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Event Report: Imagining the Future of Canadian Memory Institutions

October 28, 2015

By Andrea Kampen

Imagining the Future of Canadian Memory Institutions, a panel discussion held at Dalhousie University on October 15, 2015, brought together Graham Flack (Deputy Minister of Canadian Heritage), Guy Berthiaume (Librarian and Archivist of Canada), and Carrie-Ann Smith (Chief, Audience Engagement, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21). Following September’s Nova Scotia Archives, Libraries and Museums Conference in Halifax, the panel continued the discussion suggesting that memory institutions are better together.

The panel examined the influence factors such as policy, general trends, and practice have on how well these institutions work together and individually.

From the policy perspective, Deputy Minister Flack, who is responsible for six national institutions, talked about the technological advances that have helped to make   memories accessible to more Canadians, even as physical attendance at memory institutions has flatlined or declined in recent years. He cited the Stan Douglas’ Circa 1948 (National Film Board), an interactive multimedia installation (and app!) depicting a couple of Vancouver’s storied neighbourhoods, as an innovative form  of storytelling. The deputy minister repeatedly stressed the need to respond to “digital disruption,” a term that refers to the change that occurs when new digital technologies impact the value proposition of existing services. Though disruption has negative connotations, the change that can occur can actually augment (pun intended) the services that memory institutions offer.

Mr. Berthiaume outlined eight trends that Library and Archives Canada has identified for memory institutions:

  1. widening media scope;
  2. new partnerships;
  3. national digitization strategies;
  4. collaboration and crowdsourcing;
  5. working with different formats;
  6. open government/open data;
  7. participatory culture; and
  8. memory and privacy concerns.

For each of these trends, he highlighted the ways in which other governments (the current leaders being Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden) and programs are actively responding to these trends—by putting in place policy to allow for the innovation necessary to move forward. He mentioned Project Naming, an initiative to crowdsource the identification of individuals of First Nations, Métis and Inuit descent in images that are a part of the vast LAC holdings.

Carrie-Ann Smith of Pier 21 shared some of the lessons learned from the museum’s growth and change (much like transportation moved from ocean ports to airports) from 1999 to today. Pier 21 has always placed storytelling at the heart of all the exhibits, engaging individuals as the storytellers and content creators. Now, by leveraging technological developments like touch screens and projection, Pier 21 is creating a more immersive experience. She pointed out that different people find different things about museums appealing; some wish to sit and listen, and others want to engage and interact, but everyone comes to learn and to connect with the material in the museum in a way that is relevant to them. This underlines the important point that, though leveraging the digital disruption is a positive for memory institutions, it is important to continue to build on existing services.

Audience members used the question and answer period to ask about topics such as

  • important skills needed by those entering the field (ability to work in a team);
  • the national digitization strategy is (there is a working group);
  • the follow-up to the Documentary Heritage Communities Program (to be evaluated one year in); and
  • how decisions are made regarding which trends to address (policy frameworks still have to catch up to the changes).

Though it was interesting to bring these three representatives of policy, trends, and practice into a room together, it left me with many questions. It isn’t hard to convince employees of memory institutions that their work is important; the challenge is | convincing the holders of the pursestrings that memory institutions are vital to every aspect of Canadian and global society and culture.

The goals of memory institutions haven’t changed; HOW these services are delivered has broadened. Mr. Berthiaume said it well;it’s dangerous to think that you’re going to make the right decision every time. However, decisions still need to be made and action needs to be taken.

Andrea Kampen is a recent grad from Dalhousie’s School of Information Management Master in Library and Information Studies degree. She is drawn to the study and practice of how we interact with different mediums of information from print and text to digital and images. She brings to the profession of Libraries and Archives a keen interest in the treasure hunt that is helping people find the information they are looking for.

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