires different aptitudes, competencies, and orientations.
Rather than being the stewards of culture that bring the received wisdom of the ages to the waiting masses, information professionals now need to serve as guides and enablers.
Importantly, with the exponential increase of digital information and the advent of powerful search engines we would do well to note that people prefer to perform information searches on their own terms rather than mastering a systems architecture that organizes information in a singular fashion.
Rather than having a unique place on a shelf within a physical repository, information now occupies multiple places on digital shelves and can be accessed in multiple ways.
Recognizing this qualitative change, libraries and other cultural institutions are now leveraging this aspect of the digital information landscape.
For instance, to make their collections more accessible to the public, many knowledge repositories are using open linked data. This carries the advantage of being machine readable, and enhances the discoverability of their collections to other institutions and to the public at large.
Moreover, applying smart algorithms to circulation data, a hugely successful method employed by Amazon.com, allows institutions to capture the wisdom of the crowds. People click their way through the “digital stacks” and then in turn offer this anonymous information to others as a means to enhance the quality of their subsequent searches.
Finally, with so much information being coupled to so much metadata, the need arises to simplify its presentation to users so that it can be used quickly and intelligently.
To this end, the use of data visualization and information graphics is growing, especially by those institutions that are experiencing a marked shift from in person visits to online consultations of their materials.
In each of the examples, an innovative response to a changing environment increases the continued relevancy of traditional knowledge repositories.
In my opinion, we need to build upon these successful innovations. We also need to continue to exploit the emerging opportunities that the transition from analogue to digital presents.
We need to keep in mind the competencies that traditional knowledge repositories have built up over time. Some competencies will always remain, for example, physical preservation. However, at the same time, we need to look for the opportunities where these competencies are transferrable within the changing environment of the digital age.
For example, the increasing trend to deliver post-secondary education online offers the opportunity for libraries to offer the ever increasing number of self-directed learners a learning commons.
Libraries could offer a place off campus where people gather to not only gain enhanced access to the Internet to retrieve information, but to reuse and repurpose that information in novel and creative ways.
Indeed, intergenerational learning requires a public space where people can meet and exchange ideas, and if necessary, find additional human resources to complement their educational activities.
The open architecture space traditionally found in a library is well suited to host such a public space.
As well, given the mandate of libraries to serve the public good and their historical concern with the preservation of knowledge, libraries would seem to be a natural partner to confront the thorny problem of digital preservation.
Since the scope of the task is beyond the means and mandate of any single institution, libraries can continue to play an important role as nodes in a networked approach designed to meet such a daunting societal challenge.
Finally, I think that we also need to examine rigorously how cybernauts actually use the Internet, in particular, those areas where the traditional strengths of libraries could be repurposed to meet new and growing demand.
One such area is the growing concern for privacy on the Web.
For instance, a quick search of the Huffington Post and The New York Times on the Web by an individual unleashes the surveillance of his or her Web behavior by more than 100 data-collection companies.
Could libraries, drawing on their historical experience in guarding the anonymity of how their clients use their collections, create an application or search engine that protects and secures the data generated by individuals while they are surfing portions of the Web?
In a similar vein, it has come to light that the use of commercial search engines brings about the phenomenon of commercial filter bubbles, where the information presented to an individual by a commercial search engine conforms to his or her Internet profile.
The information which would be less likely to find favor is systemically screened from view.
This of course presents a significant problem with regard to the quality of information that citizens can access. This runs contrary to the notion of having a well-informed electorate, which is a fundamental prerequisite of a functional democracy.
Could libraries, with their vast experience in acquiring materials that provide the possibility of coming to informed opinions, draw upon that experience?
Could libraries offer cybernauts a means to pierce those filter bubbles so that they can access information that doesn’t necessarily conformed to their previously established beliefs?
In other words, can members of the library community innovate so that the core values of their profession take root in the new emerging niches that the changes in the infosphere bring forward?
This is a formidable task, one that requires the collective efforts and the collective imagination of the entire library community, including those of us who work at Library and Archives Canada.
That is why national conferences hosted by the Canadian Library Association and other like-minded organizations are important.
We need to come together on a regular basis in order to discuss, debate, explore, and decide how we can best meet the challenges of the 21st century.
As you are aware, given the current financial environment globally, within 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’s efforts to reduce the deficit and return to balanced budgets in the medium term.
At the same time, LAC is moving forward with its modernization initiative in an effort to seek efficiencies and adapt its services and technology to better serve Canadians’ needs, while continuing to deliver on 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 its modernization initiative.
This means the elimination of certain programs, changes to the way existing services are to be delivered, and the arrival and introduction of entirely new services.
LAC had to make some difficult choices to ensure that monies invested and the types of investments made will yield tangible, sustainable results for Canadians.
Going forward, as LAC focuses on its core mandate, it will continue to develop a Pan-Canadian network for the preservation of Canada’s documentary heritage that involves a variety of stakeholders, ranging from memory institutions to universities.
LAC will continue to serve communities across the country in a more efficient manner using partnerships and the documentary heritage network.
In this way, LAC expects to consolidate its efforts and better serve Canadians while it contributes to the government’s effort to spend according to 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 and a service of reference by appointment that will be more accessible to all Canadians, regardless of where they live.
The demand for that service was decreasing, and it is only responsible that we adjust 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 service by appointment, and videoconferencing tools like Skype, to extend front-line services to clients across Canada.
Clients will be able to book an appointment on-site, or using Skype or the telephone. This ensures having the right expert at the appointment and it allows that expert to prepare, thereby providing better services.
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 has facilitated access to Canada's published heritage.
Its function was similar to that of a broker between libraries across the country. If all existing copies were checked out or otherwise unavailable in the Canadian library network, that service made LAC the lender of last resort.
That service will no longer be mediated, but book lending 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 395 Wellington Street service offerings before coming on-site.
Having being notified of an upcoming visit, LAC’s experts will be able to prepare in advance, thereby giving a better quality of service.
LAC is also currently making technological investments to upgrade its description processes for documentary resources. It is also making its collection more accessible by importing preliminary descriptions and metadata provided by editors, requiring the submission of this information for any new documentary heritage materials, and by increasing the amount of 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.
Back in 2008, LAC launched its Flickr account. It provides thematic image sets about the institution and from the collection, and to date has had approximately 400,000 views.
Our Twitter account was launched at the end of February and now has over 600 followers. 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 singular departmental channel, organized by themes in order to raise awareness about LAC’s holdings and activities.
And our official Facebook account has just been launched. In addition to institutional messaging and news about launches of events and new products, LAC will initiate original features to engage with Canadians, such as “Today in History” and “What do We Have Here”?
Finally, our LAC podcasts highlight significant collection items, share expertise and specialized knowledge that will facilitate discovery, access, and engagement between Canadian users and LAC’s collection.
This will be done through a variety of technical podcasting models, including audio, audio with images, and video.
Each podcast episode will feature different content and, will maintain a common focus on engagement with the collection, accessibility and client autonomy.
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 quality of imaging and ease of use.
This week, Library and Archives Canada launched its online Portrait Portal, making available close to 15,000 high-quality scanned images from the national portrait collection.
This digitization initiative now makes available to Canadians across the country many thousands of works by renowned Canadian artists, ranging from portraits taken by Yousuf Karsh to those of William Topley.
Hockey fans can even find rare hockey cards, circa 1910, from the C.J. Haynes collection.
In addition, thousands of additional portraits, at a rate of approximately 2,000 per month, will be added to the Portrait Portal over the coming years.
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 an indiscriminate digitization of our collections en masse. As a personal aside, I would like to address some of the concerns raised recently in reaction to announcements made in the budget and to the unfolding of LAC’s modernization initiative.
Frequently, the criticisms are centered on the immediate concern about whether the cuts to personnel or to programs, as the result of re-allocation of resources, are justified.
In response, what I find missing in this debate are the more fundamental questions that touch LAC’s core mission and its continued relevance to Canadians.
For instance, do we want to continue to be the pillar of literacy and democracy in today’s Canadian society?
Because, given the changes in the manner in which Canadians produce their information, including cultural content, we risk becoming irrelevant to the vast majority of them if we only collect, store, and give limited access to the physical objects that Canadians produce.
Also, to set the record straight, I have never declared that LAC will become an organization that will work exclusively in the digital domain.
On the contrary, we will continue to work with analogue and digital materials in what is known as a hybrid environment.
However, and this is an important qualification, we can’t work in both domains in the same way.
In many instances, what works well in one domain is not transferable to the other.
In addition, I would take issue with those allegations that the changes we are now implementing at LAC represent the capricious desires of senior management.
On the contrary, changes are driven by the new environment and Canadians’ needs. In addition, the nature of the modernization initiatives was laid out clearly and early in the process with the publication of Shaping our Continuing Memory Collectively: A Representative Documentary Heritage.
Without question, we are evolving into a policy-driven, evidence-based organization that strives to deliver its services in a cost-efficient manner to as many Canadians as possible.
This is reflected in the changes made to our service delivery model.
For example, it is difficult to ignore that the in-person visits to 395 Wellington in Ottawa have dropped to approximately 2,000 visits per month, while during the same time period we receive about half a million visits to our Collections Canada website.
As a result, the move to the virtualization of service delivery corresponds to the way the vast majority of our clients are now accessing our collections.
In a similar vein, looking at the data one cannot help but notice that the volume of interlibrary loans in which LAC participates is now only 25 percent of what it was in the mid-1990s.
Again, the change to LAC’s participation in the interlibrary loan program corresponds to the change in the use of the program by Canadians.
LAC will now focus its resources on its core mandate. Like for the National Archival Development Program, we think the Pan-Canadian network is the way to address future issues related to libraries and archives.
Finally, to those who would wrap themselves in the Canadian flag while digging in their heels to protect the status quo, I would respond: We could continue with our business-as-usual approach of only acquiring and cataloguing the physical objects that make it to our door.
However, to do so would mean that in 50 years from now we would not be able to account for the vast materials that Canadians have produced digitally during the first half of the 21st century and historical researchers would refer to this period as Canada’s Digital Dark Age.
So, in closing, I would suggest that individual institutional response to the daunting challenges of the digital age can only achieve limited success, especially if we take into consideration that the digital environment is relatively new and fraught with complexity.
But if we work together, in a truly collaborative and deliberative fashion, taking advantage of our varied strengths and resources, I know that the Canadian library community will make a significant contribution that will have an impact on 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 collectivity.
In so doing, we can all take our rightful place in Canadian society.