After a last walk around Kingston (where I finally did see some coffee shops ‘downtown’), including partaking of a whole punnet of absolutely fresh raspberries, I caught the train to Ottawa.
This was a gorgeous trip, and so much nicer than flying yet again. The trip is about two hours, with the tracks more or less following the Rideau Canal which links Kingston and Ottawa. The canal is quite an engineering feat, and a tour guide said that something like 1000 Irish labourers lost their lives during its building. Even when we were away from the canal, there were ponds everywhere – in between lush forests, fields of hay either standing or stooked, and so many wildflowers along the tracks that I lost count of colours. I was travelling first class (not particularly expensive, but made it easier for me to read some Library and Archives Canada documents on the way), and was astonished to be served a three course meal, complete with hot towel. I think I outraged the Francophone waiter by refusing wine – but it was only noon!
After I’d settled in, my friend and NLA colleague Monica Berko (who has been seconded here for 12 months) collected me and we took an Ottawa summer evening walk through the city and around the canal.
Two hours sped by as we chatted 19 to the dozen about what our last year had held, both on the work and family fronts. It was great to see a friendly face, and I was very grateful to Monica for helping to smooth the way for my meetings here.
First thing on Monday morning, I walked the five minutes from my hotel to the Wellington Street building of the Library (it is spread across a number of locations) and met Chris Kitzan, who is responsible for LAC’s very extensive online exhibitions, among other things. This meeting immediately showed me a quite significant difference between LAC and the NLA. The National Library of Australia puts a lot of time, intellectual effort and investment into its onsite exhibitions – curated by ourselves or by others – and our exhibitions, lovely restaurant and bookshop bring many visitors to the Library. Our online exhibitions are – in general – online supports or equivalents for our physical exhibitions. They provide access to a relatively small number of digitised collection items and are quite ’boutique’.
LAC, by contrast, has relatively few physical exhibitions, and those exhibitions display interpretive panels more than original collection material. On the other hand, LAC has produced more than 100 thematic online exhibitions (most have no physical equivalent), and many of these are supported by very extensive databases of hundreds or even thousands of documents, images and artefacts. While I was in Kingston I realised that most digitisation by Canadian institutions is done under the auspices of government funded grant programs, and that these programs are always directed at a particular theme or narrative. The National Library of Australia does not have access to additional grant or other funds for digitisation, and we tend to digitise large chunks of our collections, rather than taking a selective approach. We do relatively little interpretive work – LAC does much more.
LAC’s brand new home page makes this clear, with these thematic online exhibitions holding centre stage on the page. I especially like this very cute exhibition on geology, Life of a rock star.
The National Library of Australia’s website emphasises services, and while users can find our online exhibitions, these are not what we principally promote. It is very interesting to see the ways in which different funding models influence service decisions. Canada has access to substantial digitisation funds – so long as certain narratives are told. Australia does not have access to digitisation funds – so we tend to digitise the collection and allow our users to tell their own stories about it.
After meeting with Chris, I met Roanne Mokhtar who currently has a dual role. She has been the business project manager for LAC’s database integration project for the last three years, but has recently returned to her ‘home’ in providing reader services. Roanne ran me through recent changes in onsite services – including reading room amalgamations – and we swapped notes on reference services, staffing and industrial issues, and where they think they are heading next. Talking about reading room amalgamation was particularly interesting for me, as the National Library rethinks the way services are delivered onsite. Because this was a fairly detailed discussion, I’ve written the nuts and bolts up elsewhere for further discussion back home.
I was especially interested to hear about LAC’s Genealogy Research Centre. LAC has moved from a position of having genealogy specialists to having a dedicated reference room, a dedicated staff of 11, and indeed a genealogy strategy to meet the needs of family historians. Roanne noted that 50-60% of all onsite visitors are doing family history. LAC is trying to prepare for an expected ‘onslaught’ of family history reference enquiries when a local version of the British ‘Who do you think you are’ television program is screened later this year. Colleagues in Britain had warned them that the increases in reference eqnuiries were huge – the UK National Archives had a 74% increase in website traffic following the screenings, and a 25% increase in reference queries, and 3 years later have still not ‘recovered’ – so at least they are forearmed. I think it’s time to find out whether there is an Australian version in the pipeline somewhere…
Monday afternoon was a busy one for LAC staff, so I had some free time. I planned to walk to the Museum of Civilisation, tempted by what Chris Kitzan (who used to work there) had told me. Forty minutes walking on a very hot day got me as far as the National Gallery, and the Museum was still far in the distance, so I stopped for a different culture fix.
I had every intention of spending my time in the Canadian galleries, but with an exhibition of 72 Renoir landscapes on offer, what was I to do? Well, I chose the Renoir, and really enjoyed seeing works in a different genre to the portraits I have been used to seeing. Alas, the various exhibition goodies were much too heavy to bring back with me, so a few postcards had to suffice. On the way back I admired Ottawa’s ‘Westminster meets the Chateau’ architecture,
and enjoyed the street scenes. There was quite an exciting spectacle as I passed a large chateau, now the Fairmont Chateau Laurier.
There had clearly been a real fire – not just an alarm – at the hotel, and there were fire engines, ambulances and police everywhere. It was clear that nobody had been injured and I assume the damage was not too great (I could smell smoke as I passed, but there were no spectacular scenes), and it was great seeing the guests and the staff milling around sharing jokes, cigarettes and passing the time.
Tuesday morning saw me heading across the river to Gatineau, where LAC now has its main office accomodation for staff,
and its spectacular preservation building.
In Kingston Ontario I had heard quite a bit of French on the street, and some signs were bilingual. In Ottawa, I heard as much French as English on the street and all signs were bilingual (Rue Wellington Street, for example). Across the river in Quebec, all signage was in French, most of the people I met were French speakers, and I kept feeling that I needed to explain the disconnect between my French sounding name and my total lack of French (although I found my Spanish was helpful for reading the signs!).
My first meeting was with Gerald Stone, Director of Intellectual Management. We discussed a number of standards issues and the challenges of bringing two communities using different standards together. I then met again with Roanne in her ‘other’ role with LAC’s collection management systems. This was a long and detailed conversation (again, written up elsewhere – too much technical stuff to put here). The discussion gave me a very good picture of the challenges that LAC has faced in trying to bring together the infrastructure and databases that used to belong to the Library and to the Archives when they were separate institutions. The cultural and industrial issues here were formidable, and so are the technical challenges. To illustrate this point – LAC are bringing together the library catalogue with no fewer than 140 archival databases. In developing their ‘care of collections’ module for the merged system – which covers circulation and location – they are having to deal with 52 different control number types. Anybody who has lived through a data amalgamation project (I am one of them) will shudder at the thought! Each of the institutions had its own user registration systems, collection description systems, circulation modules etc. etc. You get the picture!
I was very impressed with the vision and the determination to really integrate previously existing infrastructure, and to develop modules which had not previously been in place. The Canadian government has invested a very, very large sum of money to achieve this vision – over and above regular funding – in part to address an Auditor-General report finding that existing systems posed some risk to collection safety, and because Canadians are very conscious of the need for government to be accountable to its voters. Inevitably, with such a big project, LAC has significant issues in being able to ‘ramp up’ to achieve the desired outcomes, and to find the right staff to make it happen.
In the middle of the day I had a quick meeting with Ingrid Parent, the senior staff member in charge of all the areas I was meeting with. Ingrid sent her best wishes to her ‘opposite number’, Pam Gatenby, and to the Director-General of the National Library of Australia, Jan Fullerton. We had a good chat about new developments at the NLA – and the benefits and burdens of keeping a blog!
On Tuesday afternoon I had the privilege of touring LAC’s amazing preservation facility and repository. I doubt that my photos will do any justice to the building, which is as fascinating inside as it is out. Built in 1997 (and with LAC still very happy with it), the building consists of an inner concrete core (housing the vaults), and an outer glass shell which houses the people and the preservation labs. The latter is built on a ‘town’ metaphor – there is a town ‘square’, there are street signs, and a very colourful village atmosphere. All partitioning etc. in this area if fully modular – a bit like Lego – which means that it can be easily reconfigured to meet new needs. In 1997, for example, digitisation was hardly thought of. Now that it’s a full scale production, the building configuration has been changed to house the various digitisation activities.
I was very impressed by the preservation labs themselves – and imagine that my colleagues at the NLA are wild with envy. But of course it’s the ‘stuff’ I most loved, and I so enjoyed being taken into vault after vault – vaults for photos, paintings, books, film, and of course manuscripts where those brown boxes made me feel homesick. These vaults really are incredibly clever in every way. Each is separately powered and watered – completely independent of the others in case of disaster – and has a shelving profile to suit the particular material. All are temperature and humidity controlled – again according to material type – and I could only sigh at the challenges which the NLA’s beautiful but not particularly easy to environmentally control building poses us in our efforts to keep our collections safe.
I also met with preservation manager Pierre Gamache and staff to talk about the development of the collection management systems as they pertain to preservation. This group is working on the preservation module of the system – something which did not previously exist in either the Library’s or the Archive’s systems. Like the National Library of Australia, preservation information – preservation surveys, treatment reports, notifications of material needing treatment, records of exhibition – is essentially kept in paper files. There are plenty of problems with this approach. One is that it’s easy for an institution to ‘forget’ what has previously occurred. We had an example of this in Manuscripts recently. With various retirements, we almost ‘forgot’ that a full survey of the state of the Manuscripts collection housing (boxes and folders) had been undertaken back in 2000. The survey had not been used to direct rehousing actions in the intervening years, and we were taking an ‘ad hoc’ approach to this task. Eventually, the survey was dug up, its tables were converted into spreadsheets, we updated those spreadsheets to record what had happened since 2000, and we now have a clear rehousing plan for the next few years (and the survey had been saved to our electronic records system so it is harder to lose in the future!). LAC has also encountered exactly these kinds of institutional forgettings, and the new module is aimed at ensuring that all preservatin information about the collections is stored and updated in the collection management system. The NLA also identified this as a need last year, but this need is some way down our ‘list of priorities’ in terms of improving our collection management.
Wednesday dawned hot and hazy, so I decided to take my walk at 6 am, hoping for some cool. Vain hope! It was already very hot and sticky, and I was glad to walk along the Ottawa river, where the sight of water gave the illusion of cool. It’s a lovely walk, with many bridges visible across the river, ducks floating along, verdant vegetation along the path etc. I climbed the 267 steps (who said I was counting!) from the river path up Parliament Hill (quite a ‘bluff’), only to find that the gate to the lawns behind Parliament House was locked… 45 minutes later, I returned to the hotel hot, sweaty and in need of air-conditioning!
I headed back over to Gatineau, and met with Jennifer Svarckopf – whom I had met at dinner on Monday night – who walked me through the MIKAN system for archival collection management. MIKAN supports the creation of registration, accession and description records for archival collections in multiple formats. I paid very close attention to this demonstration (yet another separate report!), and was wildly envious at the functionality available to archivists at LAC. Jennifer, of course, reminded me that I had not yet spoken to the people who had to use the system! MIKAN is web-based and relatively easy to use – but its performance is not always what users might desire, and some users find that moving between functions can be slow. Jennifer also made the point that in moving to this system (from a range of previous collection management systems), staff are now required to enter more information and to adhere to higher standards. This inevitably slows some aspects of work – but I can see that the benefits are enormous and believe it would definitely save time overall.
An interesting feature of this system is that descriptive records – finding aids – are visible to the user as they are are being created. The public can effectively see finding aids are they are being created, rather than the NLA’s (and most institution’s) workflow of the finding aid only being visible once it is finished and ‘published’. The advantage of this system is that users may find what they want long before the finding aid is actually completed. I can see a lot of merit in this approach – especially in our environment where we will taking a much more ‘nuanced’ approach to the level of description required. Finding aids are never really ‘finished’ – collections grow, details change, description is fleshed out – and acknowledging this by letting users see the description as it is being built is an intriguing idea. It has, or course, been a hard change for many LAC archivists – used to presenting a finished ‘product’ – to come to terms with.
For an idea of what the results of this system are, try a search for Pierre Trudeau on the archives onlyoption of LAC’s search module. See the rich options for navigating to particular material types, to online content from the Trudeau collections (a particular bugbear in our digital delivery systems), to material by date etc. on the right side of the page. Choose the Trudeau fonds at number 2 in the results, and see how the user can navigate to different series, view the entire hierarchival structure etc. You’ll see that some sub-series are still ‘in process’ for description, but the user can view what has been done so far. The user can also navigate easily to unprocessed accesssions relating to the same donor.
This is light years ahead of what the National Library of Australia can offer – but certainly gives us something to aspire to!
Bob McIntosh and colleagues kindly took me to lunch nearby where we enjoyed great conversation about Australian and Canadian people, politics – and especially food! Mireille Miniggio – Director of the Cultural Heritage Division of the Canadian Archives and Special Collections Branch (which Bob heads) – is clearly as passionate a cook as I am, and sympathised that I had been without a kitchen for two and half weeks. I get antsy without a kitchen for even a few days, so feel a cooking storm coming on when I get home.
After lunch, we returned to the LAC building, and I talked to a group of collection managers about original materials collection development, management and access at the National Library of Australia, concentrating on the new directions we are taking in several of these areas, and the ways that our institutions are different. We have quite different structures. The biggest difference – it seemed to me – is that there is a big emphasis on subject specialties in the Manuscripts area (not so much in the pictorial and audio-visual areas). Separate small groups are responsible for particular subject areas, for example politics and government, or literary arts, or social heritage. At the NLA, we are much too small for such specialisation and work across all subject areas. Similarly, at the NLA all original materials staff tend to work across the areas of collection development, management and reference (this is especially true in Manuscripts, where staff rotate between three functional teams on a regular basis). At LAC, there are processing archivists and reference archivists – with the subject specialists providing high level reference expertise. These kinds of divisions – and the divisions between librarians and archives – are partly the result of a very different industrial landscape. In the Canadian federal system, job levels and pay rates are effectively set by profession, with different unions covering different professions. This means that the new amalgamated LAC reading rooms might be staffed by a librarian and an archivist on any particular shift – and they will come under different awards, have different payscales, and be covered by different unions. This is a long way from the Australian Commonwealth, with its relatively flat structures, its agnostic work levels, and enterprise level agreements. I could see that the industrial landscape is a formidable barrier to LAC’s desire to integrate its functions and to build a new culture.
I am glad that the discussion seemed to be of much interest, and I was able to answer questions across the collecting areas. Everybody at the table agreed that they really all need to come to Australia to check out our collections and collection management – Bob could see his travel budget for the next 10 years being spent I think! On our way out, Bob introduced me to LAC’s children’s literature specialist – and she too realised she had to come to Australia to see the Lu Rees Archive of children’s literature and our own lovely holdings.
And that was the end of this incredibly valuable and learning-rich odyssey across six cities in two countries in less than three weeks! Tomorrow morning I fly to San Francisco (this takes most of the day), and then have an overnight layover before taking the long flight back across the ocean. I will be home by Sunday morning – so I can see for myself the amazing spectacle of rain, rain, rain, full dams and a topped up Lake Burley Griffin!
Thanks again to the Friends of the National Library of Australia for financially supporting this trip. It has been incredibly useful, wonderfully timed, and I am confident that we will see real plans and achievements in our collection management over the next few years.