Modernization and the Documentation of Society in the Digital Environment

Dr. Daniel J. Caron, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Oslo 2010
Documentary moment
In the past, information professionals have exercised the sole responsibility of ensuring the fate of our collective memory and documentary heritage. They decided what will be preserved, and what will be remembered, now and in future generations. The nature and dimensions of this critical decision-making experience as it relates to the selection of documentary heritage is what many of these professionals would typically term ‘appraisal’ or ‘acquisition’, but it is probably best described by the term, “the documentary moment.” In summary, the concept of the documentary moment relates to the construction of public memory by dedicated institutions and civil society within what is now a primarily digital environment.
On closer examination, the documentary moment is a seamless moment of time and space within the remembering process and occurs when communities become aware of and confront the instability, fragility, and ephemeral nature of memory. This is the moment when society must make decisions about the communication, capture, treatment, and management of its information resources, in relation to its understanding of their continuing purpose, value, utility, impact, or legacy. This is the moment when collectivities must finally, very deliberately and self-consciously, invest in and provide for the preservation of information, initially as a social or economic asset and subsequently, as an accessible civic good of public memory bringing meaning to society over time.
The onset of the Digital Age and has completely transformed the documentary moment. It has contracted or reshaped the contemplative time-space and brought many new factors forward into our decision-making around memory value. Decisions that could be delayed for thirty years are now being evaluated before, during, and immediately after the act of creation.
Social transformation
It is easy to associate the advent of the Digital Age with technological determinism, yet delving deeper, one finds a complex network of economic, cultural, and information factors combined with people increasingly enabled by technology. This matrix brings about an important and ongoing social transformation. It is this social transformation that has had profound effects on previously and collectively held convictions, reference points, institutional and regulatory frameworks, and traditional roles surrounding the creation, use, storage, and communication of information and its subsequent meaning.
One of the features of the Digital Age is the opposition of analog and digital environments. The key distinctions arise upon examination of the characteristics of the emerging multi-generational workforce. Essentially, each new generation brings with it different experiences, social norms, and world views to reinforce a wide diversity in skills, aptitudes and knowledge. In general, the Baby-Boomer generation (ages 45 to 63) were born into a world of analog communication, a world based on the value of physical objects: where information and knowledge resources are "contained" in manuscripts, official papers, books, card catalogues, mainframes, and personal desktops. Conversely, research shows that the environment of the "digital natives" of the Internet generation (ages 19 to 31) have grown up in a very different social and knowledge context, virtually enveloped by it. This generation is decidedly different from previous ones in how its members interact with information, people, institutions, and technology, and how they perform and excel in their work functions. This demographic group is tech-savvy, diverse, media-saturated, and has a fluid lifestyle which contrasts the value-driven Baby-Boomers who place priority on self-actualization. As well, there are also key differences in values: Baby-Boomers value fulfillment, indulgence, balance, and equity, while the Internet generation values diversity, flexibility, empowerment, and are service-oriented.
Causa materialis
Society’s causa materialis are the documents which permit its members to live their lives within a state of law, to function collectively as a democracy, and to bring on continuing and inclusive social consensus and progress through the distribution and sharing of information resources and the preservation of an accessible public memory. It is the equal access to social and information resources that allows people to act on their entitlements, rights and freedoms.
These are the foundational civic goods of our nation  -  the original documents of our decisions and actions and the information in our books and other documentary media and artifacts. They are required within society to articulate, express, and share common goals, assumptions, values and ethics, to provide individuals and groups with the capacities of social literacy necessary to enable their democratic participation within communities, and to ensure accountable public administration and responsible governance under the rule of law.
Technological change
Advances in technology have brought the commodification of information resources to a previously unparalleled and unimagined scale. These advances enable the participation of consumers in the simultaneous creation, production and reuse of information resource content, and establish new forms of mediation and documentary production in relation to information, literacy and knowledge. Liberated from the confines of analog production, we are creating an unimaginably large, dynamic, and congested digital information "marketspace".
There is a shift in the landscape of information resource and memory development from the controlled, ordered, formal experiences of limited relationships between official mediators of repositories of analog communication to the uncontrolled, disordered, and informal experiences and unlimited communications of cyberspace brought about by the web and online networks.
Technological developments are not static and will continue to advance as society itself interacts with and harnesses its own technological expertise in new and unforeseen ways. In this seemingly futuristic environment, memory institutions will need to continually reassess their presumptions and business precepts surrounding their understanding of what constitutes digital information and their roles and responsibilities in relation to it. In a society where technological advances eradicate the boundaries between disciplines, for example, the marrying of print technology with biophysics and cell biology in order to replicate biological tissue constructs though organ printing technology and the capability to recreate three dimensional objects on demand, what will be the function and role of memory institutions in this equation?
Based on the four guiding principles of significance, sufficiency, sustainability and society , modernization at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is a focal point for revisiting our institutional relevance and effectiveness in society in the Digital Age of the twenty-first century and beyond.
The immediacy and fluidity of creation, use, and reuse of our causa materialis have fundamentally changed the traditionally established and accepted relationship between information providers (memory institutions) and information users (citizens). As social transformations and technological advances allow for self-publishing, mash-up and re-use of digital information, consumers of information are now also the producers of information in the digital environment. The degrees of separation between citizens and information resources have diminished dramatically. Acquisition, preservation, and access to information resources, which were once mediated by memory institutions in the analogue world, have become more direct, unfiltered, and immediate in the digital domain. This advance provides opportunities for both memory institutions, such as LAC, and our clients, the citizens of Canada, to reassess and readjust monopolistic and obsolete business models and methodologies that were designed for and more applicable to the print era, and to participate in activities such as cataloguing and metadata allocation, once the sole purview of information professionals.
Key to the success of this modernized approach to digital information resource development lies collaboration. As the volume of digital information increases exponentially so do the complexities of acquiring, preserving and making accessible information resources which were once finite, static and delineated. Indeed, it is no longer possible or appropriate for one single memory institution to undertake these responsibilities in isolation and new business models are required that are driven by a perspective of inter-institutional, and pan-Canadian, co-operation and collaboration.
Also, central to LAC’s modernized model for digital information resource development is the recognition that we must be a policy-driven institution, acting within the larger federal government organization. Our decisions must be evidence-based and founded on sound research and analysis, and our institution must make decisions that are viable and sustainable and reflect the views of Canadian society as expressed by the consensus amongst Ministers. Finally, in order to forward our policy decisions on what to acquire, preserve and provide access to with respect to Canada’s digital information heritage, LAC will adhere to its four above-mentioned guiding principles.
Further information:
Shaping our Continuing Memory Collectively: A Representative Documentary Heritage
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