Remarks by the Deputy Head and Librarian and Archivist of Canada
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To begin, I would like to thank the Conference Board of Canada for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.
As the Deputy Head and Librarian and Archivist of Canada, I have the privilege to look at what is happening in Canadian society from a unique perspective.
More than any other organization, Library and Archives Canada must be extremely careful when it comes to dealing with information resources because they are our raw material. We exist for them. This is our raison d’être. We must ensure that Canadians of today and tomorrow will have access to the information they need to function as a society. It is not just a matter of providing the required evidence for the administration of the country and its court system, it is also for scientific purposes and for providing Canadians with material that will help them be creative, to continue to construct their identities and support their democracy.
The explosive development of social networking and its effects on the creation of information within both the public sector and Canadian society is fascinating for us. But, as you can imagine, it poses monumental challenges, since the habits and traditional ways of creating information, and the nature and attributes of it, are also changing rapidly. And this has consequences on our traditional ways of functioning as a society, as institutions, organizations, and individuals.
Because Library and Archives Canada is one of the main organizations that has the mandate to manage these information resources for the long term, you will understand that my enthusiasm for social media carries with it some big questions: What is this? What is going on here? What is happening to our traditional ways of operating? Where is my stuff that used to come from publishers? Where is it coming from now? The Web? Who creates it? Is it reliable? Authentic? And so on. It raises a whole new series of questions.
Today, I would like to discuss three of them with you.
First, what is really changing here? We are and have been in the digital era for some time, so what does this mean? Social media is one aspect of it—an important aspect that is very tangible. But there is more happening out there, which may not always be so tangible but will be quite important for all of us.
Second, I would like to discuss the resulting social transformation. Social media presents a challenge for our society because it means a change in the way we function. But it also represents a wonderful opportunity to become better citizens—to be more informed and engaged, to create better organizations that are more transparent and responsive, and to be more effective as a society, to be better off altogether with a greater knowledge of the beliefs and preferences of each other. In my view, social media can therefore be a great enabler for modern societies.
Third and finally, I would like to give you a brief overview of how Library and Archives Canada is adapting to social media and, more generally, the digital era and how we are reinventing ourselves to respond to this revolution. This will serve as an illustration of how government can rethink its approaches to take advantage of social media.
Let’s now turn our attention to the first point and look at how the rise of the digital culture is affecting our society’s evolution.
Let me begin from my perspective as Librarian and Archivist of Canada: social media is more than just a communication tool or a space for chit-chat. It is, in many instances and increasingly so, the place where we circulate authentic authoritative information, the place where decisions are being influenced and made, the place where the information needed by jurists, historians and others who are “information dependent” will be found to nurture their processes and continue to make society functional. It is a key component of our modern environment. We cannot ignore that fact.
The interactivity of the Internet, allowing millions of users to communicate directly through blogs, and platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter has challenged the domination of our traditional media. Behind this great leap in communications technology, there is also a great social and human transformation. This is not the first time we have seen such a change.
And today, the passage from the analogue age to the digital age puts into question the nature of our communications systems, in particular the nature of our writing system. Simply put, we can ask how social media is altering how we create, authenticate, preserve, and access information now and how we will do so in the future?
This is crucial because fundamentally, the manner in which information is encoded and communicated affects the social conventions and power relations within a society. Information is not neutral; neither is the way it is transmitted. For instance, as humanity moved from an oral culture to a literate society, it moved from different social structures and created different sets of complexity.
Oral systems were under the influence of storytellers, orators, public speakers. Writing systems have been under the influence of the literates, the writers, and the publishers.
This means that, over the years, the population at large has functioned within sets of conventions determined by those who made those systems work. In practice, what does it mean?
It means that, in order for scientific, literary, political, or economic ideas and findings to exist and circulate, they had to fall within that triage exercise and filtering system. This was our guarantee of quality, authenticity and authority. We used to rely on it to function. It was the convention, the key trust of our social system. This is still true today but it is somehow crumbling.
With the rise of communication in digital format simply “mediated” by the Internet via social media, we reintroduce an element of the oral culture into societal discourse. What is the impact of that change?
Something is being transformed here and it is profound. And this brings me to my second main point.
The ephemeral quality of digital information is more like the ephemeral nature of the spoken word than the enduring presence of the written word captured in clay, parchment, or paper. This written word was challenged, annotated, verified, reviewed, revisited, built upon, etc.
Our relationships and traditional beliefs vis à vis information, are changing. Our expectations vis à vis content are different. We do not read the way we used to. This is because what we have in front of us has different attributes, and doesn’t come from the same origins. The reputed analyst is no longer significantly different from the blogger. Is it not fair to ask, in today’s environment, what is, if any, the difference between an analysis and an opinion?
Today, conventional practices that characterize written communication are being transformed by new behaviours made possible by the expansion of digital communication and social media.
For instance, in government, the notions of transparency and access to information are changing with the recent inclusion of electronic conversations conveyed by email and text messaging.
And placing restraints on the flow of information by assigning secret or sensitive status to some of the information is more and more difficult than it was in the realm of paper.
As well, our notions of privacy are also evolving.
These days, you can find pictures of yourself on the Internet in photos of your first grade class, a university party or those taken randomly on the street. We can be filmed at any time without our consent and this can be uploaded to the Internet.
Given the popularity of Facebook and how people are using it to express themselves, to share their deepest concerns, beliefs, and motivations, it was only a matter of time before the Courts were called upon to rule on whether what was posted on our Facebook—the private section—could be seized during litigation if it helped to render justice.
Similarly, our conception of copyright is changing rapidly.
We can also see that at the individual level, the rise of the digital landscape affects the way we read and write.
Certainly with the arrival of social media, people have learned to compress their messages into shorter units of discourse, often less than 144 characters. This has also brought about changes in how we communicate. It stands to reason that traditional forms of grammar and spelling have been transformed in this environment.
In a similar vein, we tend to read less from a single authoritative voice in a book and much more from extended conversations carried on by multiple (quote unquote) “speakers.”
Overall, maybe we should think of this type of communication as a new system of human expression that brings us not only new ways to capture and represent information but turns it into new social conventions as well. For that, we must always keep in mind that “digitized” does not equal “digital.” Digitized is essentially a digital surrogate of a physical information resource. Digital affects our relationship with the moment and context of creation, the dissemination, the format, the context of reading, the preservation and the access to information resources.
Social media is more than just a new buzz. It has fundamental effects on the way we are organized and how we function as a society. There is a changing notion of authenticity and authority with regard to digital-borne information. Now information can easily be modified and repurposed, often leading to a situation where a later remixed version gains more importance than the original.
This, of course, has broad implications for the society in which we live and our bureaucracies that seek to administer government policy.
In order for our democracy to function effectively, we must, among other things, have reliable records that document why and how government decisions are made, what resources are allocated, and what are the results obtained.
This brings us closer to our own challenges.
The Government of Canada now uses social media and websites to conduct its business. It is fair to say that it is taking a measured and sensible approach to adopting these new platforms as part of its communication practices.
Why? Because of the unpredictable nature of technological innovation.
Government of Canada institutions have to provide Canadians with timely, accurate, and complete information about federal programs and services.
This is necessary in our democratic process.
It is also the key to safeguard Canadians’ trust in public institutions.
We must therefore be prudent in the use of new communication platforms to assure continued confidence in these public institutions.
Charged with the responsibility of spending taxpayer dollars wisely, those of us who oversee budgetary expenditures cannot trade off fiscal responsibility for the desire to embrace the latest trend in communications technology just to appear “cool.”
How are these communication technologies, such as social media and interactive websites, changing how public institutions conduct their business? Is the change profound or are we just replicating the use of traditional media on new platforms?
The impact and consequences of this shift are probably profound, but these communication technologies still rely on platforms that enable us as public institutions to exchange information with Canadians.
They rely on the basic notion of literacy, which is not necessarily about reading, or writing, or arithmetic, but rather about the capacity and competency of processing information resources differently.
This is the new social literacy of the 21st century.
How does the digital era translate in the day-to-day life of an organization? How can we respond to it? This will be my third point for today.
For Library and Archives Canada, it raises several important questions. And for each of you, it will raise different questions. But the point I am making here is that it is important to identify those questions within each of our own contexts. The main question we should all ask ourselves is how social media can truly support the mandates of our organizations. Social media potentially offers endless opportunities. But how can it truly improve our work or improve government?
Given that more and more communication that might have national significance is migrating to social media, how are we, at Library and Archives Canada, going to make sure that it becomes part of the documentary heritage that we preserve for future generations?
How are we going to separate what is significant from what constitutes noise?
How can we describe important information so that it can be discovered easily?
What measures will be put in place to ensure that the information is preserved?
Certainly, to face these challenges we will have to move beyond the methods of the past and develop new approaches, policies, and techniques.
And we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the new communication applications create new opportunities to widen the scope of the meaningful participation afforded to citizens in regard to governance.
How do we capture outside experts on policy matters?
What should not be overlooked is that, when used intelligently, wikis and blogs can be used to tap into the “wisdom of crowds.”
This will allow citizens to participate at the critical juncture of policy formation: when essential questions are being asked and when potential solutions are beginning to take shape at the table.
Essentially, Library and Archives Canada makes use of crowdsourcing to complete its own description activities, thereby enabling individuals to participate directly in the description and enrichment of Canada’s documentary heritage.
For example, we have digitized approximately 200,000 photographs taken by the official photographers of the Department of National Defence between 1939 and 1945 in an online research tool entitled Faces of War.
This unique collection of images allows Canadians to interact and collaborate with Library and Archives Canada by adding comments to any of the photographs found in the Faces of War database. This is but one aspect of what we refer to as “crowdsourcing.”
This has proven highly useful, not just for individual Canadians, but also for military historians reflecting on facts found in the photographs.
It also enables us as a nation to remember the people in these photographs, along with our Veterans who experienced the hardships of war and military conflict.
In a similar vein, we have been working with the indigenous peoples of Canada’s northern territories in a collaborative effort called Project Naming to provide biographical information to enrich the descriptions of photographs taken of Canada’s north.
Again, we notice that the exercise has shown positive social benefits in that younger generations of First Nation peoples are reconnecting with their Elders and becoming more appreciative of their heritage.
We are also on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. We have a blog and we publish podcasts.
For Library and Archives Canada, social media brings two challenges. How can we use these new tools to make our collections more discoverable and accessible? How can we be more efficient and better serve Canadians using these tools? At the same time, we know that the right documents might be created outside of government circles and that getting them at the right time could also mean finding them in non-governmental sources. We need to ask ourselves how we can capture the right information to ensure that we properly document Canadian society and the country’s heritage.
As a result, the task of providing Canadians with timely access to their authentic and authoritative documentary heritage is far more challenging today than before the arrival of the Internet.
Our most daunting task is to sort through the sea of noise represented by all the social media activity and identify the communication that has national significance. Conceptually, to move us forward on this front, we are in the process of developing what we call the whole-of-society approach. This is the answer to this challenge.
What we are doing is developing the tools that will help us observe any targeted area of Canadian society and analyze the social context in which the communication takes place.
This approach gives us the means to cast our net much wider and will allow us to capture the significant portions of social media activity as it relates to the communication occurring in more traditional sources.
To make this more concrete, imagine 50 years from now being able to call up on your screen not only the electoral results, newspaper articles, and television excerpts pertaining to the next federal election, but also representative samples of what was happening in the blogosphere, on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
As you can imagine, to achieve this level of documentary capacity is a major challenge.
Nevertheless, it is well worth the effort as we will obtain a much better representation of Canadian society for documentary heritage purposes.
In closing, I would like to suggest that the rise of social media for government and non-governmental organizations represents both a rupture and continuity with our past.
The element of rupture arises when we try to apply traditional practices, which originated as the means of communication appropriate for the era of the printed written word, to the emerging digital environment.
What worked previously may no longer be transferable to the new order, so we must always be open to the possibility of change.
That being said, we cannot simply implement new methods for the sake of change.
The element of continuity must be within our guiding visions, the raison d’être of our organizations, to ensure that whatever adaptations we choose to undertake, they will be done to advance the core missions of our organizations.