Observations on remarks of Cecilia Muir, LAC Chief Operating Officer at #ACA2012

I’ve been behind in  posting information related to the ongoing situation for archives in Canada, but I hope to have some guest blog posts up for you in the next few days. In the meantime, after watching a firestorm of tweets about a talk at the Association of Canadian Archivists annual meeting in White Horse, I have finally listened to the audio for myself. The speaker in question was  Cecilia Muir, the Chief Operating Officer at Library and Archives Canada, who was filling in for Daniel Caron, the Librarian and Archivist of Canada who was unexpectedly unable to attend as scheduled.

Here is a link to the audio file: http://www.mediafire.com/?897x4x1h7evewxl which, as you will hear immediately, was recorded by someone in the audience. The audio quality gets better when Ms. Muir starts speaking, so hang in there. I did not listen to the Q&A, which I understand from watching Twitter was quite heated. I will leave the discussion of the decision to eliminate NADP and other budgets cuts to my guest bloggers and future posts. What I wanted to discuss here were two smaller issues that I think may be of interest to the readers of this blog.

First, regarding digitization, on which LAC is relying heavily to improve access to collections, Muir declared that in the Digital Content Strategy LAC is developing they will be aligning content selection with the government’s commemorative events agenda (set by the prime minister and his cabinet). Those events include the War of 1812, World War I, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John A MacDonald, and  Canada’s 150th Anniversary. As noted in Twitter conversations, this decision will have an effect on the ability of scholars and researchers to gain increased access to records that are not part of this nationally (and it has been argued, politically) driven agenda. What is your reaction to this approach to digitization?

Muir also praised LAC’s efforts  toward “simplifying and accelerating our descriptive practices” and made references to (I think, the audio was a little muffled at that point) implementing practices to capture essential descriptive information earlier in the lifecycle of the records. I am fully in support of the latter, but I will be curious to hear more about the former. I’m told what this means is going from 25 descriptive fields to 10, but it’s not clear which fields those will be or what this really means. Will archivists at LAC now only have 10 fields available to them for description, or does that just mean they only be required to complete 10 fields? What thought has been given to the impact will this have on researchers?

One reason I wanted to listen to the talk was to confirm what Muir had actually said about LAC’s use of social media and crowdsourcing. She devoted some time to highlighting LAC’s commitment to and progress in using social media to enhance access and in experimenting with crowdsourcing to supplement description (although I did not hear many specifics about this). While I did not hear Muir making a direct connection between the cuts LAC has made to archival staff and the increased use of social media, some attending the talk interpreted her  as drawing a connection between the two. I jokingly said on Twitter that the next topic for debate on this blog should be whether or not active outreach to the public via social media could be viewed as an adequate substitute for trained archivists. This I think was a genuine fear at one point–crowdsource description and fire the archivists. I don’t think that’s the point Muir was trying to make, but it is the way her remarks may have been interpreted by some listeners.

So, even aside from the more explosive issues related to the cuts to the NADP and the CCA, there was much of interest in Muir’s talk. What do you think about the road LAC seems to be taking with digitization and description? Does anyone have any specifics to share about these efforts?




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10 thoughts on “Observations on remarks of Cecilia Muir, LAC Chief Operating Officer at #ACA2012”

  1. I can’t comment in an informed way on the specifics of the situation in Canada, but I can on the more general issue of digitisation being aligned with a government commemorative events agenda.

    Will this have an impact on other material of more interest to (some) scholars ? Almost certainly.

    Is that a bad thing ?
    Not necessarily.

    This approach has been a common one in many countries for some time. One could argue that it can generate increased support overall for digitisation and release more funds for it because it produces an observable public benefit. Perhaps these aren’t the scholarly priorities – but our archives are not just for scholars, they are for the benefit of all of society. I think that’s certainly been the case in the UK.

    The scholarly community is perilously close to being seen to be guilty of special pleading if it doesn’t recognise this. Even if the selection process is politically driven, it will do no harm to get more political enthusiasm for releasing funds for digitisation. Something that engages with a wider public increases support not just for digitisation programmes but for the very idea of national libraries and archives. That has to be a good thing.

  2. Didn’t the social media/budget cuts connection come out in the earlier Daniel Caron keynote? I think I remember seeing that mentioned on Twitter, although like you I’m watching all of the from afar.

  3. Perhaps it did. He certainly spent time talking about what he believed were significant achievements in that area, from what I heard. Video of that keynote is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNSlcLrg45o&feature=youtu.be. A commentary on the keynote is available at: http://bibliocracy-now.tumblr.com/post/25025603135/caron-at-cla-video.

    If the buzz on Twitter during Muir’s talk was bad, the buzz during this Caron keynote was explosive. I haven’t watched it yet.

  4. I think aligning digitization with the anniversaries of nationally important events would help the archives get ahead of demand (I am under the impression that anniversaries bring attention to related collections). I think this focus could also help to bring materials to the attention of people who may not be familiar with archives/don’t use archives on a regular basis with the hope of expanding the base of users beyond academic researchers.

  5. whether or not active outreach to the public via social media could be viewed as an adequate substitute for trained archivists.

    Addressing this, my thought about the fears raised by these issues are reflective of a lack of understanding about how much our profession is changing due to the Internet and social media. Archivists are feeling threatened because we won’t be the ones laboriously labeling all the meta-data, which will instead be crowd sourced. The fear is that we are obsolete. But this is really studying the bark of the trees and not seeing the forest; anyone can enter a tag on an digital item, but it takes trained professionals to make sure that data is correct and accessible.

    That is, our field is changing from one of doing work on the ground floor to being an overseer. No, not everywhere (small archives, for instance) but overall that the general trend, IMHO. Instead of worrying about amateurs doing our work for us, we should look to how we can leverage that for the benefit of our institutions.

  6. Even the first generation of Dublin Core had15 fields (as does the Canadian Judicial Council standard which is required for digital documents to be accepted as evidence in our courts) and DC is now much expanded. I suspect that the reason they are moving to 10 fields has more to do with the capacities of Sharepoint which is being used by LAC as a “solution” to accept descriptive information. I could be corrected here.

    The larger issue is that LAC has no plan. It is looking to the private sector and other archives to provide one. In a recent RFI on the Canadian government procurement web site they are offering up our heritage resources in the guise of government assets (on the model of Elsevier et al) and looking for partners to provide the money and the expertise including the expertise of contracted professional archivists and information specialists (relieving them of the necessity to provide for fair employment).

    Even though I believe this is a dangerous liaison. The choice is the provinces, the universities and the private sectors specialists to make!

  7. So one problem with the advocacy efforts I’ve noticed recently is many archival folks coming out to attack “privataization”. Problem is, if you dig into it, what they are really attacking is outsourcing, primarily outsourcing of digitization, much of it mass digitization. Seems to be almost standard practice down here, from NARA down to lone arrangers. I am against much of the job loss projected, but if you can only justify much of your professional staff time riding the scanners, then the money folks are going to find a cheaper way. It seems like easy cuts for them. Let this go and let the digitization be outsourced and spend more time arguing for professional staff doing description and reference – the two areas where its going to hurt the most.

    As for processing and digitization decisions being driven by commemorative events – this too is common across the profession – local govt, non prof, corporate, universities, etc. Political, yes perhaps, but a great outreach opportunity for users, stakeholders, and potential donors.

  8. Digitization of records featuring or tying into nationally important events could be great. But that’s not what was actually said. It’s tied into events that will be officially commemorated.

    This is the government that brings us “The War of 1812 – a HUGE moment for all of Canada, even though you probably only know it because of Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie” while also stating that the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms will not officially be celebrated (and therefore, no records related to a topic studied at all levels of education and which impacts daily life would be digitized).

    Now, I’ll grant anyone that I’m a 30 year old so I may have a bias here but it’s also clear to me that the Charter has impacted my life, including my education, my approach to my job, my relationships with other Canadians and indeed, my understanding of the role of the federal government.

    Is the Charter and Charter history all happy sunshine and lollypops? No, but hey, neither is war. And at least the Charter reflects Canadian values and choices (controversial as they may be), rather than British and American sensibilities. I’d like to link to documents that could help us discuss the role of the Charter and the history of its creation but, you know …

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