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Canada’s “memory institutions” need to collaborate on digital standards and strategies

New CCA report says libraries, archives, galleries and museums must embrace digitization to remain relevant.

By NATALIE SAMSON | FEB 04 2015

A new report reveals that there is no uniformity in how Canada’s libraries, archives, galleries and museums are adopting digital technologies and practices. On Feb. 4, the Council of Canadian Academies released Leading in the Digital World: Opportunities for Canada’s Memory Institutions, a report commissioned by Library and Archives Canada to look into the current state of digital practices and processes at “memory institutions” and how these institutions – libraries, archives, art galleries and museums – can remain relevant in an era of digital communications and emerging technologies.

According to the report, there are more than 1,400 public-sector memory institutions. However, there are significant differences in the size and scope among these establishments, with the majority employing fewer than 10 employees. (The report notes that there are also several small private-sector and not-for-profit memory institutions operating in Canada.)

Doug Owram, a professor of history and former principal at University of British Columbia Okanagan, chaired the 13-member expert panel that produced the report. In an interview, he said these variables have led to a lack of consistency in the type of digital platforms, software and standards used by institutions and in the rate at which they’ve been adopted. He likened the situation to the development of electrical outlets around the world. “Why do we have outlets for different voltages? Because that’s just how it evolved.”

Collaboration “is one of the great opportunities of the digital age,” Dr. Owram said. However the hodgepodge digital landscape has hindered the ability of institutions to work together. The report notes that libraries are the exception as they tend to have the resources necessary for innovative in-house digitizing projects. As well, they have benefited from an industry push to standardize electronic publishing practices and from a long tradition of collaboration in the library community.

Digital technologies are as much the solution as they are the problem in this regard. The report trumpets the use of open-access practices and open-source software as relatively inexpensive vehicles for standardization – an important consideration as memory institutions face severe financial restrictions. “There’s a tension between resources available and the time and effort put into digitizing,” Dr. Owram said. “[Memory institutions have] fallen behind on the digital side because they’re simply trying to do their jobs.

“It’s a digital world now, and they [institutions] need to approach it that way,” he added. This means memory institutions must undergo significant cultural and structural change or become irrelevant to their user base. According to the report, the prioritization of digital projects must be “fully integrated into management decisions” and should lead to a refocusing of resources and of staffing objectives. It also highlights the need for leadership around creating basic technical standards to be followed across the board, particularly at Library and Archives Canada, which, despite already working at full capacity, must work quickly to preserve a growing volume of digital communications.

“Think of how many records are created by the government of Canada on any given day: an email, a tweet, some data, a report,” Dr. Owram said. This wave of information means any new set of industry standards must set clear guidelines for the role of the author in the record-management process (through metadata tagging, for example).

It also means these staid institutions must embrace the risk that comes with making such fundamental changes. “People get hung up on risk,” Dr. Owram said. “The real risk is not doing anything. If you don’t move into the digital realm while the rest of the world does you become marginalized.”

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