Interview with Doug Owram, FRSC, Chair of the Expert Panel on Memory Institutions and the Digital Revolution
What does a museum look like in the information age? Should blog posts, Tweets, and online videos be archived for historians of the future? How does a library or art gallery connect with an audience that expects information to be instantly available, 24 hours a day?
The digital age has meant big changes for our memory institutions. Many of the systems we use to document our cultural heritage simply don't work for electronic communications. At the same time, digital technology offers exciting new opportunities to re-shape the relationships between these institutions and the publics they serve.
Leading in the Digital World: Opportunities for Canada's Memory Institutions is a Council of Canadian Academies report that outlines these opportunities, as well as the challenges that are causing Canada to fall behind other countries. Doug Owram, Professor and Former Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of British Columbia Okanagan Campus, led the international Expert Panel that put together the report. He addresses some of its findings in the Q&A below:
Are Canada’s memory institutions keeping up with the digital revolution?
Memory institutions are trying, but the digital revolution moves very quickly. Many of them are struggling to deal with the sheer volume of data and the pace of technological change. There’s also the issue of public expectations: these days, people can access lots of information instantly online, and they want to be able to do the same with historical records. Right now, by and large, they can’t.
Libraries are a bit further down this road; books and many services are now offered online. In contrast, many archives are much smaller and therefore simply don’t have the resources to do a huge amount of innovation. There are exceptions: for example, Vancouver City Archives has systems that allow the public to search records digitally, and to link different types of records together.
In fact, in the early stages of the digital revolution, Canada was a leader internationally; for example, it established the Virtual Museum of Canada. But now I would say that we’re behind some other countries. The European Union, the United States, Australia, and others all have systems in place that we could learn from, from online historical collections like Europeana and the Digital Public Library of America to “telepresence” robots that allow people to explore museum collections virtually. There’s very little of that here in Canada.
What is at risk of being lost if we don’t adapt to digital technology?
If you have a letter from a politician of the 19th century, it can sit on a shelf for a long time before you need to decide whether to catalogue or preserve it. Today, there’s a tsunami of information coming out of the social media world, made up of Tweets, emails, blog posts, and more. If a server goes down, or if the technology to access material becomes obsolete, that material can easily disappear forever. The same is true of government records, many of which are now created electronically.
Obviously not every Tweet is important, but historians generally don’t know what will be valuable in 10, 50, or 100 years. You need to find some system to at least preserve the material until you have time to decide whether or not to let it go.
What advantages are there to going digital?
The most obvious advantage is that you’re free from physical constraints: you get 24-7 access from wherever you live. This makes it easier for historians like myself to assemble a coherent story from records that are scattered across the country. But it also democratizes history. Now the amateur enthusiast or family genealogist can explore records from anywhere, without the vast expense and time it once required.
Even if you’re not a history buff, the ability to link the textual record to photographs, videos, or other media helps the past come alive in new ways. That’s important in terms of building Canadian culture and our sense of self-awareness.
If there are so many benefits, what’s holding memory institutions back?
Obviously, digitization is expensive to do, and while in the long term it could provide some savings, in the short term it’s a strain on resources. Canadian public institutions have been squeezed, so I don’t think we can expect dramatic change quickly. On the other hand, if the digital transition is successfully managed, it can build public support, which translates into more resources.
Another barrier is that these conversations are happening in silos. If institutions band together and build partnerships, they not only share resources, but they ensure that the new systems will be compatible with each other.
Again, libraries are somewhat ahead of the curve: for example, Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) has proposed a national research data infrastructure, though it hasn’t been built. But as of yet, there is no national organization to really coordinate this effort for all memory institutions.
What do you hope the response to the report will be?
We hope Canadian memory institutions will take our message to heart and start building the kinds of partnerships we discuss in the report, which have been so successful elsewhere. This would include talking to members of the academic community, because they are the primary users of these new systems and services, so they can play a crucial role in creating support for it. There is a whole host of non-governmental organizations that need access to government documents, so they have a role to play as well. And it’s even possible that some private sector organizations will see possibilities here, working in partnership with public institutions, to help develop some new and exciting ideas.
We know that people care about their past: in one survey we cited, 95% of Canadians felt that it is important that Canada’s documentary heritage is preserved for future generations. Politicians and decision-makers need to know that, and to continue providing support, not just to sustain things as they are, but to encourage and hasten the digital transition. If action isn’t taken, we’re going to fall further and further behind.