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Banner: National Library of Canada 1953 - 2003

Speech by Dr. Guy Sylvestre

(Remarks by Guy Sylvestre, National Librarian from 1968 to 1983, on the occasion of the party for current and former staff members to mark the 50th anniversary of the National Library of Canada in 2003 held on January 22, 2003, at the Library and Archives of Canada.)

My wife and I are very happy to be here with you to participate in the fiftieth anniversary of an institution to which we are deeply attached and of which we have such fond memories. For me, it is also the repository of my personal archives and of my Canadiana collection, accumulated over some sixty years. We think back to the innumerable events that marked the course of this institution  --  I see colleagues and friends here again with whom I was privileged to be associated for fifteen years, individuals who have contributed to the development of the institution during my term and beyond.

When we received Mr. Carrier's invitation, I remembered the celebrations that I organized in 1978 to mark the Library's 25th anniversary. Sir Harry Hookway, director of the British Library at that time, had come for the occasion. He directed one of the largest libraries in the world, a library whose origins date back to the 17th century. He told me then that he was surprised that I wanted to celebrate a 25th anniversary. I replied that when the creation of such an institution had been so long awaited, we could not help but delight in the fact that it had finally been established after such a long wait and that it was important to draw attention to its existence. Twenty-five years later, the institution is still young; however, this is an appropriate occasion to celebrate the past, to evaluate the present, and to plan for the future.

Since Marianne Scott and Roch Carrier will speak after me, I will limit most of my comments to the past.

When I was Associate Parliamentary Librarian in the 1960s, I read the minutes of the meetings of the Standing Joint Committee on the Library of Parliament from the 1840s on  -  a revealing series of documents on the cultural climate of the country in those years. Along with the debates of the House of Commons, they offer interesting information regarding the eventual creation of the National Library and make one wonder about the wisdom of a recent amalgamation.

For instance, when the Historical Archives were established in 1872, with four employees and a budget of $4,000, some members of Parliament suggested that, for reasons of economy, the archives should be moved from the Department of Agriculture to the Library of Parliament. In reply, the then Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, stated that archives and libraries had different functions and should be kept separately, mentioning that, "in England the Archives are kept in a separate place entirely distinct from the Library of the British Museum." The Prime Minister knew what he was talking about.

Talking of Sir John, it is also interesting to recall that, during a debate in the House in 1883, he said, "Canada ought to have a national library containing every book worthy of being kept on the shelves of a library." And he added, "that question should be taken at an early date." Well, we all know that it was 69 years later, on the 20th of May 1952, that Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent introduced in the House a resolution to provide for the establishment of a national library and the appointment of a national librarian. Parliament acted promptly, with a rare degree of unanimity, and the Act was assented to on June 18, proclaimed on December 22, and came into effect on January 1, 1953, 50 years and 22 days ago.

The long campaign for the establishment of a national library is well documented and it was a long succession of frustrated initiatives. During his long tenure of office, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King showed no interest in the topic, and it was only during the last months of his reign that he reluctantly agreed to let Secretary of State Colin Gibson introduce a resolution in cabinet to prepare the way for the establishment of a national library, a task assigned to Dr. Kaye Lamb when he was appointed Dominion Archivist. When he finally gave his consent to the proposal, King told his colleagues in cabinet, "But make sure that it does not cost much money!" This led to the creation of the Canadian Bibliographic Centre in 1950 with the mandate to compile a union catalogue in which the holdings of the main Canadian libraries would be recorded to facilitate the sharing of these resources through interlibrary loans, and to publish a national bibliography.

In addition to Dr. Lamb, the staff consisted initially of Miss Martha Sheppard, Dr. Jean Lunn and Mlle. Adèle Languedoc  -  later referred to by the staff as the three founding mothers  -  who were located in a corner of the room called the museum in the Public Archives building on Sussex Drive, a modest beginning indeed in keeping with Mr. King's wishes. What followed was what Sister Frances Dolores Donnelly in her thesis on the National Library has called "a decade of delayed development" due to the lack of funds, personnel and accommodation. Additional working space was later made available in a satellite Archives building at Tunney's Pasture in Ottawa, but it was only with the erection of this building that expansion of collections and services became possible.

When I was appointed to succeed Dr. Lamb in 1968, the time had come to conduct studies to chart the future, including a feasibility study of electronic data processing in the areas of acquisitions, cataloguing, circulation and reference as components of an integrated library system. This led to the adoption of the DOBIS system [the database of the National Library of Canada], which was replaced later by AMICUS under my successor, Miss Marianne Scott  -  such systems have a relatively short life. This, and other systems, required the development of compatible bibliographic standards if they were to be linked in a national network and indeed with systems in other countries to facilitate and expedite the exchange and sharing of library resources.

Our staff played a key role in the development of these standards in Canada, but also internationally, well above what should have been expected of such a young and small institution. At the same time, on the domestic front, the appointment of subject specialists provided for the better utilization of our own resources in such fields, for instance, as music and children's literature. Our expertise became well known and some of our experts chaired, or took part in, several international committees of such bodies as the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). I was also surprised, but pleased, when in 1978 the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Daniel Boorstin, suggested that annual two-day meetings of their and our senior staffs be held alternately in Ottawa and Washington to discuss matters of concern in systems, networks, collections and services. Later, when asked to write a paper for the festschrift 1 in honour of Bill Welsh, deputy librarian of Congress, I entitled it "The Elephant and the National Library of Canada" in which I quoted the line from LaFontaine's fable: "On a souvent besoin d'un plus petit que soi" [One is often in need of someone smaller than one's self].

When the Conference of Directors of National Libraries was founded in 1974, the National Library's reputation was such that I was elected as the first Chair, a position that I held for four years and to which my successor, Marianne Scott, was subsequently elected. In addition, the activities of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions are planned and co-ordinated by the Professional Board and, after I left, my associate, Hope Clement, was elected to chair the Board. Subsequently, in 1985, when UNESCO decided to prepare a document entitled, "Guidelines for National Libraries" / "Les principes directeurs pour les bibliothèques nationales," after consultation, the task was entrusted to me. The document was published by UNESCO not only in English and French but in Spanish and Arabic as well, and it was distributed worldwide. I would like to point out that if I had suggested that national libraries and national archives be integrated, UNESCO would not have accepted the document or at least would have insisted that such a suggestion be eliminated. What has just been decided in Canada, contrary to universal consensus, proves that no one is a prophet in his own land.

I could talk to you about the information explosion and the development of multidisciplinary research, which make national libraries more relevant than ever. I understand that Marianne Scott will deal with the role of libraries in this new and challenging environment. The information world is an increasing dynamic which has forced libraries to adopt new techniques, and we know now what computers and telecommunications have done for libraries; now we should be concerned about what they do to libraries. We should never forget, however, that if libraries perform their useful functions at any given time, their mission transcends time, and libraries will always have the essential function of preserving and of making available the printed heritage of a nation. This printed heritage is an essential part of the cultural heritage of the nation, just as other parts of that heritage preserved by national archives are vital to the nation’s culture. People may use the resources of other libraries or the information readily made available by commercial or other information services, but most libraries discard publications of every format which they consider obsolete and have fallen into disuse, and commercial information services will not maintain online databases, or parts thereof, which are no longer profitable commodities. National libraries and national archives are the repositories of the memory of a nation, the soul of a nation, and a nation which has no memory or soul shall perish.

On this anniversary of an essential national institution, which is still young and growing, I would like to offer my sincere congratulations to everyone gathered here; we must recognize those who have worked or are still working with competence, dedication and perseverance to ensure the survival of our collective memory, not just for us but for our children and grandchildren.

Best of luck in the future!

1Festschrift: a collection of essays, learned papers and writings contributed by a number of people to honour an eminent scholar.