Leslie Weir leads Library and Archives Canada into a brave new future

Leslie Weir is the Librarian and Archivist of Canada.

This is a pretty exciting time to lead Library and Archives Canada.

The repository of the many treasures that make up this country’s historical record is about to undergo a major makeover.

There are two major building projects underway. There is the much publicized new joint facility, shared with the City of Ottawa, which will open in 2024 or 2025 at the latest. And construction has begun on a new state of the art facility in Gatineau that will house a large part of the country’s burgeoning paper trail.

Leslie Weir, the recently appointed Librarian and Archivist of Canada, is observing all of this from her perch in Gatineau. She can see the cranes that are hard at work on the site of LAC’s new preservation centre, known as Gatineau Two. The project cost, which includes construction of the new facility, improvements to the current preservation centre vaults and project funding, will be about $330 million. The new centre, which is said to be the largest such facility in the world, is expected to open in 2022.

Construction is under way on a new preservation centre in Gatineau. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada.

When you get new buildings, it’s a good time to reconsider and reorganize the collections across LAC’s storage facilities.

There are five in the National Capital Region and Renfrew, she said. That includes 395 Wellington St. and a former Zeller’s facility in Gatineau along with the two state of the art facilities in that community. Part of the collection is housed in Vancouver with another in Winnipeg that contains military records in Winnipeg.

The collection is massive: There are more than 22 million books, 250 kilometres of text records, three million maps and architectural plans. 30 million photographs and 600,000 hours of audio and video recordings. LAC has a collection of war medals, the Canada Post stamp collection from beginning of Canada and largest collection of historic art in the country. They also hold government records for 176 departments and units.

One wonders if the prospect of this organizational project would spark some joy with Marie Kondo. It certainly seems to engage Weir.

“What we are doing is looking what materials are best kept in which facility as we prepare to move some of the collections into the new (what she calls) Gatineau Two.”

A rendering of Gatineau One and Gatineau Two, aka the White Diamond. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada.

The existing preservation centre known as Gatineau One is now more than 20 years old. It has conservation and preparation laboratories and expert staff who can repair, restore and preserve artifacts. She said Gatineau Two, which is a public-private partnership with Plenary Properties Gatineau, will be a high tech storage facility.

“We are calling it the White Diamond because it is a white building and will be much taller than Gatineau One. It is in the shape of a diamond.

“It will be packed with storage containers that, when filled with documents, will weigh a ton.” A computer operate crane will be able to locate and move the containers into an area where staff will be able to access materials they need. The new building will also be carbon neutral.

“It will be one of the biggest such facilities in the world.

“This is the most exciting time I could come to Library and Archives. There are two major building projects and one of them is an extremely innovative collaboration with a city government. I don’t think there is any such facility anywhere in world.”

The total costs of the joint library facility are estimated at $192.9 million — $174.8 million for the building and $18.1 million for an underground parking garage. Library and Archives Canada’s portion is estimated to be $70.6 million. The City of Ottawa will contribute $104.2 million of the building and $18.1 million for the parking garage.

“I have to say we have a collaborative team doing all the planning for new building and they work so well together.

Weir also believes the new joint library, which will be located on land near LeBreton Flats and OC Transpo’s Confederation line, is embarked on a unique consultation with the public and stakeholders. She believes that because of that process the new building with function based on the interests and needs of the users.

This is a look at 395 Wellington St. the current home of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

Weir started at LAC Aug. 30, replacing Guy Berthiaume. She came from uOttawa where she ran the university library. Before that she held positions at the National Library of Canada and the Statistics Canada Library.

She has a background in virtual access to library collections. She is interested in digitization. Weir is one of the founders of Scholars Portal, the state-of-the-art research infrastructure in Ontario universities. She was president of Canadian.org, where she oversaw the introduction of the Heritage Project, in collaboration with Library and Archives Canada, to digitize and make openly accessible some 60 million archival images. Weir was also president of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries from 2007 to 2009.

“I am interested in the other ways that Canadians will be able to access our collections and services. We are located physically in Ottawa-Gatineau, but most Canadians aren’t. They need to be able to access us and our collection where they live. That is a high priority for me.

The web is already LAC’s biggest service point.

“We have millions of accesses each month through our website. Whereas we only have about 30,000 visits at 395 Wellington. In the new joint facility we are expecting between 1.7 million and two million visits a year. That’s quite radically different. I think that the services you have on site and virtual services can work together to create a rich environment and one can improve the other.

“So as you develop on-site services, that will have an impact on our presence on the internet.”

This watercolour was painted by Robert Hood during the Franklin expedition 1819-1822. It is part of LAC’s massive collection of historic art. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada.

Weir is not only thinking about Baby Boomers when she eyes the new LAC presence in Ottawa and online.

“There is research that has been done recently that shows that millennials tend to read more than their parents which is interesting. It’s not an impression that is out there. As well, millennials visit libraries more than any other past generation.

“They are also digital-born. They don’t know a world without some form of digital. I am interested to look at how we can transform our services and our virtual presence to really respond to what the current generation’s expectations are.”

Millennials don’t expect the library of the 20th century, Weir said. They expect the library and archives of the 21st century.

“Everyone at LAC is really keen to look at how we can make our collections and services more accessible and to highlight our collections so that people now what we have. If people don’t know we have these collections, then they don’t know to come and visit them.” A digital representation just might bring them to look at the real thing, she believes.

“We are at early stage of the transformation. The new joint library will open in 2024. or more like early 2025.”

She says she wants service transformation at LAC to be driven by users.

Right now, she said, there is a healthy relationship with genealogists, historians, authors, public and private researchers and academics.

“But as we move in with the Ottawa Public Library, more Canadians from youth to new Canadians to entrepreneurs” and ordinary folks will see it.

“All kinds of different people who may not realize what LAC is and may never have visited 395 Wellington will be coming and we need to find ways to understand what their expectations are.”

She is spending a lot of time in public attending events including those held by the Ottawa International Writers Festival and at the National Arts Centre.

“I’m a strong believer that we are partners with the creative communities, be it authors, filmmakers, non-fiction writers and bloggers. It’s important for me to meet them in their world to extend my own network.

“I am certainly a reader and a public library user but I have wide range of cultural interests.

Her undergrad degree was in history followed by a Masters in Library Science. Her first job was in a public library in Montreal where she was the adult circulation supervisor and got to know the public very well.

She then moved to Ottawa where she got into “the backroom side of being a librarian.”

She worked as a cataloguer in technical services and learned much about how information should be organized. That, in turn, led to an exploration of technology. She eventually become what she calls a systems librarian.

The proper care of such collections as LAC holds is, for Weir, “a massive responsibility. Without those things democracy would falter. Information is key to creating knowledge and moving forward to wisdom. In that, libraries play a key role, as do archives.”

This is critical in a time when the proliferation of data is massive. The data created in 2008, she said, equalled all the data that had been created in the world to that date.

“Since then the increase has been exponential each year. I would suggest that one of the biggest challenges people have these days is that there is too much information and that it is difficult to find the information people are looking for.

“We do also see a certain trend in which people would like to hear only the information they agree with.

“Libraries and archives play incredible role in making sure we have all the stories, all the perspectives so that we don’t end up with one-sided views about anything.”

For example, she said, Library and Archives understands that many of the stories told about Indigenous peoples in Canada were told by the colonial powers. Just as the stories of women were often told by men.

To reach other communities, such as First Nations, “it’s all about how open and flexible the people in an institution are. We have been working very closely with Indigenous communities for quite a long time.

“We have a project called Project Naming. We had thousands of photos of Indigenous people and places that were important to Indigenous people but the photos didn’t name the people. We are working with communities to put names to the people in the pictures.

“We are also doing a major project with Indigenous communities on the preservation of Indigenous languages. We aren’t there to tell them what to do. We are there as equals and to help us learn how to do these projects.”

LAC is looking at how to make its services more responsive and the collections more relevant to all people and stakeholders.

One way LAC does that is through social media.

“LAC has gone quite a big way into social media. It’s a great place to promote the collection and spread the word about what is going on. At same time you can reach people in their communities.”

LAC has done a number of different campaigns, she said. For example during the Olympics they pulled out historic Olympic information. A similar campaign happened during Canada 150.

They have digitized the records of the Canadian Expeditionary Force from the First World War. Some 640,000 documents are now available publicly.

This sketch of Mackenzie King and his dog Pat was done by Arthur Lismer, a member of the Group of Seven. It was on view during the exhibition Prime Ministers and the Arts: Creators, Collectors and Muses at 395 Wellington. It is likely the last one to be held in the building. Courtesy Library and Archives

“We even released Wolverine’s record: (The Marvel comic hero) began his military career in the CEF. That went viral.”

LAC’s social media is pretty much given free rein, Weir said. “They don’t have to go through the normal layers of bureaucracy. They come with ideas and they just do them. They do have awareness of circumstances such as if there is an election. You don’t do anything that would affect the election.”

Otherwise, “I have trust, as does leadership. We let them go. Of course, if something does blow up, I have their backs.”

Getting the message out digitally is important in part because exhibitions in 395 Wellington are coming to an end, she said.

“This is a big challenge for us because 395 Wellington really does not have an appropriate exhibit space.”

The room that has been used to host, for example, exhibitions of documents connected to Canadian prime ministers, does not have proper environmental controls.

“It is dangerous for us to put materials in there, so we will slow down for now. We will have a gorgeous exhibit space in the new joint facility. LAC will get to program about 80 per cent of the time.

LAC will continue to lend from the collection, she said, and there are exhibition areas in other institutions including the Canadian Museum of History, the National Gallery of Canada and in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.

Weir believes the new joint building will be a catalyst of interest for LAC.

“I think having opportunity to be in a public library that is heavily used with a wider range of visitors than we are used to (will help LAC) and where we, as a major research library and archive can have a major impact on their services.” Both LAC and the Ottawa Public Library will be richer, she said.

“I think it will create an exciting destination in Ottawa.” Weir said that on Jan. 23, the outside look of the building will be revealed. Up to now there have been some early schematics released.

Weir is serving a four-year term so unless she gets a second term, she won’t see the finished facility as the head of LAC.

Still, her appointment is significant. She is the first woman to be the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, but Weir doesn’t put much stock in that.

Marianne Scott was the first female head of National Library of Canada. I worked for her. To me it’s equally important that I am actually the first librarian to head up Library and Archives Canada. My predecessors were historians or archivists or economists.

“That is a different contribution that I can make. My predecessor Guy Berthiaume did incredible work bringing LAC to the community, the nation and the world. I am thrilled that I get a chance to build on that.”

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.