Library and Archives’ Dr. Guy Berthiaume prepares to leave the building

Dr. Guy Berthiaume is leaving his post as the head of Library and Archives Canada this month. Photo: Peter Robb

Canada’s Library and Archives (LAC) contains some 22 million published documents from books to magazine. That equates to 250 kilometres worth of paper.

The oldest book in the collection is a Latin translation of Josephus‘s history of the Jewish people. It’s part of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection and it is precious to Dr. Guy Berthiaume.

The National Librarian and Chief Archivist will officially leave his post on Aug. 29, but before he departs he spoke to ARTSFILE about his time at LAC. 

Berthiaume is an historian; a classicist to be more precise, who delved into the world of the Greeks and Romans.

“Ancient Greece spoke to me a lot, it still does. Of course it’s very occidental-centred but in the way I was brought up, the Greeks and Romans defined our values. We have grown out of that today but their legacy is still something fundamental for us. 

“And it’s something that has allowed me to understand myself better.”

His term was actually up on June 22, but he was asked to stick around until the incoming CEO of LAC was available. 

He is being replaced by the first woman to hold both jobs, Leslie Weir, who is coming to LAC from her post at uOttawa.

Berthiaume left academia to head the Quebec Library and Archives which is located in Montreal. It is the only other such institution in Canada and it was a natural move for Berthiaume to come to Ottawa when he was headhunted in 2014.

“I thought the headhunters didn’t have to go far to find me,” he said with typical understatement. “I knew that it would be a challenge, but I thought I could make a difference.”

LAC is the repository of Canada’s story. Along with the millions of documents, the institutions holds 425,000 pieces of documentary art from portraits to sculptures to globes to posters. It is the national portrait gallery. 

“We have medals. We have every single stamp ever created in Canada and we have seven petabytes of electronic documents, that’s seven million times War and Peace. That gives you roughly an idea of how much we have. It’s overwhelming when you think of it.”

The big question that has driven his time at LAC was: How do people get access to their history?

“We have made a lot of effort to make all of these things available. First of all, we do  exhibitions and our own programming. And, I also felt that if the mountain wasn’t coming to Mohammed, we had to create partnerships with other major museums” to showcase the collection. So now there is an LAC room at the Museum of History now.

“We also have a wall at the National Gallery of Canada to show our photographs and for the past two years we have been in a partnership with the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. 

“We have our own room there and that is where we show the portraits from our collection. I always felt very guilty that the portraits were in the vault in Gatineau. Some have been on the website but the experience of being physically in front of the portraits — that’s something different.

This summer LAC has opened its third exhibition at the Glenbow.

LAC also has travelling exhibitions including one on the Metis experience that is called Hiding in Plain Sight which has been going from small venue to small venue across Western Canada for a year.

Today the truth is being questioned and alternative facts are part of the public discourse. But knowing history can help sort the wheat from the chaff. And that makes an institution like LAC vital as a reference point for people.

“This is something I totally believe. We held a series of roundtables (which included Facebook and Google, he said) on misinformation and fake news last year and this year across the country. The point I was trying to make in these events was the fact that museums, libraries and archives have a relationship to the truth that other institutions do not. We should be included in a conversation about truth and information.

“If you look at opinion surveys libraries and archives are way up there in terms of trust and respect. So, it is a good thing if we can leverage that to get people interested in our online material and ultimately the actual archives in Ottawa.

“The more people who see our stuff online, the more they show up at our door.”

It is a strategy being employed around the world, where, Berthiaume said, “the numbers at museums, archives and libraries are up.

“We are creating an appetite with the web, but there is a different feeling when you are looking at an original paper document.”

LAC is currently pushing to digitize its collection. Right now about 1.9 per cent has been digitized. 

He makes the point that digitization is not an end in itself.

“At some point we would be digitizing the phonebook. It would be waste of money to do it all. It’s like emptying the sea.” 

The U.S. National Archives has digitized only 1.2 per cent of its massive collection. His goal is to get the most important stuff on line.

“Our professionals do feel very strongly that they are responsible for making key documents available so people can use them properly.”

Still, “I was hoping to make our national digitization strategy more sustainable. Today it is like a co-operative with other large archives and museums who are members. We  share what we have done in common but I would have wished to find a way to find more sustainable funding for it.”

In the process of making documents available in this way, there is also a responsibility on the shoulders of the professionals to determine the veracity of the documents.

“That’s a big deal and we don’t take that lightly. And the fact that we hold so much is also a responsibility.”

So there is, he said, an on-going, never-ending debate at LAC about what to keep. In fact LAC only keeps about five per cent of what it gets. 

“Can you imagine if we kept it all, every email ever sent in this city? I call that killing history, if I were to give, for example, historians of the future eight billion emails describing one federal department’s work over a couple of years.”

So, the archivists work with departments, for example, to “come to understanding of what they feel is important and we then try to keep only what’s relevant. It is challenging and it is a big responsibility, but if we were not doing it, the consequences would be worse.”

Another key initiative of his time was to make LAC part of the new city of Ottawa main library now expected to open in 2024. 

“This is very exciting on so many different levels,” he said. 

“First is the way we are going at it. Instead of picking an architect based on a design, we have chosen a firm and asked them to talk to the people and listen to them about what they want in the building. Only after we have really heard them will we design the building.”

This process has proven to be very successful when used, most notably in the very popular Halifax library.

“We have had two series of consultations with full houses every time.”

From the perspective of LAC, the project fits right into Berthiaume’s prime focus on access to the collection.

“The idea of opening up the collection is something that began turn of this century. National libraries used to be the private preserve of researchers and grad students.” No longer. 

And it works. The British Library gets some 1.5 million visitors a year. They have exhibitions and an extraordinary reading room. That example got him thinking, “this is something we should do.”

At present LAC’s public face is house at 395 Wellington St. in “a fine example of brutalist architecture,” Berthiaume said.

“And it is brutal. It is difficult to draw people in. It makes you feel as though you are climbing a mountain, that gaining entry is something to be attained and achieved.

“In Montreal, we were on a major hub of the subway. People could get in our door without actually going outside.”

That lesson came with him to Ottawa.

I was all about access. I wanted people to know what is here.”

The current building at 395 Wellington is 52 years old now and it has outlived its usefulness as a public space for LAC. 

Berthiaume was looking around for a solution and when the city started to move on its library project he reached out, thinking that federal involvement might seal the deal. 

“Now it really has a life of its own. I am looking forward to the opening in 2024.”

It’s not to only major development, Berthiaume is connected to. Much of the collection is housed in Gatineau and what he called phase two of the preservation campus there will open in 2022.

“With institutions, you start something and somebody else cuts the ribbon. It’s all good.”

He has no regrets. He will be 69 in the fall and is not looking for another job, he said. But he’s will to serve if asked on commissions and committees “if people think I can be helpful.”

LAC’s reading rooms will be in the new central library. There will also be exhibition space and an auditorium to hold such things as conferences and book launches. The most requested books and publications will be in the new facility. The rest of the collection will most remain in 395 Wellington in the stacks that exist underground and in the top floors of the building.

Floors one through five will be repurposed by Public Services and Procurement Canada.

One thing that these floors will not become is a Portrait Gallery, he said.

“It won’t work as a gallery,” he said, too many windows and too much natural light.

Berthiaume will leave with many treasured memories, including the time he held Josephus’s book in his glove-covered hands and considered its significance.

“It’s a multi-cultural story as well. Josephus was Jewish but he was also a Roman citizen. He wrote in Greek and we have a latin translation. There are layers and layers of significance for me.

“It is very moving to see these things.” 

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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.