Archives and libraries, archivists and librarians, have been adapting to new media since they were established. Clay tablets gave way to papyrus rolls, printed books followed illuminated manuscripts. Photography dates from the 1840s, film and recorded sound from the 1890s, followed by radio, movies, and television.
So I was surprised at the implication that new media is something unprecedented in speaking notes for Daniel J Caron participating in a roundtable on Archives, Archivists and the Work of Historians at a Canadian Historical Association meeting on May 30, 2011.
These speaking notes, online here, show four subheads:
2) A New Environment
a) The value and meaning of what we acquire or what we should acquire
While institutions may have struggled to keep up, and frequent failures are to be lamented, all previous materials coming into archives and libraries were not written and printed documentary format as suggested by the notes.
Part of the problem with the thinking behind these notes is the failure to acknowledge Library and Archives Canada's role as a (designated) cultural institution.
LAC, and its forerunner institutions, have always been selective in what they collect. Now with the internet and social media the same should apply. Even as a family historian, with an interest more on a personal level than one of national cultural significance, I would not have expected that, had Twitter existed in my great grandparents day, every tweet of theirs would have been archived for posterity.
Neither is there anything especially revolutionary in the idea that library and archives will not be Canada's sole memory institution. Provincial, territorial and municipal archives and libraries have been important parts of a national system over the years.
Even within the federal sphere, there is much scientific information, especially about Canada's natural environment and resources, that has never found a place within LAC.
Science based departments and agencies have for several decades been coping, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, with a remote sensing induced information tsunami. Information from weather satellites, weather radar, and lightening detection systems inundated meteorological archives a la Fukushima. Digital data had to be managed at a time when computer storage was orders of magnitude more costly than it is today, and the ability to compress that data much more limited. Until recently the situation could only be dealt with by discarding the vast majority of data, a situation which is gradually improving owing to lower cost and capability of storage technology.
Will LAC, with the cost of computer storage rapidly declining, be up to meeting the challenge?
Will it come to grips with its role as a cultural institution for Canada, not just a warehouse for federal records?