Idea and Purpose of National Libraries and Their Future in a Changing World

From: Library and Archives Canada


Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada

June 4, 2018, 1:30-3:00 p.m.

Meeting of the Conference of European National Librarians

Reykjavik, Iceland

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Dear Colleagues,

I want to begin by thanking our colleague Roly Keating for inviting me to deliver this keynote presentation.

When I received his letter in December, my initial reaction was that I really did not have much to offer such an experienced and distinguished group as CENL.

Many of the national libraries represented here are light years ahead of what we have accomplished in Canada, and I would hardly presume to brief you on our best practices.

I shared these concerns with Roly, who sought to reassure me by explaining that what he was looking for was “a voice from outside,” the perspective of someone who was not running a national library in Europe.

With that in mind, I set out to prepare this presentation, being careful to avoid suggesting that I had anything to teach.

My only intent is to share my vision, mindful that it may not resonate with those of you whose realities happen to be quite different.

Many of our recent initiatives at Library and Archives Canada – LAC for short – only make sense if we keep in mind the tremendous democratization of knowledge we have seen in the wake of digitization.

At one time, only graduate students, faculty and researchers visited national libraries.

That was certainly my personal experience at the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Salle Labrouste, when I used to go there, as a graduate student, 45 years ago.

Access to the 320 seats in Salle Labrouste was reserved for faculty and graduate students, and you had to get there early in the morning, at the rue de Richelieu, and line up so you could get one of those coveted seats once the doors opened.

These days, thanks to the Web, anyone and everyone – not only from our own countries, but from anywhere in the world – has total and unimpeded access to our documents.

This has awakened an appetite for knowledge that we frankly find difficult to satisfy.

In the French-speaking world, a turning point in the conception of the role of national libraries happened on July 14, 1988, when President François Mitterrand announced his intention to create an entirely new kind of library, one that would be open to everyone and that would be equipped with all types of supports.

Since then, the long-standing distinction between a national library and a public library has blurred,

and the unprecedented traffic we are seeing today at places such as the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France are but two examples of that manifestation.

Over the past four years, LAC has plunged head first into this movement by bringing itself physically closer to public libraries.

That is why, last November, we moved our Vancouver offices that used to be located in a technology park in a remote suburb, to the premises of the Vancouver Central Library, which, as its name suggests, is located right in the heart of that Pacific Coast city.

This shift has already borne fruit, not only in terms of attendance, but also in terms of the receptiveness of our employees towards their new colleagues and new clients.

And when it comes to breaking silos and blurring borders, what could possibly be more symbolic than our project to relocate our public services to a new facility that will be shared with the Ottawa Public Library, as of 2024.

This innovative project, which amounts to a wedding between a merged national archives and national library, on the one hand, and a public library on the other, was made possible by the provisions in the Canadian federal budget of February 27, 2018.

The only limitation to this project will be that of our imaginations.

If I am right in thinking the movement to break down the barriers between national and public libraries started at the turn of the 21st century, I believe that the past few years have seen another shift in the tectonic plates.

And that is a redefinition of our relationship with our clients, or users, if you happen to prefer a less commercial term.

The service models developed by Amazon, Google and especially Wikipedia, are encouraging our clients to transcribe, translate, label and describe our documents, thus becoming more partners than clients, even though this is leading some of our colleagues out of their comfort zone.

I understand that librarians and archivists may be concerned about seeing the hoi polloi engage in operations that were once their exclusive domain.

Nonetheless, I believe that the experience with Wikipedia and its reliability demonstrates our users’ ability to self-regulate and self-correct.

So, if there is some truth in what I am saying, I propose to address the changing role of national libraries this afternoon by exploring a certain number of activities, in which LAC is involved, that one does not generally associate with national libraries.

I am going to use, as an indication of the most common activities of national libraries, the recent survey conducted in 2016 on behalf of the National Libraries Section of IFLA.

It was distributed to national libraries through the mailing list of the Conference of Directors of National Libraries – CDNL – and 46 responses from 45 sovereign states were received, including 27 from European national libraries.

The results were presented at the 2017 meeting of IFLA in Wroclaw, Poland, at an open session of the National Information and Library Policy Special Interest Group.

Naturally, the survey revealed that collection development and collection management, preservation and conservation, as well as making collections accessible and outreach were roles that were widely shared among national libraries.

It also showed that the development of library standards and the promotion of reading and information literacy were standard activities at national libraries.

Indeed, 78% of national libraries that responded to the survey indicated that they were involved in the first activity and 72% in the second.

By focusing on some of the other activities this afternoon, if you will be so kind as to bear with me, I would like to borrow from Michel Foucault, who so aptly illustrated that systems are best understood by what goes on at their margins.

That is the line of thinking that I would like to use, again, without in any way implying that we, in Canada, have a monopoly on any of those themes … quite the contrary.

If LAC stands out in any way, it may be in terms of the number and variety of its initiatives, rather than the originality of any one of them considered individually.

I would like to explore these initiatives with you by grouping them under the two themes I raised at the beginning of the presentation.

First, the ones that touch on the willingness of national libraries to welcome new users, and second, the ones that are the consequences of the new role played by those users.

1. Willingness to welcome new users

National libraries are increasingly used – both physically and virtually – by the public at large.

For instance, in 2017, the Bibliothèque nationale de France experienced a very significant 14% increase in attendance.

This is not uncommon, and in fact, the same thing happened at the British Library.

I quote from one of their recent documents:

The more screen-based our lives, it seems, the greater the value of real human encounters and physical artefacts; activity in each realm feeds interest in the other

Indeed, the more people use the Web to access our collections, the greater their appetite for visiting our physical spaces.

What can we do to satisfy our readers’ appetites?

One thing, of course, is to introduce tools that provide greater access to our collections through digitization.

All over the world, memory institutions recognize the importance of making their collections available online.

And they are busily developing strategies to make this happen as fast as they can … working together, as well as with the private and non-profit sectors.

I remember, when I joined the ranks of the documentary community, back in 2009, some archivists wanted to hold campaigns to convince the population of the falsehood of the notion that “if it’s not online, it doesn’t exist”.

We have come a long way since then. We now understand that this mentality is so ingrained that it is as useless to oppose it as to try to stop the tide from coming in, like King Canute.

The documentary community – libraries as well as archives – has received the message and it is doing everything it can to provide online access to as many documents as possible, even if sometimes the job may seem like emptying the ocean with a shell, as in St. Augustine’s vision.

In February of 2015, the Council of Canadian Academies published a report entitled Leading in the Digital World: Opportunities for Canada’s Memory Institutions.

In this report, the Council challenged memory institutions to work together to meet the digital expectations of Canadians.

So, LAC did a survey of some of the major digital initiatives going on around the world.

Europeana, naturally, and Gallica, and the fabulous work of the National Library of the Netherlands.

And of course, the Digital Public Library of America.

The DPLA is a unique, nationwide, collective that works towards a shared goal of bringing the riches of the nation’s cultural heritage organizations to a broad public.

A portal of discovery.

The DPLA brings together a collection of over 16 million items from dozens of hubs and thousands of contributing institutions.

Millions of people, from students to seniors, have taken advantage of the free and open resources offered through the DPLA.

The success of the DPLA is due largely to its network of partners, and their willingness to come together to achieve a common goal: maximizing public access to shared history, culture and knowledge.

The DPLA model was very much top of mind when we created Canada’s National Heritage Digitization Strategy (a.k.a. NHDS).

The NHDS was announced in June 2016, and it is based on the best practices we saw in other countries.

It was developed by Canada’s major memory institutions: large public libraries, academic libraries and archives, provincial archives, national associations of archivists, librarians, historians and museums.

The idea is to coordinate our approach to digitizing the hundreds of collections found in Canada’s memory institutions.

Its scope includes access, discovery and preservation.

And the strategy covers both published and unpublished digitized material from archives, libraries, museums, galleries, historical associations and other memory institutions across the country.

Our steering committee includes organizations from across the cultural and academic sector, such as the Internet Archive, the Canadian Museum of History, the Writers’ Union of Canada and numerous universities.

And we have had a lot of interest already from the broader community, wanting to get involved.

As of May 2018, 58 organizations have pledged their intent to partner with us.

We have created working groups, with more on the way.

And we have received initial funding of 1.1 million Canadian dollars from the private sector.

I take a special pride in the way the NHDS works as a co-op, because it is my belief that LAC should not view the ecosystem of memory institutions as a hierarchy.

On the contrary, I like to think of LAC as a link in a chain, rather than a pharaoh at the top of a pyramid.

And the Steering Committee of the NHDS is a good example of this.

The strategy was developed initially by a 21-member steering committee, a group that is currently chaired by the chief librarian of Queen’s University, one of the member institutions.

LAC is a member of the steering committee, and one of our employees acts as corporate secretary, but I do not chair the committee, and LAC is only one player among 58 others.

The technical components and the governance model are defined and developed by a network of players, which is how it should be.

In the spring of 2017, NHDS joined an international consortium led by the DPLA and Europeana. provides standardized statements that can be used to communicate the copyright status of digital cultural objects to the public.

This is an extremely important and often contentious issue.

By working together, with the DPLA, Europeana, and representatives from India and Australia, a more inclusive, global system will be created.

It will allow cultural heritage partners, who hold digital works, to clearly communicate to their users what they can or cannot do with the objects they discover.

Needless to say, a co-operative system such as the NHDS only makes sense if its members do their own digitization to feed into the platform.

For LAC, our greatest digitization initiative to date has been the digitization of our First World War personnel files.

These files are a major resource for genealogy and historical research.

We receive over 3,000 requests a year for this information, but the original paper documents are thin and fragile.

So, our staff is carefully taking the Canadian Expeditionary Force files, digitizing them, and putting them up on our website.

640,000 of them! Some 32 million images! We started in 2014, with box number one, and we’ll be going in order all the way to box number ten thousand, six hundred and eighty-six!

By the end of 2018, in time for the 100th anniversary of Remembrance Day on November 11, all 640,000 files will be online.

As of May 2018, we had already digitized over 91% of the total. These files include the records and papers of famous soldiers, like:

  • Frederick Banting, who discovered insulin,
  • One-Eyed Frank McGee, the legendary hockey player,
  • and Grey Owl, one of the world’s first eco-warriors,

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