Speech delivered by Cecilia Muir, in lieu of Daniel J. Caron,
at the Association of Canadian Archivists’ annual conference, Whitehorse, Yukon.
Check against delivery
I would like to thank the organizers of this year’s Association of Canadian Archivists' 37th Annual Conference for inviting Library and Archives Canada to speak to you this morning.
This event’s original program indicated that Daniel J. Caron, the Deputy Head and Librarian and Archivist of Canada, would be addressing you today. Unfortunately, Dr. Caron was unable to be here and sends his sincere regrets. He would also like to thank the organisers who, at the last minute, tried to change the schedule to accommodate a speech on Saturday instead of today. We understand that it was not possible, but we really appreciate the efforts.
As the Chief Operating Officer, my role consists of ensuring LAC delivers on its mandate with the means the institution is given and in the most efficient manner possible. Like other archival institutions in Canada and around the world, LAC is facing unprecedented challenges at the moment, and I would like to talk to you this morning about our current reality, these challenges, and how we are trying to address them.
LAC Context – Our Current Reality
Library and Archives Canada is currently facing two key challenges to carrying out its mandate to acquire, preserve and make accessible the documentary heritage of Canada. I have no doubt that these challenges will be familiar to you all. You are more than likely struggling with them in your own institutions, and perhaps have been for years. I would still like to discuss them with you today, because these realities are informing our work, and because professionals in this field need to hear about how these issues are being addressed by their colleagues in other organizations.
The first challenge we are facing, which will not be news to you, is the complexity of a digital universe. Information is produced, disseminated, shared and repurposed at a rate and speed that are unprecedented in our history, and that only continues to accelerate each day. This change is of an order of magnitude similar to that which occurred following the creation of the Gutenberg printing press in the mid-15th century.
However, the challenges of a digital universe are very different from a post-Gutenberg one. The printing press made it possible to disseminate information to the many, but in a relatively stable format over time. Digital technologies, on the other hand, change almost as rapidly as information is produced and shared through social media or other means. In short, it is not only information but also the means by which we capture and share it, both content and form, that are being developed and used at an accelerated rate.
How do we sort through all of this information and determine what to capture? Once we have made our acquisition decisions, how do we ensure that we can preserve our documentary heritage over time?
Our second challenge is no less significant than the first. Like all archival institutions, LAC has to carry out its mandate within its existing financial constraints. Our current reality at LAC, and I am sure it must be similar in your institutions, is that we have to deliver on our mandate with fewer resources.
As you probably know, 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’s efforts to reduce the deficit and return to balanced budgets in the medium term.
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At the same time, we are moving forward with our Modernization initiative in an effort to seek efficiencies and adapt its services and technology to better serve Canadians’ needs, while continuing to deliver on our mandate.
As a result, LAC announced a difficult and non-discretionary plan of action on April 30th. This plan is in response to the government-wide Economic Action Plan for 2012, in addition to LAC’s internal resource reallocation in support of its Modernization initiative.
It is now common knowledge that the federal government announced a $9.6 million, roughly 10%, cut to our organization’s budget by 2014-15. These reductions have actually started to be implemented as of April 1st of this year.
At the same time, LAC is also continuing to absorb the full impact of a previous 2007 $4.4M strategic review on its operations.
In addition, LAC has had to absorb salary increases and inflationary pressures. In short, our spending power has been reduced by 30% over the past few years, and by far the majority of our budget is tied up in salaries.
The reality is that we currently have very little flexibility to invest in new collections storage, in new technology, or to make our enormous analogue collection discoverable and accessible. “Staying the course” was clearly not an option and would have in fact led to LAC being paralyzed, which would have made it very difficult to maintain its relevance in the years to come.
As a result, our institution had to make difficult choices, but choices that in the end, will afford LAC some flexibility to address the complex issues we are facing and continue to deliver on our core mandate.
The elimination of the National Archival Development Program (the NADP) was one of these difficult choices. In addition, LAC was faced with no choice but to reduce staff at all levels and in all occupational groups across our institution. Reductions were made to the Access to Information and Privacy program, to our Circulation and Reference Services, to IT staff, and to archivists working in private acquisitions and resource discovery. The executive group was also streamlined from 44 to 25 positions during this exercise.
These choices were made based on LAC’s priorities and mandate. Our decisions focused on functions where LAC could reduce its activities due to its strategic shift to a digital delivery model that allows for some economies of scale, but more importantly, a less mediated, one-to-many service delivery and broader national reach.
For example, we chose to reduce the staff in our reference services. The demand for that service was decreasing so it is only responsible that adjust things accordingly. In addition, we know already that use of our website for services is up, and that if we invest in better technology and digital content, we can offer this service with fewer people.
On the other hand, we also made the decision to keep current resource levels in our Disposition and Recordkeeping Program because this work is specific to our core mandate. We are now deploying a new approach aligned with broader recordkeeping initiatives currently underway in the Government of Canada. In about two years, this approach will be mature enough to enable us to shift some of those resources to other areas in our institution where we will need to invest.
In short, we have made the most reasonable, informed and forward-looking decisions we could in order to address our financial pressures.
I would now like to share some of our particular challenges, and what we are doing to try to address them.
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As you know, what our digital universe means to heritage institutions is that answering the question of what to acquire and preserve is urgent and challenging. One aspect of this issue is considering whether we need to act when information is generated or created in order to ensure its preservation in the future. Others are familiar: challenges posed to definitions of authenticity, standards for metadata, and the list goes on.
In light of this, we know at LAC that we have to be more decisive than ever in how we carry out our mandate. In a world where everything happens so quickly and changes so rapidly, we have to be ready to make the right decisions at the right time in order to ensure that Canada’s documentary heritage is preserved for future generations.
LAC is developing a Whole-of-Society Model so that we are in a position to make these decisions efficiently and effectively. This will ensure that we acquire and preserve a representative collection of significance to Canadians. The model is important for us as it allows our institution to make rigorous decisions about what we should acquire, from whom, and how we should acquire it. It provides us with an integrated approach to acquisitions in all forms, whether digital or analogue, and from all sources, whether publications, government records, or private archival donations.
We have begun to implement this whole-of-society approach in 2011, resulting in acquisitions of:
• Close to 100 000 published documents, including 58 000 digital items;
• Close to 2 linear kilometres of government records; and
• Close to 80 fonds from private donors representing more than 2000 items.
On this last point, I think it is important be clear that LAC will continue to acquire private archives. The recent acquisitions of Lynn Johnston’s famous comic strip, “For Better or For Worse”, and the incredible Paolo Forlani/Bolognino map tracing the contours of the Northeastern American seashore and part of South America, dating back to 1566. These are great examples of LAC’s continued commitment to acquire private archives of significance to our collective memory.
In 2011-12 alone, LAC issued close to $4 million in tax receipts for the acquisition of a variety of fonds from private donors. Our institution also spent approximately $150,000 to acquire private archives in that fiscal year.
Our Whole-of-Society Model provides us with the policy framework to allow us to respond decisively to acquisition opportunities in a digital universe. This model also allows us to capture what continues to be significant from the analogue world. Finally, it permits us to build a representative documentary heritage that captures what Canada was, is, and is becoming.
Another challenge we are working to address at LAC is the preservation and stewardship of Canada’s growing documentary heritage, both analogue and digital. We continue our efforts to slow or arrest the degradation of documentary heritage while maintaining its usability in an increasingly digital environment.
LAC’s holdings extend over approximately 430 linear kilometres of storage space, and they grow by thousands of metres annually. We have been working over the past two years at improving our capacity to survey, assess and report on the condition of our holdings. We are about to publish a ‘State of the Holdings Report’ that shares with Canadians our assessment of LAC’s performance in managing our collections.
We take a risk-based approach to holdings management. Appropriate accommodation is a basic preservation measure to ensure that holdings are in appropriate facilities with the correct environment.
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In this regard, LAC moved its collection of nitrate film to a new custom-built preservation facility in February 2011. This state-of-the-art facility provides the stable environment necessary to help ensure that Canada’s nitrate photographic and film heritage is preserved long into the future.
Furthermore, LAC is preparing to move some of its holdings to a new collection storage facility in Gatineau in 2014. It will consolidate holdings from a number of poor quality spaces into a single, high quality facility.
LAC has also taken a risk-based approach to addressing obsolescence in its management of video and audio formats. An area of massive reinvestment in our holdings focuses on audio-visual migration, where LAC is targeting the most at-risk formats first. By the halfway point in our ten-year strategy in 2014, we will have migrated approximately 50,000 hours of audio-visual material from obsolete analogue formats onto digital formats.
I would also like to mention that I have been very pleased by progress in the NPTAC collaborative projects on preservation. Currently staff at institutions throughout Canada are compiling and analyzing survey data on preservation expertise and AV capacity. My hope is that this work can be a springboard for closer collaboration on preservation.
LAC also remains committed to the care of its analogue holdings. Areas of risk to holdings are identified by our experts, and through collection move preparation and collection surveys. These risks are mitigated through appropriate accommodation, preventive care, treatment, migration and digitization. It is a constant challenge to maintain the usability of holdings and provide access in an age where the preferred channel is digital and in addition where resources are scarce.
This brings me to digital preservation. The original LAC Trusted Digital Repository project has dramatically changed direction because of the very high costs of expected future development and maintenance, and the appearance of new, better and lower cost alternatives.
The new model will provide the agility required to adapt to the changing digital world and the necessary financial flexibility for its sustained use. It uses a more modern approach of employing commercially available modules connected together to form a solution. This has significantly reduced the costs of development and maintenance and depends more on “trust in people and organizations” while still maintaining a strong technical dimension.
Essentially this means that it will be our employees, rather than the technology used, that will embody the Trusted Digital Repository.
For the sake of perspective, it is worth recalling that these projects across the world have demonstrated that the massive costs of developing and effectively maintaining a technology-based TDR proved a significant challenge to large-scale implementations.
The sustainable solution developed at LAC makes use of the International Standardization Organization - Open Archive Information System model (ISO-OAIS), but with a much lower dependency on expensive in-house technology.
Access to Canada’s Documentary Heritage
Facilitating access to Canada’s documentary heritage continues to be a priority. Our fiscal reality has meant that we have had to be more strategic about how we deliver on this aspect of our mandate.
LAC will be working in close collaboration with stakeholders and other governmental departments to ensure that preserved material gets accessed, as this is the raison d’être of our institution.
The virtualization of information will eliminate, in many cases, the need to physically move documents to make them accessible, which in turn will reduce the risk of deterioration of more fragile objects. It will also allow us to reach a broader audience. LAC is also developing digital products to give users more self-serve options.
Let me also give examples of a number of specific innovations we are introducing to illustrate our approach to increase access to our services.
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A major underpinning of this new approach is our digital content strategy. This represents our concerted approach to establish a critical mass of content that is of high interest to Canadians.
We're aligning this content selection to the Government of Canada's commemorative events agenda - which includes, among other things, the War of 1812, WW1, Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada at 150, etc.
As a quick aside, this agenda may offer a great opportunity for collaboration amongst the archival communities across the country to showcase their treasures in a highly visible way.
LAC's orientation video will soon be available on our website, allowing clients to familiarize themselves with our in-person service offerings before coming on-site to 395 Wellington Street.
We are also upgrading our description processes for documentary resources. In addition to technological investments, we are importing preliminary descriptions and metadata provided by editors, and requiring the submission of this information for any new documentary heritage materials.
This will go a long way in making our collection more accessible and increase the amount of searchable content available online.
We are also making 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, we launched our Flickr site. And our burgeoning Twitter account provides information to stakeholders and citizens, allowing the organization to reach new audiences, and facilitate access to LAC’s services and collection. Very recently, LAC launched new forays on YouTube and Facebook.
Finally, our podcasts highlight significant collection items, share expertise and specialized knowledge that will facilitate discovery, access, and engagement between Canadian users and LAC’s collection. For example, LAC has launched podcasts on Project Naming and Canada’s North and The Lest We Forget Project. Upcoming podcasts include the War of 1812 and the Double Take travelling portrait exhibition.
Beyond our increased use of social media to reach out to Canadians, our efforts will concentrate on bringing more of our collections online with an emphasis on superior quality imaging and ease of use. As an illustration, just last month we launched an online Portrait Portal, making available some 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 made by Yousuf Karsh to those of William Topley. 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 LAC’s commitment to adapting to the new digital environment by making the national portrait collection more accessible to all Canadians from coast to coast.
It is important to acknowledge that LAC will never become an organization that will work exclusively in the digital domain. For the foreseeable future, we will continue to work with analogue and digital materials in what might be called a hybrid environment.
Competencies for the Future
As a final note, I would like to discuss one final challenge facing LAC right now. Like other institutions, we need to continue to make sure that we have the best people with the right competencies, expertise and skills to help us deliver results for Canadians. We need people who understand the archival field and also professionals who understand our evolving environment. Like other similar organizations, we need a mix of old and new skills to stay relevant in the new digital environment. In addition, we need to work with others in order to benefit from their expertise and experience.
As many of you know, LAC has put forward the concept of a pan-Canadian documentary heritage network in order to leverage the local capacity and expertise of all interested memory institutions across the country. We hope to work increasingly in partnership with you, in a truly collaborative and deliberative fashion, in order to meet the challenges facing us in our efforts to preserve the documentary heritage entrusted to our care.
Individual institutional response can only achieve limited success. But if we work together, taking advantage of our varied strengths and resources, many great and exciting things are within our reach in the coming years. I know that the Canadian archives community is up to the challenge.