Digital information making history first person singular

Posted on October 25, 2007


Ian Wilson is the Librarian and Archivist of Canada. His talk is “To hold infinity in the palm of your hand” (from William Blake). The talk is about the opportunity and challenges of internet and search engine (eg google). The challenge is primarily one of stewardship and the relationship with business models. He says that this challenge is about information, and making the information available to people, only then can it become knowledge.


Ian talks about the role of indigenous knowledge and cultural continuity. The professional disciplines have had 200 years of integrating this knowledge with academic structure. We are now testing a new virtual world that is changing what we know in a way not dissimilar to the impact of colonisation: what constitutes authority – wikipedia – authority of group rather than central curator etc.

Call for a new sort of information structures. Context becomes critical yet territorial and subject boundaries diminish. Strategies for new forms of search, yet archives must be maintained as evidence. The importance of integrity of content is not lessening.

He is talking about the structures of Canada’s integrated libraries and archives. With a huge amount of information – the documentary memory of Canada. Two challenges:

1. Materials in different forms – what do they do with facebook?

2. How to make experience same for people all over Canada, not just in Ottawa.

David Bearman observes that the Canada project raises themes that will be re-examined during the conference. David calls it virtual repatriation – looks like our talk will fit perfectly!

They currently have 50 terrabytes online “and this is growing rapidly”. Perhaps the most important work now is not the growth in size but building links between different sources. Also different media – links between television and the web.

Some of the effects of this:

Democratising the research process

Is this changing Canadian history?

History is becoming first person singular.

Library moving from being most inaccessible information to most accessible.

So now need to move beyond exploration phase. What is goal? Currently developing information strategy.

Now need a new level of literacy: how to avoid (and what to do when) get request from high school student “please send me everything you have on World War I”.

Trying out new ideas, key is building links. Being careful to respect copyright but is not restricting. Working hard to turn grey words into public material (low level government reports, orphan works, think tank reports). Role of libraries and archives to build secure system of looking after community knowledge.

In conclusion: not about hardware and software, is about community information and the transformative societal impact that this can have. Powerful potential.

David Bearman observes that this community building has an important component: virtual repatriation. Looks like our talk will fit in perfectly!

Leonard Steinberg: who is the guide to information? (WWI example). Wilson: Google’s search capacity has not progressed much for some years. Important that taxonomies etc continue to develop. Corporate email structures behind in this area but need is more pressing so serious research will happen in this area.

Question about open source: accessibility versus business models. Yes, would like to see some professional debate.

Wendy Deft: brilliant question about role of community as generator of community heritage… can her daughter send her pictures? Can do it herself. Archives still working on criteria for inclusion. Anyone can put up anything they want. Difficulty with privacy laws eg veterans affairs put up a war memories site for people to submit to, degenerated into families arguing about who had right to publish material on government site.


Posted in: heritage, ICHIM07, museum