Fifteen years ago now, on May 21, 2004, the Privy Council adopted the order to put in force An Act to establish the Library and Archives of Canada. With this, the will of legislators became a reality. In many ways, the new act broadened the horizons of a unique organization.
The nascent organization was both a reflection of the past―the result of a decade of preparation―and a promise for the future, due to the challenges Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is called upon to overcome as well as the original defining traits that characterize and support its future development.
An idea gains traction
Let’s rewind a little. In the 1990s, Canadian society was undergoing important changes and pressure was growing for LAC’s two predecessors, the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada. On the one hand, the organizations faced expanding requirements linked to a documentary explosion and the rise of information technologies, which transformed both their practices and their roles. On the other hand, the Government of Canada was dealing with a high deficit and launched a review of all programs, which drastically reduced available funds.
As digital technologies became a new method to both distribute and access publications and archival documents, an urgent question arose: How can we better meet the needs of Canadians? By 1994, the idea of combining the two institutions began to circulate. Historian John English considered the idea in 1999, but rejected the proposal in favour of a closer collaborative relationship between the two institutions.
At the same time, a parliamentary commission was examining the role of the Canadian government in terms of heritage. The commission’s report, presented at the dawn of the new millennium, focused heavily on digital technologies, championing Canadians’ access to the documentary resources necessary to create a knowledge-based society. Additionally, the recently appointed leaders of the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada were fostering increased collaboration between their organizations.
With these dual driving forces, combining the two institutions into a single one became a real possibility and was announced during the 2002 Speech from the Throne. The legislative process was not completed until May 2004, but along the way the merger gained the support of most professional associations and organizations in the industry.
As a result of this journey, the new institution’s motto was to be a “knowledge institution” that promotes Canadians’ access to their documentary heritage. This approach was depicted in LAC’s logo, which combined an inuksuk with the slogan “Knowledge is here.”
Four cornerstones of a unique institution: Library and Archives Canada
In the course of its development, four specific characteristics emerged to enable the new institution, LAC, to face future challenges.
The first two characteristics were political. First, there was the integration of the two institutions into one by virtue of the Act―a rare phenomenon in the field of documentary heritage. It was also pushed forward by Ian E. Wilson, National Archivist, and Roch Carrier, General Administrator of the National Library of Canada―who sought to group functions into a single internal structure, an approach that remains new to this day.
The second political characteristic was the insertion of a new concept into the Act: documentary heritage. This concept, the result of an international evolution, is a key connector between archives and libraries. By integrating professional practices, especially digital, it calls for collaboration in preserving and providing access to documentary heritage.
The two remaining characteristics were organizational in nature and consolidated the institution. First, internally, a program titled Transformation aimed to analyze both professional settings in order to generate a common ground and, in the words of Ian Wilson, “seek commonalities rather than differences.” Second, externally, both the National Archives and the National Library had been collaborating with other organizations across the country since the 1990s. As changes began to sweep through both institutions, several consultations took place with partners, whether they be professional associations or organizational networks. As such, the community itself was invited to work with and support the new institution throughout the process. These exchanges ensured that the project moved along relatively smoothly, which certainly contributed to its successful transformation.
In short, in 2004, a new path opened up for this institution tasked with preserving the collective memory of Canada. And while the challenges were many, and still are, LAC not only managed to carve out its unique place in the world, but it is better equipped than ever to move forward.
|“As a single institution we can show that by putting our collections and expertise together, by developing services and programs to meet the needs of Canadians, we have taken steps to ensure the strongest contribution to the advancement and quality of life of Canadians. We are all responsible to make the potential of LAC happen.”
Ian E. Wilson, at a general assembly on June 8, 2004, a few days after the proclamation of the Act.
Read more in the article titled “The Birth of a Unique Institution” published in the latest edition of Signatures.
Alain Roy is a Policy Advisor at Library and Archives Canada.