Study on the Emerging and Digital Media: Opportunities and Challenges

Remarks by Dr. Daniel J. Caron, Librarian and Archivist of Canada

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee for inviting me to share my thoughts on the emerging digital media environment.
The mandate of Library and Archives Canada is to capture and preserve the documentary heritage of Canadians, including that of the Government of Canada. Through the collection of documentary heritage, we provide an accurate account of the evolution of Canadian society. Documentary heritage is at the core of literacy in Canada, and even at the core of our democracy. By ensuring that the most relevant and significant material is acquired and preserved, we ensure that this material is there to be searched and accessed by Canadians over time.
Fulfilling our mandate in the new digital environment presents unique challenges and opportunities. As you know, the new information and communication technologies are continuously evolving. They have fundamentally changed the way Canadians create information, safeguard it and retrieve it. In the new digital environment, Canadians expect to find information everywhere and anytime. This is true in organisations and institutions throughout our society. Information in all forms (films, documents, portraits, photos, etc.) is today more than ever ephemeral, instantaneous and highly dynamic. And we are witnessing a new phenomenon – in the digital media age, too much information is recorded. This creates a major challenge unique to the archival function – how to be selective about what should be preserved and what need not be.
As the CNRS researcher Tzvetan Todorov wrote in 1995, "… collective memory is at risk today not because records are disappearing, but rather because there is too much available …". This problem of abundance directly affects the capacity of societies to identify, preserve and ensure access to their documentary heritage. One consequence is that most countries are revisiting their policies and legislative frameworks to deal with the challenge of preservation in a digital age. In Canada, LAC – as a key part of the Canadian Heritage portfolio – has a critical role to play in influencing and informing these discussions.
Today, we are in a transition from a documentary environment of paper, canvas, vinyl and film to a new digital environment, where sensory information now takes the form of bits and bytes – untouchable and invisible. This has caused a tectonic shift at the very foundation of our business. The traditional archival materials that once came to us in a box filled with books, pictures and papers, all organised in the way the donor was thinking, will now be coming to us on a memory stick. This memory stick will contain books read by the donor in one folder, the texts he or she has written in another folder, and photos in yet another one. Moreover, all of these items will be readable only with the software utilised by the author twenty years ago and – to make things worse – the appropriate version of that software. And we will not necessarily know the nature of the content until we have accessed it.
These are the challenges of the archival business in the 21st century.
Building and preserving Canada's documentary heritage in this new environment requires new approaches, new ways of working and, above all, new forms of partnership and collaboration.
To meet this challenge, memory institutions like LAC must change the way they do business. Increasingly, they will need to work together to identify relevant documentary heritage and to complement each other's work in the areas of acquisition, preservation and access.
At the same time, the new digital environment offers wonderful opportunities, provided we can master new technologies in support of acquisition, preservation and access. This is what we are doing today, and what we will be increasingly doing in future, with new digital approaches to fulfilling our mandate and to better connecting Canadians across the country with their documentary heritage.
The digital environment can become a conduit to ensure that all Canadians, no matter where they live or what their socio-economic status is, will have access to their documentary heritage.
To deliver on the promise of the new digital media environment, we will have to address the issue of identifying and preserving the content created in the new social media networks like Facebook and MySpace. We must open up and link our digital and digitized documentary heritage to Canadian cultural industries, genealogists, historians, lawyers and Canadians in general. In this way, we will enable direct cross-country access to a largely untapped public resource. These assets can be leveraged for literacy development and democratic needs, and repurposed for a wide variety of uses.
For example, LAC is sharing its digital content with memory institutions and Canadian cultural industries to enable new digital media applications, thus contributing to innovation and new business opportunities. In another case, we have enabled Inuit youth to connect with their Elders by inviting them to identify and tag photographs of their ancestors online. Often, these are the only visual records the Inuit community has of these individuals. Many of the photographs featured in this initiative (called "Project Naming") were digitized by LAC from paper-based Government of Canada collections.
Today, however, most records are born digital and this includes most government records. In this new environment, LAC has helped build a new policy suite to assist federal departments to capture and manage relevant digital content so that it can be made accessible over time. The Directive on Recordkeeping is in direct response to the needs of digital work environments in the federal government.
The key lesson from the Recordkeeping Initiative that serves as a best practice for how we collect and preserve digitally created content is the principle of linking the production of Canadian digital content to its preservation and access. As Harvard University Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain notes, "… in the digital environment, everything is saved yet little is preserved."
Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, we cannot wait a few decades before we tackle the challenge of digital preservation. To do so is to risk creating serious gaps in the continuing memory of this country.
As Canada moves forward in meeting the challenges of preserving its digital documentary heritage, we will need to develop a pan-Canadian network of Trusted Digital Repositories (TDRs) – electronic vaults –where digital content can be hosted and distributed in both the short and medium term. This content will be carefully selected to determine what should be preserved and made available in the long term. LAC is currently developing the appropriate policies, standards, work processes and technologies to enable it to become a Trusted Digital Repository and thereby to ensure long-term access to this country's digital heritage. In this way, we are truly becoming a 21st Century Library and Archives.
Our mandate to preserve Canada's documentary heritage for current and future generations places LAC in the unique position of being able to contribute our experience and expertise to the emerging national digital content strategies. Our own modernization efforts are focused on meeting these challenges to leave a meaningful legacy for Canadians in future.
As we reflect on the opportunities and challenges of the emerging digital media environment, we should bear in mind that in our free and democratic society, it is the content itself that sustains our institutions and drives our economic, social and cultural development.
At the core of any Canadian digital strategy is the obligation to acquire, preserve and make accessible content that is authentic, relevant, reliable and accessible, both today and for future generations.
Thank you.
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