Thursday, 5 February 2015

Report from Canadian Expert Panel on Memory Institutions and the Digital Revolution

Leading in the Digital World: Opportunities
for Canada’s Memory Institutions (pdf) is the report of an expert panel convened under the auspices of the Council of Canadian Academies at the request of Library and Archives Canada.

They were asked to answer the following question:

How might memory institutions embrace the opportunities and challenges posed by the changing ways in which Canadians are communicating and working in the digital age?

Additional direction was provided in four sub-questions:
• With the use of new communication technologies, what types of records are
being created and how are decisions being documented?
• How is information being safeguarded for usefulness in the immediate to mid-term
across technologies considering the major changes that are occurring?
• How are memory institutions addressing issues posed by new technologies
regarding their traditional roles in assigning value, respecting rights, and
assuring authenticity and reliability?
• How can memory institutions remain relevant as a trusted source of continuing
information by taking advantage of the collaborative opportunities presented
by new social media?
Here are their main findings:

1.  To keep pace with the fundamental and unavoidable digital change now reshaping society, Canada’s memory institutions must exercise their capacity to be leaders.
2. Many of the challenges that memory institutions face as they attempt to adapt to the digital age are rooted in technical issues associated with managing digital content, the sheer volume of digital information, and the struggle to remain relevant.
3. The digital world has the potential to fundamentally change the relationship between memory institutions and people for the better. The integration of a participatory culture into the daily operations of memory institutions will ensure that they establish a sustainable, authentic relationship with the public.
4. Collaboration is essential for adaptation. It allows memory institutions to access resources vital for delivering enhanced services that users now expect in the digital age.

There were no genealogists on the panel, nor on the list of those who reviewed the report. That's rather at variance with the statement that "Board members are drawn from the Royal Society of Canada (RSC), the Canadian Academy of Engineering (CAE), and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences (CAHS), as well as from the general public."  It's also ironic given the statement that  "Compared with libraries and museums, archives have been less focused on the needs of the general public, in part because scholars have dominated their user base."

Nevertheless, with family historians the single largest user group of LAC, their interests were acknowledged..

On page 5 we read "while Canadians are tremendously fascinated by family history, interest in
national, civic, ethnic, or religious history remains strong and facilitates a sense of citizen engagement with the past."

On page 6 the report displays a table from 2007 on how Canadians engage with the past showing, in 11th place, "Worked on [a] family tree/completed genealogical research"

On page 111 the report laments that Ancestry "a private, for-profit genealogy company," gives minimal visibility to the organizations from which it receives its data.

On page 120 we read
"In North America, genealogical users make up 50 to 90% of all traffic through memory institutions’ public portals (Tucker, 2007; Creet, 2011). LAC, too, has made genealogy one of its institutional priorities by collaborating with the U.S. genealogy giant (LAC, 2007b). has noted that baby boomers are a major and growing demographic in their user base (Kidd Stewart, 2011), which has over two million subscribers as of July 2012 (, 2012). The public’s interest in digitally available ancestral information is only likely to grow as more and more baby boomers retire and take up genealogy as a hobby."
LAC responded to the report with this post.


Much of the report could have been written for almost anywhere. The challenges faced by LAC and other Canadian memory institutions aren't unique. However, Canada is now lagging behind other countries in its response to digital opportunities. The report cites numerous examples of good digital initiatives elsewhere, and a few at LAC.

An element that struck a chord with me is moving to an authoritative rather than an authoritarian approach.
"The key to an authoritative approach lies in using the expertise of library, archives, and museum specialists to facilitate access to documentary heritage and provide important contextual information (concepts, facts, and narratives) that helps the public appreciate preservation of culture. Adopting this mindset requires memory institutions to continually demonstrate their importance and let their audience become the “central determiner of value,” instead of simply declaring their significance by virtue of their status."
How does it work?  Look at this contrast.

Go to 395 Wellington, enter and you're greeted by a registration desk and security. There's no welcoming social space where you can chat over a coffee. You need to order almost everything in advance as it takes days to retrieve.

Go to TNA at Kew and you're greeted by a help desk, a bookstore, cafeteria and mini-museum. You're welcome to browse otherwise pay-to-access records on their computers (and view a few legacy microforms) and an extensive library, all free with no registration. Even the parking is free! Only when you want to consult unique documents do you need to register and you'll likely receive an apology if they can't deliver within 40 minutes of ordering.

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