October 5, 2011 - Westin Hotel, Ottawa, Ontario
Daniel J. Caron, Ph.D. Deputy Head and Librarian and Archivist of Canada
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To begin, I would like to thank the organizing committee for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.
I would also like to thank Mrs. Suzanne Legault, Information Commissioner of Canada, for her warm introduction.
As many of you are probably aware, last week saw the Centre for Law and Democracy publish its international rankings of the legal framework for the right to information in 89 countries.
The media in turn labelled the report as the world’s first ever access to information rankings and noted, here at home, that Canada finds itself in the middle of the pack, ranked 40th among 89 countries that have access to information laws.
Undoubtedly, the news raised a few eyebrows since top scores were given to Serbia, India, and Slovenia whereas Germany came in last place and that 15 of the bottom 20 countries are European.
For those of us who concern ourselves with access to information issues, an immediate response to the ranking is that it raises more complex issues.
Providing adequate documentation of society’s as diverse as Serbia, India, and Germany entails quite varied methods that correspond to the entirely different composition of societal actors in each society.
In other words, it is not sufficient to simply compare the legal frameworks surrounding the right to access information.
Inevitably, we must also look at the quality and the value of the information that is being accessed, when that information exists.
And in doing so, we must examine more fundamental issues such as the documentary practices that are in use that allow for the proper acquisition, preservation, and rendering accessible a society’s essential documentary corpus.
These documents constitute a society’s causa materialis, the foundational civic goods of any nation — the original documents that record its decisions and actions and the information to be found in its books and other documentary media and artifacts.
It is true that there is a great deal of variation when comparing the composition and methods in which the official state documents are gathered across geographic space, from one nation to another.
But what I would like to draw your attention to today is the even greater change that has occurred and is affecting all nations, regardless of the composition of their documentary heritage, and their efforts to capture, preserve and make accessible their fundamental documents to their citizens.
The tectonic shift that I am referring to is the transition from an exclusively analogue world to one that is primarily digital.
To illustrate the nature of this change, we can only think of the traditional archive that housed analogue material and how it has been transformed by modern archival practice into something quite different.
It is as if with the importance that digital information now maintains that the sense of the word “archive” has lost significance as a noun but has gained significance as a verb.
Indeed, with regard to digital information, the physical location of the information to be stored is far less important than the actual decision to store or archive the information and the means employed to accomplish the task.
This is not the case in the analogue world, where the relationship between the sense of the word “archive” as noun, the physical place in which documents are stored, and the sense of the word as a verb, the act of placing documents into the archive, are effectively one and the same.
Over time, this close synonymous association between the two has brought forward a particular state of affairs that we need to be conscious of as we face the daunting task of trying to keep pace with the sheer volume of the production of digital information resources.
In particular, we must keep in mind that the production of analogue documents up until the recent past was a laborious and time consuming task.
Consequently, with regard to government records, the records that were produced were few in number and were created with the intention that they would be archived in the official repository.
Wasn’t it one of the premises on which access to information legislation was developed in the 1980s?
For example, 100 years ago, the Government of Canada knew the exact number of documents it had in its possession and the length of the shelving space required to store them.
By mid-century, the number could only be estimated, and by the turn of the century, it was finally recognized that the production of government documents had surpassed the government’s capacity to manage its own information infrastructure.
Yet, despite this exponential growth in documentary production, key concepts attributed to the function and methods employed in the analogue archives remained unchanged.
Importantly, within the analogue mindset of the national archive, there is little recognition for the need to be selective in acquiring government records.
Thus, little thought is given to understanding the value of those records that are acquired, their presence in the archive being sufficient to establish it.
This is a far cry from archival practices in the digital realm.
With rapid evolution of information and communications technologies and digital media, new powers, sources, and distributors of information have emerged to expand the scale, and dimensions of the production and dissemination of information.
These forces shifted the landscape of public memory away from the controlled, ordered, and formal experiences and limited relationships established within the physical space of official repositories.
More and more, communication has moved to the uncontrolled, disordered, informal experiences characteristic of the World Wide Web and its myriad of social networks.
These forces also fundamentally change the operating environment of public memory and its rules of engagement.
Through technology we are commodifying information resources for delivery to consumers on a previously unparalleled scale.
We are enabling the participation of consumers in the creation and production of information resource content.
And we are establishing new forms of mediation and documentary production in relation to information, literacy and knowledge.
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 and information users.
As social transformations and technological advances allow for self-publishing, mash-up, and reuse of digital information, consumers of information are now also the producers of information as well.
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.
Importantly, this change provides opportunities for both documentary heritage institutions, such as Library and Archives Canada, and our clients, the citizens of Canada, to reassess and readjust monopolistic and obsolete business models and methodologies. In particular, those that were designed for and more applicable to the print era and were once the sole purview of information professionals.
Presently, Library and Archives Canada is undergoing a thorough process of modernization to ensure that it will be able to fulfill its mandate in this new digital environment. In the process, we have concluded that key concepts and practices applicable to analogue material cannot be applied to the capture, preservation, and discovery of digital information.
As a point of departure, we have left aside the belief that we can acquire and store everything indiscriminately.
Given the volume of digital information that is now being produced, even if we could capture it all, the logistics in managing such a volume of information and to then render it accessible entails a gigantic task beyond our human and financial resource capabilities.
Consequently, comprehensive acquisition must give way to representative sampling, which inevitably brings into play a selection process with the appropriate selection criteria.
One key finding is that we need to re-conceptualize what it is that we are acquiring and making accessible.
In short, it is no longer the object that houses the content that needs to be preserved but the information that is contained within.
This means that instead of focusing our method of organizing our holdings on the basis of the nature of the container, we are now moving towards a method of doing so on the basis of the nature of the information.
Moreover, when it comes to the point of making appraisal decisions, we now focus on establishing the value of our acquisitions for Canadians and for future generations.
On the one hand, this entails developing explicit and rigorous methods for establishing value propositions.
On the other, there is the recognition that it is no longer sufficient to simply capture and preserve a documentary corpus without attempting to do the same for the cultural context in which the documents were created.
This realization means that we no longer attempt just to capture a particular document as an isolated object.
Instead, the document is viewed as a representation of a particular instance of a societal discourse, reflecting a network of relationships between a number of identified agents that have evolved over time.
Having done the conceptual work, LAC has moved to the implementation of its new operational principles.
To put this in perspective, one of the core-essential components of our new recordkeeping regime for public administration is the determination and identification of information resources having business value.
A second component is the systematic elimination of all other information through authorized and documented disposal processes.
The Directive on Recordkeeping enables government departments to differentiate between the vast amounts of information they create on a daily basis.
Resources are focused on managing only those information resources that have business value and that are required to meet the department's business needs, performance requirements and legislated mandate.
The Directive defines information resources as any documentary material produced in published and unpublished form regardless of communications source, information format, production mode or recording medium.
The Directive also defines information resources of business value as published and unpublished materials, regardless of medium or form in which they are created or acquired.
In short, they enable and document decision making in support of programs, services and ongoing operations, and support departmental reporting, performance and accountability requirements.
In this complicated and multidimensional context, a technologically and format-neutral regime of recordkeeping establishes core-essential administrative and business coherence within government.
The identification and management of information resources of business value is fundamental to the implementation of an effective and efficient recordkeeping regime in Government of Canada departments.
To move this forward, in collaboration with the Treasury Board Secretariat, Library and Archives Canada is now leading the first phase of the Digital Office Initiative.
The goal of this initiative is to create an environment where born-digital documents will remain digital from creation to access.
Findings from the various phases of the pilot project will help determine how best to equip Government of Canada institutions with solutions that will enable them to keep the right information, over the right period of time, in the right way, thereby significantly reducing paper use and improving access across government.
Moreover, we realize that given the huge volume of digital documents that the Government of Canada creates, the identification of documents that have enduring business value cannot wait for long periods of time between their creation and the decision to archive them.
In a significant break from the past, we are pushing the moment of initial appraisal of whether something has business value to that point in time that we refer to as the “documentary moment”, the moment in which the document is actually created and is subsequently tagged for future reference.
In a similar vein, beginning in 2017, Library and Archives Canada will no longer receive or will receive very little in the way of paper government records.
Documents will be ingested in an electronic format and Library and Archives Canada will become a Trusted Digital Repository.
As I come to the close of my telling of the narrative of LAC’s recent past, I would like to suggest that making the transition from an analogue to a digital environment offers another opportunity.
We can also re-centre our guiding vision and principles to embrace the citizen’s role in society when it comes to modernizing our access to information laws. Indeed, this is an opportunity not to be missed.
I believe that archival practices developed during the period of analogue records could not be applied to digital information resources.
We must also come to terms with the fundamental principles that guide our access to information laws and which reflect the analogue mindset in which they were conceived.
Perhaps the most important parallel that requires due consideration is that just as the documents found in the national archives no longer represent the resident memory of the state, the place of governance is no longer essentially resident in the files of the state.
Essentially, governance is no longer the exclusive responsibility of public administrations.
Without question, the evolution of information and communication technologies has brought forward the democratization of documentary production.
Similarly, the result of the information technologies revolution is to multiply the number of agents that participate in the function of governance.
For instance in addition to the well-known agents of political parties, government, and main stream media, we must add the ever growing number of non-governmental organizations and ordinary citizens that exercise their influence within and apart from their social networks.
Today, they now possess the means of communication that were previously reserved for the primary agents in society.
Consequently, the notion arising from the analogue mindset that access to government records alone will bring about the necessary transparency to hold government agents accountable needs to be revisited.
In fact, in a digital world our notions of accountability, transparency, and stewardship need to extend beyond the boundaries and walls of government departments and agencies.
Citizens require access to all the records of value that constitute governance if they are to play a meaningful role in how they are governed.
From the perspective of the civic nature of an open society, the principle of access to information in the digital world requires a new consciousness and acceptance of the principle of open governance.
At the same time, we can take advantage of the new research tools that data analytics and search engines provide so that citizens can find the information that they require in a timely manner.
Finally, we need to ensure that people are conscious that the production and dissemination of information in a society is its very life blood.
In closing, I would like to reiterate two points. First, the archeion (the archive that documents society) needs to be given a new life in our organizational and social practices.
It needs to stand out from the sea of noises and tweets. Second, transparency can no longer rely solely on one player but must reflect the multiple actors that participate in the emerging governance model that our societies are embracing.
If we are to prosper as individuals and as a society, we need to be mindful of how we participate in the flow of information so that we can all take our rightful place.