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After years of austerity, Library and Archives Canada is ready to (re)meet its public

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Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity

Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity

This May, the Pellan Room at Library and Archives Canada hosted the launch of author Heather Menzies’s Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, a memoir in which the former head of the Writers’ Union of Canada recounts her Scottish ancestors’ lives on traditional common land, and how their way of life can inform the way we live today. It was the first launch held at the library in about a decade.

Menzies’s book was an apt choice for this event because the word “common” – which originally connoted “shared alike” and “together-as-one” – now more than ever underpins what the Ottawa-based archive does. In years past, the library was a hub for major literary and cultural events, from book launches to exhibitions and concerts. Its ground floor buzzed with activity. Now, following six years of austerity measures that saw massive budget cuts and a hold on new acquisitions, LAC is once again becoming an animated place and a force in the arts community. In staging the Menzies launch, LAC not only celebrated Canadian literature, it also marked the library’s attempt “to reclaim its position as a cultural commons” by offering book launches, lectures, symposia, and exhibitions, including this summer’s Alter Ego, which examined the relationship between comics and Canadian identity.

LAC resumed public programming in March 2015, less than a year after Guy Berthiaume, a historian and university administrator, was appointed to the position of librarian and archivist of Canada. The renovated Pellan Room, on the second floor of LAC’s flagship building on Wellington Street, plays a major role in the renaissance. Since reopening in April, the space has become a go-to site for cultural activities and public events, which so far have included a presentation by David Fricker, the director general of the National Archives of Australia; talks on the Digital Public Library of America and the modernist Yiddish poetry of Montreal’s Jacob-Isaac Segal; and a seminar revealing what goes on behind the scenes at LAC during a federal election. But the room, which is flanked by two murals created by the celebrated Quebec artist Alfred Pellan, serves as more than just an event space. It also provides an inviting refuge for visitors who seek a quiet place to relax with a book.

Forming partnerships is another top priority at the renewed Library and Archives Canada. Berthiaume says building bridges with partners and stakeholders is the way of LAC’s future, because it is impossible to have every document in one place. Partnerships have been arranged with numerous institutions, including the University of Ottawa, Dalhousie University, the Canadian Museum of History, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, and Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, which last year signed a unique agreement with LAC that allows BAnQ to provide digital publications directly to the library. This will result in up to 10,000 digital publications from Quebec publishing houses being added to LAC’s collection over the next two years.

With public programming now resuming, on the horizon is the renewal of ties between Library and Archives Canada and the Ottawa International Writers Festival, which will see ongoing collaboration in the form of book launches – Alexandre Trudeau and Jane Urquhart appeared this fall – and other activities. “As somebody who loves the arts, I welcome any opportunity for authors and audiences to interact,” says Sean Wilson, the festival’s artistic director. “I am thrilled that Library and Archives Canada is once again open for public programming.”

Berthiaume says he also is exploring a partnership between LAC and the Ottawa Public Library, and is committed to renewing ties between LAC and the Canada Council for the Arts. (The Canada Council was a sponsor of Heather Menzies’s book launch this spring.)

In its recent annual report, Library and Archives Canada refers to the year 2015–16 as “the year of achieving remarkably.” With the forging of additional partnerships, new public programming, and the completion, in 2018, of LAC’s most ambitious digital project to date – the digitization of the service records of 640,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who served in the First World War – Library and Archives Canada is poised to once again regain its place as an important cultural hub. “I am looking forward to building new relationships and finding new ways of working together, for the common good of all,” says Berthiaume.