The Review/Short Read/

Sharing Histories and Building Narratives

How libraries, archives and museums help us define our communities

A view of the archives in TIFF's Film Reference Library

by Michelle Lovegrove Thomson
Nov 16, 2017

The next time you stroll through the aisles of your local public library branch, tracing the well-worn or still-crisp spines of hundreds of books, let it register that each book is a record of human intellect and creativity. Every book, film, photograph, zine, or sculpture that you find in your local library, archive, or museum is a record of human creativity, and an expression of what was valued and collected at a particular moment in history.

In our digital age, the role of libraries, archives, and museums has been a topic of increasing examination by information professionals, scholars, and pop-culture critics alike. With a vast stream of information readily available on our always-on devices, what is the relevance of these brick-and-mortar strongholds of culture and heritage? What role can and do these institutions play in fostering artistic practices and providing access to shared histories by preserving cultural artifacts?

To consider these questions, a national cohort of 20 emerging library, archives, and museum professionals will convene at TIFF Bell Lightbox on November 20 and 21 for a symposium titled “Connecting Communities + Cultures: The Vital Role of Libraries, Archives, and Museums in the Arts.” This event is presented as part of Reel Heritage, a multi-year initiative at TIFF to educate audiences on the importance of the preservation of film and moving image-based collections in our communities.

During this intensive two-day symposium, participants will partake in professional development opportunities focused on communication and audience outreach strategies, leadership and career development, and building networks and partnerships; they will also visit local libraries and archives to meet with mentors in their field, and discover case studies and programs from GTA-based libraries, archives, and museums (LAMs). More broadly, they will examine and consider the vital role of libraries, archives, and museums in the arts, and in doing so will dive deeper into the underlying questions regarding the structures and mandates of these institutions. Through a series of panels, workshops, and group discussions, participants will be encouraged and supported to also consider the role of LAMs as memory institutions.

“Memory institution” is a term used within the practices of information, knowledge, and curation to describe the nature and function of libraries, archives, museums (and galleries). These organizations facilitate education and community-building, and function as keepers of public memory. They collect, preserve, exhibit, and interpret heritage materials that catalyze imagination, cultivate knowledge, and solidify our understanding of our shared cultural histories. By safeguarding and providing access to cultural artifacts, LAMs provide the space and resources that encourage us to question our assumptions, preserve and confront the past, and challenge our perceptions of a canon.

What gets collected, preserved, and exhibited — and who makes the decisions in these matters — is a complex question, and one that is essential for emerging professionals to discuss. Contemporary LAMs are confronting the truths of a colonial past (and present) by examining their collections and activities. From reviewing cataloging ontologies and acquisition policies in the context of postcolonialism, to the repatriation of artifacts that were taken from the original creators/keepers, and rearticulating a vision for outreach programmes, leaders in the libraries, archives, and museums sectors have been actively interrogating the roles of these institutions in the context of a burgeoning reckoning with the past.

In response to funding cuts to the arts and social programmes under the Harper government, an increase of newcomers and refugees, nascent commitments to reconciliation with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples and the complexities of a “born digital” era, organizational initiatives such as the Canadian Federation of Library Associations report, Library and Archives Canada’s Ottawa Declaration and the RSC Expert panel on the Future of Libraries and Archives in Canada have outlined a path forward. These recommendations include providing educational programmes and services that are relevant to contemporary communities, building infrastructure to improve delivery of online resources and access to digital collections, and increasing partnerships and collaboration between institutions.

Magazine browsing and reading section in the Film Reference Library

Students and emerging professionals are now poised to take on this vision for the future, thanks to these road markers established by associations and leaders in the field. TIFF as well has a twofold role to play in moving this vision forward. Firstly, as a memory institution that maintains a library and archive to preserve Canadian cinematic history; and secondly, as a cultural institution committed to providing opportunities for learning, creation, and media literacy for audiences of all ages.

With the “Connecting Communities + Cultures” symposium, we hope to open a space and conversation that responds to the multifaceted elements of 21st-century society: an information and media-rich digital culture capable of embracing and highlighting multiple narratives from an array of voices and histories. Libraries, archives, and museums are community-led beacons shining a light on shared histories, and in doing so are articulating an inclusive and accessible path forward.

Members of the public are invited to join symposium participants on Monday, November 20 at 7:00pm for a screening of Bill Morrison’s documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time, which recounts the discovery and preservation of a cache of forgotten nitrate films that were unearthed in a swimming pool in the Yukon.

Reel Heritage is supported by the Government of Canada and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.