Leading in the Digital World: Opportunities for Canada’s Memory Institutions (H2)
Dr. Doug Owram, Chair of the Expert Panel on Memory Institutions and the Digital Revolution
Article by: Nicole Askin
Libraries have to evolve to meet the needs of a world in which the digital is fundamental to both the creation and access of information. However, this “digital tsunami” is equally applicable to other cultural institutions like archives and museums. Dr. Doug Owram presented a very engaging talk on the conclusions of the Expert Panel on Memory Institutions and the Digital Revolution.
Dr. Owram is a historian and took a historian’s perspective in outlining the fundamental progression of technology and information: new technology, whether it is the printing press or the Internet, both increases the volume of available information and changes the methods needed to access and use it. There are three basic problems with digital information: the sheer volume, its ephemeral nature, and its changeability. Without an effective means of searching, the majority of digital material cannot be found, and erodes over time, with 27% vanishing in its first year of existence. This lack of accessibility is combined with a lack of authenticity, because the “original” is so difficult to track and preserve.
According to Dr. Owram, Canada was initially a leader in the use of technology by memory institutions, but has now been outstripped by others both large and small, even though Canadians continue to be among the most active users of digital information. There are individual pockets of innovation, but Canada has three barriers to broader action: scale – small institutions and a lack of resources and expertise; systemic – division of jurisdictions and lack of cooperation and leadership; and legal – copyright law unsuited to the digital environment. We need boldness and leadership in order to overcome these barriers, and the need is immediate.
Improving access to quality information is the traditional purview of the library and the possibility offered by the digital world: to bring forward voices yet unheard, to connect individuals with institutions and their collections. There is some loss of control inherent to this process, but with careful management there is also the potential to mitigate problems that have plagued cultural institutions, such as providing a balance between the desire for repatriation of artifacts and for education. It also allows for even greater public engagement and participation.
Our largest libraries have the potential to take on that leadership role in helping to push forward Canada’s digital strategy. It is these institutions that have the resources and expertise, the ability to bridge the federal-provincial and public-academic divide. However, we can go even further by providing for the convergence of memory institutions: a central, even national digital strategy supported by collaboration on a scale we have not yet seen in Canada. This would require resource (re-)allocation by individual institutions, national leadership (perhaps from LAC or CLA as a catalyst), an openness to collaboration and the changes needed to permit it (such as technical interoperability), and most of all an immediate commitment – the cost will only increase as time passes.