&quot Archives & Museum Informatics: Museums and the Web 2005: Papers: Ian Wilson, Converging Content
Museums and the Web 2005

Reports and analyses from around the world are presented at MW2005.

Converging Content

Dr. Ian E. Wilson, National Librarian and Archivist, Library and Archivist of Canada, Canada


Welcoming remarks

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I appreciate your invitation and the courage of the organizing committee in inviting a librarian and archivist to have the last word in this 9th Museum and the Web Conference. 

This is indeed a committed and dedicated audience, who as museologists, librarians and archivists worldwide are making extraordinary efforts and progress in bringing cultural resources and learning experiences to as broad an audience as possible via the Web.

I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to David Bearman and Jennifer Trant for their initiative, perseverance and commitment in creating this forum for us to meet, discuss and learn. This is a significant contribution to our shared enterprise, sparking inspiration and discussion that continues throughout the year from contacts and friendships established here. They have inspired and enabled a global dialogue to advance this field for all of us. Thank you.

On Gretzky & goals

There are those who say that Canada's culture is hockey and that hockey is Canada's culture. I'm not necessarily one of those, but I want to begin with a reference to hockey and perhaps a lesson from hockey. Many of you I trust will recognize the name of Wayne Gretzky, born in 1961, and probably the greatest hockey player ever to lace on a pair of skates. Wayne Gretzky is to hockey what Hank Aaron is to baseball, what Michael Jordan is to basketball and what Pele is to soccer. It was said of Wayne Gretzky that he had exceptional peripheral vision. He could see more of the ice surface than other players and that allowed him to control the flow of the game. Gretzky once described his great success as a hockey player in the following way: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it's been."

I think that this sporting analogy is also a good one for cultural organizations — skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it's been. This is our challenge; this is my theme.

Library & Archives Canada as knowledge institution

First, let me talk about my perspective from Library and Archives  Canada. We are Canada's newest and oldest cultural institution, combining the former National Library established in 1953 and the former National Archives established in 1872. We are also in the process of creating the Portrait Gallery of Canada as an integral part of our new institution, meaning that we now combine the roles and mandates of a major archives, library, and museum.

The legislation that brought us into being as the Library and Archives  Canada was passed just last year and I have the privilege of being Canada's first librarian and archivist. I believe we're also the first country in the world to fully integrate the services and functions of our national library and national archives. This physical, organizational and functional convergence was in response to evident and growing public expectation regarding access to authoritative information about the Canadian experience.

The initiative to do this was very unusual in the federal bureaucracy. Those who work in provincial, state or federal bureaucracies know the inclination is to protect and defend turf. But the National Librarian at the time, Roch Carrier, and I met and together we looked at our visions and our plans, our shared values and our commitments; we looked at what we were trying to achieve as librarians and archivists and said, "We can't explain to the public or to ourselves anymore why how we are different. It's time the two institutions came together." We heard this from students and from Canadians who want access to the extraordinary riches we hold and who don't frankly care if something comes from a library or an archive. I suspect they don't care if it comes from a museum either. They want access to the stuff — a highly technical term so common to all of our institutions. They want access to the content, the stuff. 

In speaking with our staff, we were very clear, and this is not uncontroversial, that our institutions had to focus on the needs of the public, not on the internal professional interests of librarians and archivists. We were challenging them and our colleagues in other information disciplines — our conservators, systems experts and administrators — to serve the public through the institutions.

Our federal government announced the new institution in 2002 as a key strategic initiative for the knowledge society of the 21st century. Our vision and plan, our aims and efforts are not just to amalgamate the library and archives – if that's all we do, it probably isn't worth doing. The intent is not to simply put the two under one administration; the intent is to create a new integrated institution, perhaps a new type of knowledge based institution for the 21st century. The legislation introduces the concept of Canada's "documentary heritage", a term defined to include all recorded information about Canada, from print in all its forms, to film, to photos, to official administrative records, manuscripts, sound and video recordings, stamps, documentary art and the broad field of electronic media. Our mandate is fourfold:

  • to ensure the systematic acquisition of the key parts of this heritage, often in collaboration with other libraries and archives;
  • to ensure the proper preservation of this heritage;
  • to describe this heritage for access by the general public; and
  • to make it accessible to all Canadians now and long into the future.

This is ambitious and it is a major challenge for our professions.  Can we make this, often fragile, largely unique heritage as accessible and meaningful across the country as it is in Ottawa? This will take time to become reality.

Let me tell you a bit about the holdings of this institution because in British terms we combine the British library and the national archives, and we also combine some other functions. In American terms, we combine some of roles of the Library of Congress, (but we focus exclusively on Canada), of the National Archives and Records Administration, the United States Portrait Gallery, together with some of the sound film and moving image archives. Our combined institutions have now over 180 years of experience in the acquisition of documentary materials relating to this country.

An extraordinary collection (www.collectionscanada.gc.ca)

Library and Archives Canada has inherited an extraordinary collection that includes 19 million books and titles and 158 kilometres of records — everything from official records of the Government of Canada, records of wars, records from the private sector, of Canadian authors, writers, artists, of Canadian businesses and business people, of unions and of many voluntary associations and organizations. We preserve over 300,000 original works in our documentary art collection, providing an extensive visual record of life and landscape prior to the invention of photography; and we hold some 22 million photographs. This includes portraits of about one million Canadians since 1710. We have the national music collection, portions of which are online as the Virtual Gramophone. Over 50,000 titles of Canadian motion picture film from about 1900 can be found in our holdings and a small selection of documentary films is available online as the Virtual Silver Screen. Our very extensive stamp collection is online and has won international awards as the best national philatelic web site. And we have records from Canadian broadcasters back to the origins of radio and television. In other words, it is an absolutely extraordinary and original collection of multimedia information, including all documentary media relating to this country.

Our documentary holdings and the web are made for each other. We, particularly the archivists, have struggled for years to take the rare, usually fragile materials in their keeping to a broader audience, but the absolute imperative of preservation has always limited such initiatives. The web is searching for content and we've got it.

Settlers in web world

So, where are we going with all of this? There's a suggestion, a direction that we have from Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who was Prime Minister of Canada between 1896 and 1911. He was firmly engaged in nation building. Exactly 100 years ago, in 1905, when the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta were created, Sir Wilfrid journeyed to Edmonton and spoke to the people — largely immigrants — of that new province. This is what he said:

"I see everywhere hope, calm resolution, courage, enthusiasm to face all difficulties, to settle all problems. We do not anticipate, and we do not want, that any individuals should forget the land of their origin or their ancestors. Let them look to the past, but let them also look to the future; let them look to the land of their ancestors, but let them look also to the land of their children."[1]

Laurier understood something about history that we are still wrestling with today. He was making a statement about cultural continuity, bringing together the past, present and future, bringing ancestors with their overseas traditions together with the hopes of their children in the new world. Laurier understood that history is not a fixed document or narrative; it is a process of dialogue between and across generations.

The worldwide web is a powerful tool to foster that dialogue of the past with the present and future, and the web enables the dialogue to occur on a far more democratic basis than any of us ever dreamed possible even a decade ago. I suggest that Laurier's comment also applies to our various heritage institutions. We are — libraries, archives, museums and galleries – all settlers in a new land, a web world. For the last decade we have been exploring some of the frontiers, surveying the landscape, testing the potential of this new land.  It has also been testing us, our methodologies and our technologies, to respond to its new realities. But while we remain firmly planted in the land of our ancestors — those comfortable institutions and professional assumptions in which we grew up and began our careers — we must also look to the land of our children, the web world, and we need to address the expectations and demands of this new land.

Where do we go from here?

I want to talk today about where we are going from here, especially as it relates to our use of the web. The question that haunts me is whether we are recreating, repeating and perpetuating online the institutional walls, the boundaries and the practices that have developed and served us well in the physical world. The web world has little patience with institutional walls and boundaries, and even less patience with an information priesthood that tries to insert itself between the inquirer and the source material, or which seeks to limit direct access. If we were to invent a new kind of heritage or knowledge institution solely for the web — and you know implicitly we are actually doing that — what would it look like? Should we not have some informed discussion of this development rather than just letting it happen? Certainly, we need to respect and carry forward the best elements of our ancestor institutions and professions. By this I mean the curatorial commitment to the integrity of sources, artifacts, documents, sites, books and paintings. We must carry that respect forward and learn from our different approaches in structuring information about our holdings. We have to respect the strengths and unique contributions of our different information and curatorial disciplines. We must maintain and convey the essential context of the source as authoritative evidence, providing our guarantee of authenticity. We do not deal just with fact or simple information, but with context. The full meaning of the artifact, the archeological site, the furniture, or heritage building, or a letter is to be found in the context of its design, creation, or use. These are vital attributes of our materials. They give the tangible item meaning and power as documented evidence of conditions, actions, creative endeavours of those who have gone before. They constitute direct links with past society, whether that past is yesterday or a millennium ago. Maintaining and communicating these attributes with the item form part of our professional core.

The web can help us to expand and emphasize our notion of context in all of our disciplines. The web enables us to recall that the past was a holistic place — the document, artifact, painting, books, the historic site, the photos existed together, informed each other and collectively formed part of the holistic context of any historical action. The web enables us to overcome the territorial boundaries that have arisen over the decades — when we broke up the past, ripped it apart and put some in museums and some in archives and libraries, some in historic sites. The web can enable us to overcome those boundaries and reassemble the past in web world. We can present the various forms of heritage or intellectual materials in a connected way, adding to the understanding of the object, its meaning, its context and its place in our story. We do not need to merge our institutions to accomplish this, but we do need to develop our institutional and national strategies in the web world to harmonize search capabilities and ensure institutional walls are minimized.

I don't pretend this is simple. Within our Library and Archives, researchers have been required to gain access to certain resources through multiple individual databases. We are working quickly towards a federated search capability which will enable clients to search the union catalogue containing 38 million records of material held in 1,300 libraries, and 7 million records spanning our archival collections and those of 200 archives across the country. We are challenging ourselves to find new and user-friendly ways to open up material. For example, we placed the 14 volumes of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography online in both languages. We now need to use it. Why not link it to the published biographies, to the portraits, to the papers, to historic sites and monuments, to museum collections related to each individual? Why not link the detailed and well-written biographical sketches in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography and use them as one of the user-friendly access points into all of our collections?

On Serving our Full Public

I recall when I was appointed as National Archivist in 1999, my first meeting with our minister, the Honourable Sheila Copps, a politician who was passionate about culture and cultural diversity. She brought together the heads of all of our national curatorial institutions: the museums, the galleries, the libraries and archives and she challenged us to ask ourselves at the end of each day not what we did for our institutions, but what had we accomplished that day for Canada. She was idealistic and this was a essentially a question about institutional culture, "What did you do for Canada?" Not, "What did you do for your institution, or what did you do for your profession?"

There are structural issues to be addressed. I know that the funding for many museums depends in part on attendance. We need to educate funders to understand the broader possibilities of the web in enabling more of our citizens to access, use and enjoy our heritage resources, soon perhaps employing virtual reality to tour exhibits. I suspect that some museums are inhibited from making full use of the web to reach its full potential audience when the funding model is decades out of date by emphasizing the number of people who walk through the door.

Library and Archives Canada has participated in several major inter-jurisdictional web projects to make important content available. In doing so, we have challenged our web page designers to respect and incorporate the visual identity requirements of the various funders, several governments, universities and research centres. The logos are there on the first page to satisfy the participating partners, but I suspect most users ignore these entirely and move directly to the content. And that's great.

These resources long hidden in our institutions, the preserve of academics and archivists and librarians, are now becoming part of the common social memory and are being used.

In fact, on one of the web sites that we developed in co-operation with the Archives nationales de France, Québec, the Acadian archives in Moncton and others — we have digitized some 1.2 million pages of the original administrative records of New France. These are held in France. We found that our predecessors in the 1880s and 1890s had visited these archives and prepared detailed calendars of all of these key documents and published them. So, we took those published detailed calendars and linked them directly to the images of the pages. We recycled descriptive work done more than a century ago and brought it forward into web world. We're now talking to the Bibliothèque National de France and the Library of Congress about expanding this web site, all focused on New France. This project has opened up material for a whole range of research uses, from academic studies to family history and genealogy.

This web site is pointing the way and hinting at a far larger use of the web than we had anticipated. In effect, what we are doing is reconstituting the documentary heritage of a people, of a nation. Following the peace treaty in 1763, all of these records were scattered to the four winds. Three shiploads of records that went from Québec back to France, other records fell into private hands and still others went to the United States. What we can do online, for the first time, is to reconstitute both the print and the unpublished documentary heritage of New France. This is not just for research and reference, this is very much about nation building and about understanding afresh our past as our society. The web enables us to reconstruct materials which were once together and which now need to come back together to properly understand a society.

In other projects of this sort, are our institutions mature enough to share identity and ownership in endeavours important to our cultural identity? Or can we only undertake projects where we say, "That's ours and I want my visual identity across the top?" Or can we say, "The interests of our citizens are more important?"

The Development of National Strategies

We have experienced a decade of experimentation, of development, of innovation and of growth on the web. We've done the exploration phase; we're now into the settlement phase. I think it's time to stand back and to assess what has been accomplished individually and collectively and to talk about where we want to go.

What impacts have our collective efforts and the extraordinary riches we have placed on the web had on our societies, at the community level, at the national level, at the international level, on schools, on an informed citizenry and on democratic participation? Can we yet ask what is it we as institutions, individually and collectively, are trying to accomplish? Is there a goal? Is there an end state? How far do we want to go?

When we ask government for money, what is our goal?  How much do we need and what will our web presence look like in ten years? I've mentioned 50 million records online Library and Archives Canada. We have the national bibliographic database, AMICUS. Many libraries in Alberta and Quebec are digitizing collections. Google has of course announced with great fanfare their intention to digitize entire libraries in the United States and in the United Kingdom. What is our plan, or at least, what is our vision for the curatorial institutions in web world?

 On the library side, we are beginning to study the feasibility of a major project — the digitization of Canada's entire print heritage. We have the bibliographic database to define the universe of material involved. It is manageable. I would not want to try and do it for the United States, but in the Canadian context, it is possible to digitize all of our printed heritage since the 17th century. And we are looking now at how to develop the technology for mass scanning of print material in a production mode. We want to test the feasibility over the next several months, cost the project over five years, consider the consortium of libraries and other partners that are going to be necessary to do it, and then assess whether such a visionary project is yet practicable.  This is far from clear as yet.

It is a big idea with far reaching impacts on teaching and education, on the understanding of Canada, on the reading public, and it will open key resource material in new ways. It's going to provide the very foundation for a knowledge society. We are already finding that simply by putting print material online, digitized and searchable, Canadian history is changing. New details are emerging which frankly were impossible to find in the past. For example, many of you probably do not realize that one of the burning issues in our history is where the first hockey game was played in Canada. Two communities in Nova Scotia have been to court in an effort to determine the location of the first hockey game in the 1840s. A researcher went to one of our web sites and typed in the word 'hockey' and found a reference to in obscure letter written by Sir John Franklin during his Arctic expedition in 1827. In a letter written back to Britain, Franklin said, "My men were playing hockey yesterday."  This was in 1827 in what would become the Northwest Territories. We publicized that and we immediately heard from those lawyers in Nova Scotia saying, "It couldn't have been hockey as we know it, it must have been field hockey, they wouldn't have had skates." So we went to another web site where we had access to the digitized journals of Sir John Franklin. Here we found that on the day before he wrote the letter, Franklin recorded in his journal, "My men were skating on the ice today."  Skating and ice – sounds like hockey to me.

At this point, it appears that Sir John Franklin's crew, in the British Navy, played the first hockey game in Canada in the Northwest Territories. The interesting point is that when he wrote to his correspondent in Britain, the recipient understood the use of the word ‘hockey'. So the debate continues. Maybe hockey wasn't invented in Canada.

What an impact we would have on society if we could put all of our printed information online – searchable, free and publicly accessible. What an impact we would have on teaching and on research. I've done historical research in newspapers. I've got my hands filthy going through that mass of volumes, and I could never be certain that I had found all the references to Sir John A. Macdonald or whatever subject I was seeking. Digitized, OCR, available online — it's all possible. History is going to change. This is all fundamental to developing a knowledge-based society in this country. Do it once, do it well and we'll have long-term impacts.

On the archival side of our endeavours at Library and Archives Canada, it is a much larger universe and much more diverse in terms of media. We have been putting about a million pages per year online now, and if we do it for 10 years we'll have something less than one per cent of the national archives online. So we need a digital strategy that is selective and focused on the needs of a diverse user community.  Following our recent discussions in the archival community, I think we have a national consensus in the archival community on how we should proceed with digitization.

The first step is to tell Canadians what we have: to put online for the first time our inventories with a high level description of our collections, linked down into lower level and detailed descriptions. The Canadian Council of Archives is leading this initiative, establishing the standards, helping with training and encouraging archives across the country. The collective guide to archives in Canada is perhaps 40% complete and can be used at www.archivescanada.ca. We are telling Canadians what we have in a system which begins at the most general level and which will eventually include more detailed descriptions.

Secondly, tell Canadians how to access documentation described in archivescanada. There are many possibilities: inter-library loan of microfilm, through photocopies, through a visit. This remains necessary because we cannot digitize everything. Some of us are exploring new services suited to a web environment, with perhaps a digital on demand service, or the use of teleconferencing.

The third step is to put online the more frequently used materials, things of broad general interest — the war records, passenger lists, Métis scrip, census records, key maps, some of the diaries of prime ministers. The national stamp collection is already online.

We can also use some of this material to develop exhibits. You may remember Expo '67 in Montreal, the great world exposition. It was formative for a generation of Canadians. Our creative folks really went to town one day and they created the web site Expo 67 would have had if the web had been invented in the 1960's — the music, sound, design, colours, the texture. The exhibit is designed to suggest the breadth, depth and variety of materials accessible and available on almost any subject in the Canadian experience.

The fifth part of our digital strategy is to develop educational materials with modules that are linked to the curriculum. These could be used in a self-contained form, but they could also serve as a guide to explore in more detail, layer upon layer upon layer, what we have on our web site for those students who want to go further.

The sixth area in our strategy is to innovate and find new kinds of access points. Simply automating archival description, or even a library catalogue, is not sufficient. There are other ways of providing access into our collections.

These are some practical strategies that we are working on in the library and archival communities. We know we need to focus; we can't digitize everything, and we won't, certainly not in my lifetime. But there are opportunities to open and make this material more widely accessible, to enable research, working with many partners and with support from many people.

History as first person singular

In her opening remarks to this conference, Eileen Sarkar, assistant deputy minister in the Department of Canadian Heritage, emphasized three challenges for us. One is the involvement of citizens and the challenge to remove barriers, equalize opportunities and encourage people to take an active role in cultural exploration and expression. Secondly, she talked about the transformation of human experience and the role of culture in provoking, inspiring and enabling that transformation. And thirdly, she talked about the impact of museums in a creative society, fostering knowledge, inspiration and innovation. These are broad social goals and we need to be thinking of them when we talk about our new presence on the web.

How do we work together to achieve this citizen participation? We are witnessing an extraordinary development in our web presence. The material that we hold is extraordinarily detailed, it is granular. Academic historians ignored much of it because they weren't interested, for example,  in the personal details of 630,000 Canadians who served in the First World War. But individual Canadians want to see great grandfather or great grandmother's service record from that war. We hold this detailed material. It was seldom used for many decades, but a vast number of people are discovering these documents for the first time. Immigration records, passenger lists, census records, war records, city directories, and newspapers — they are all becoming accessible and increasingly searchable.

History is usually written in terms of general themes and we are all familiar with the textbooks. But history can now also be written in the first person singular — my family, my history, my community. Our sources are deeply personal, and the web is enabling us to make these accessible in ways that we couldn't even touch before because we (and the documents) could never handle that kind of use. I don't know if you realize it, but there is an explosion in genealogy.  Genealogists are some of the most sophisticated web users I've yet found, and they're also some of the most politically active web users. They played an essential role in modifying copyright proposals in the 1990s and in securing legislation to open the 1911 census for research. When the 1911 census went live online this year, there were 15 downloads per second from our web site. Genealogists, professional and amateur, are discovering that online they can do history in the first person singular. The material they seek is individualized and meaningful. They are going beyond and around the history textbooks.

Participation by individuals has also been encouraged by major investments in networking. In Canada we have more than 3,000 public libraries – more outlets than McDonald's. Public libraries are 100% networked. Studies of information-seeking behaviour show that the first place people go to look when they need information is the public library. Libraries are also the main point of access for people who don't have their own access to Internet. Our libraries are staffed by information professionals. When I was responsible for the public library system in Ontario, a consultant we were working with said, "What you have here is a franchise system."  In a franchise, of course, the key is location, location and location. Public libraries do have location. They are the heart of every town in Canada, the United States, Great Britain and in many other countries. The consultant's question was, "What do you want to do with the franchise? What's the product you're going to put out there?"

Certainly at Library and Archives Canada, we are making efforts to ensure that the reference librarians in each of those public libraries know about our services and collections, and know how to find their way around our web site. We want them to know how to use us, our limitations and our capacity. Do museums routinely work with public libraries? They are networked and they are in touch with the public and that's how we get citizen participation.

The transformative experience

Eileen Sarkar talked about the transformative experience. At Library and Archives, our legislation was proclaimed on a Friday in May 2004. On the following Monday morning we had a full staff meeting just to talk about this with all of our staff. By chance, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, The Honourable James Bartleman, was in our building to complete research for a book he was soon to publish. When I saw him, I asked him to say a few words to our staff. Mr. Bartleman said he was not prepared, but that he would talk for a minute or two. He finished a full 20 minutes later, and what he told us was a most extraordinary story of transformative experience. He is an individual of aboriginal background. He said that he grew up beside the town dump in Port Carling, a very small town in Ontario. As an aboriginal person he had no future and no prospects. The one thing that allowed him to escape from this dismal environment was the public library. He discovered the library's riches, he read his way through it, and he went on to an absolutely extraordinary career as a Canadian ambassador, a foreign affairs advisor to the prime minister, and now the Queen's representative in Ontario. He's an extraordinary individual and he gave a most powerful statement to our staff about the transformational impact of good library service. That was a key founding message for our new institution.

My question to our staff was, "How do we take something like this to the web? How do we share this, particularly with our aboriginal communities across northern, Canada? How do we get that experience out there and open the world of knowledge and learning to them?"

At Library and Archives Canada we have an initiative called "Project Naming". We have several thousand photographs that were taken in the High Arctic in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and we realizes that the individuals in these photographs were often identified as "Captain Jones and five Eskimaux", or some such description. The Inuit individuals had no identity; they were just part of the landscape. So, we initiated a project — we digitized the photographs and sent them to high schools in the new Territory of Nunavut. We invited the students to talk with their elders, and using the digitized images, identify the individuals in the photographs; our success rate is about 75%. In the process, this is giving students and elders an opportunity to talk about a way of life that has essentially disappeared.

We're giving back an identity. I had one of the elders come to Ottawa and she was going through a number of these photographs online. Suddenly she said, "Stop." There was a photograph of her father when he was in his 20s. He had died 30 years earlier and she was tremendously moved by the photo. That is just a hint of the power contain ed in our material.

Recently, we launched another web site called the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. One of the black marks in Canadian history is the residential school system, where young native students were removed from their homes and placed in residential schools and taught European ways. They lost their language, their identity and their families. Canadian society is recognizing this and is in the process of providing compensation, a process, I believe, of truth and reconciliation. We created a travelling exhibit and it's also online. It is used now in teaching programs across the country. There is power in the records that we hold, which goes well beyond straight information. If you really want to know about the material we hold in our institutions — libraries, archives, and museums — it's very much about identity, about who we are. It is knowledge of our collective experience as a society and a record of how we lived and worked together.

This leads to the third point Eileen Sarkar was making – about the creative impact of our institutions. We can put the past back together again, enabling it to be understood in all its dimensions and complexity, and enabling us to understand our population in all of its diversity. Ours is very much a multicultural society, and our role in our various information disciplines is to transform information into knowledge.

Electronic democracy & convergence

I would add a fourth point to what Eileen Sarkar talked about, and that is electronic democracy. I think part of our role is a responsibility to serve an informed electorate. In fact, the preamble to our legislation says that  Library and Archives Canada must contribute to and promote the advancement of Canada as a free and democratic society. The records of government, access to reports, access to critiques of government and access to newspapers and broadcasts helps to ensure the continuation of a free and democratic society.

We're also a key public institution assisting government with what is commonly referred to as "Government Online". So far this effort is focused on how to automate the transactional services of the federal government. Canada has won a series of awards over the years for developing online services for our citizens and integrating these federally, provincially and municipally. It is interesting that the original direction of Government Online was not just transactional services — because if government is only about transactional services there were a couple of governments in the 1930's who made the trains run on time. That's not the model we want for a free and democratic society. We need an informed electorate and we need information in their hands. We need to think about this in our institutions — if we change the basic means of communication between society, citizenry and government, how does that change society itself? How does a fully transparent democracy change government and governance? There are many things happening on this front, and I believe our institutions understand it best.

Another challenge that I'll mention briefly is the issue of preservation of the web. Our recent legislation provides authority for us to download sites of Canadian interest for preservation. Libraries and archives in other countries — Scandinavia, France, the United States and Australia  — are in the forefront on this. We have begun to retain certain key sites, developing criteria for the future and working closely with the Canadian Culture Online Program in developing this approach.

Phenomenal possibilities 

There are phenomenal possibilities before us. Perhaps it is time for us to pause briefly, to think and talk about these possibilities, to look at the road ahead. Are we simply going to let it evolve like topsy? What are our institutional, professional and national strategies in developing our web presences in our institutions, libraries, archives and museums? These are places of memory in society. We hold the authentic material required for memory to come in contact with people so that it becomes knowledge.

Our cultural institutions are places where we celebrate, we commemorate, we laugh, we mourn, and sometimes we cry — but we also learn from the experiences of those who have gone before us. Our institutions are places that allow us to understand the past honestly so that we can commit ourselves to change the future.

The footage we saw at this conference yesterday on the aftermath of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima is part of that kind of determination. Our institutions, more specifically our collections and our expertise, are vital to communication in a knowledge society. We are very much about communication in the fourth dimension, communication over time. Every society, every generation must engage in dialogue with its inherited past. Each generation asks new questions of that past, seeking the experience and wisdom needed for the challenges of its present and its future.

Playwrights, poets, novelists, film and television producers, storytellers, writers, teachers — all use the accumulated knowledge and experience of a civilized society to provide fresh insights and interpretations. Through their words, images and voices, the hopes and disappointments of earlier generations live on to inspire and challenge. Our collective and growing presence on the web enables citizens to play an active and important role in reshaping our past.

One of my predecessors, the first archivist in Canada, Douglas Brymner, was invited to speak to the American Historical Association in 1888. He had three basement rooms in an office building in Ottawa, but he talked about his ambition for the archives: about a storehouse of information about this country in all forms and all media.

He observed that "It may be a dream, but it is a noble dream. It has often spurred me to renewed effort, when the daily drudgery, for it is drudgery, was telling on mind and body."[2]  We need a similar noble dream for web world, one we can define and achieve together.

[1] As quoted in the Toronto Globe, September 2, 1905, p. 1. [return to text]

[2] As quoted in Report on Canadian Archives, 1889, p. xv. [return to text]

Cite as:

Wilson, I., Converging Content, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2005 at http://www.archimuse.com/mw2005/papers/wilson/wilson.html