Vancouver Sun, July 7, 2012
“Library and Archives Canada has cut a program dedicated to helping local archives develop and preserve their collections. As of February 2013, the national archive will no longer be part of Canada’s countrywide inter-library loan system.
These cuts to Canada’s national memory-keeping institution passed last week in the government’s omnibus budget bill.
The deputy head of Library and Archives, Daniel Caron, says he’s doing his best to keep his department “relevant to a new generation of Canadians,” but some archivists fear the cuts will build a wall around the archive’s information.
In the lead-up to the budget, the Conservative government asked Caron – and every other federal department head – to identify potential cuts. He was asked to cut at least 10 per cent of his annual $114 million budget. Caron – the first economist to lead the national library – says he wasn’t surprised by the request, and had begun planning a “new vision” for the agency in 2009, when he took over the portfolio.
In a recent speech, he told the Canadian Library Association’s annual conference the arrival of the Internet had changed the rules of the game.
“Information is overabundant and increasingly ephemeral,” he said.
In contrast with online research, when a library user consults maps or fragile documents at the Library and Archives building in downtown Ottawa, they have to be careful. The rules require patrons to wear white gloves when handling rare documents, such as a 1742 report to British Parliament by explorers who thought they’d found the Northwest Passage, or a 1608 map of the habitation of Quebec, drawn by French explorer Samuel de Champlain.
While Caron says those bits of Canadiana will continue to be preserved, he feels the focus of a 21st century Library and Archives Canada must be to give as many Canadians as possible the chance to access the information they want online.
FOCUS TO BE ONLINE
The government agency’s research shows that in-person visits to the marble-floored building are down to 2,000 a month, whereas online visits to the Library and Archives web-site are at an all-time high, consistently reaching half a million in the same time frame. Caron’s plan is to ramp up digitization – at the moment, only five per cent of the collection is avail-able in a digital format – so anyone, anywhere can see the collection.
Archivists, librarians, the Canadian Association of University Teachers and groups of researchers have begun letter-writing campaigns denouncing the cuts, which amount to $9.6 million over the next three years. They say the changes won’t result in better access because digitization – to be done well – is expensive, time-consuming and requires a lot of staff.
But staff were another casualty of the recent cuts.
LOCAL ARCHIVES TAKE A HIT
The Association of Canadian Archivists has said the changes will make it harder for local communities to create museum exhibits with a local flair for Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017. They point specifically to two changes. In February 2013, Library and Archives Canada will no longer send its documents by inter-library loan to local branches throughout the nation. And, effective immediately, the $1.7 million National Archival Development Program founded in 1986 by the Mulroney government has been discontinued. It employed experts in every province and territory to provide guidance to small archives, helping them expend and develop their collections.
However, Caron, who has worked in the department for 10 years, said funding local archives is not within his department’s mandate. He called the cuts to the NADP and the decision to stop the Inter-Library Loan program a sign of the times.
While he says the department will continue its work in preservation, he says he’s focused on another great challenge – one that libraries and archives around the world are facing – the daunting task of collecting, preserving and archiving Canadiana that is only published online, such as Tweets, blogs and web-publications.
Anna St. Onge, York University’s Archivist in charge of digital projects and outreach, says librarians and archivists are acutely aware of the challenges – and the opportunities – the Internet presents to their respective fields.
But, St. Onge cautions that Caron cannot allow the goal of devising a way to preserve the present to overshadow the work still to be done in archiving the country’s past.
To be useful in a digital format, St. Onge says archival documents must first be correctly identified, organized and labelled so that “in five years, 20 years, or a 100 years, people can benefit from the information in well-kept records.”
“It’s expensive. It’s tedious. And, it’s necessary,” she said.
DIGITIZING THE PAST
In order to speed up the process of putting the national archives collection of maps, books, audio recordings, portraits, videos and every publication ever printed in Canada online, Caron says his department is already exploring the option of using private contractors to “digitize on our behalf.”
Although the details of the plan are not yet final, Caron says, the goal will be to digitize records that Canadians request “on demand.” He said the archives would be able to process the request for free within, for example, three to six months, or, if the client needed the document sooner, they could pay.
Archivists agree a move to digitization is important.
The National Archival Development Program made it a priority. In the program’s 26 years, many community archives used the NADP’s project funding to make digital copies of their holdings. The program also required participants to put their collections into a central database so people outside the region would know what they had available. A new database was supposed to be launched this fall. It has been put on hold.
Caron says a new program, the Pan-Canadian Documentary Heritage Network, created in 2009, will replace elements of the National Archival Development Program but will not provide any funding. Instead, it will bring the librarian and archivist community together to collaborate and share resources. For example, he said, the network could make a series of You Tube videos that describe how best to preserve certain types of documents. Volunteers working in small archives could then watch them to learn how to properly safe-guard their records.
For many, however, those measures won’t replace the relationships built through programs like the National Archival Development Fund. “We appreciate the need for austerity, but it’s a question of how these cuts have been made,” said Brian Masschaele of Ontario’s Department of Community and Cultural Services. “There are ways to make cuts that minimize the effects on communities – if they had taken the time to consult, we could have suggested other cost-saving measures.”
“The NADP has a massive impact on our ability to tell our story as a rural community,” said Masschaele, the department’s director for Elgin County.
In 2003, Elgin County successfully applied for a $5,700 NADP funding contribution to preserve the records of Alma College, a local independent girl’s school. After the federal government agreed to fund the project, lending what Masschaele called “legitimacy” to the project, donations flowed in from alumni and corporate sponsors. When the school burned down in 2009, Mass-chaele said the records “are all that’s left of what used to be a very important institution in our community.”
“We couldn’t have done it without that seed money from the federal government.”
For St. Onge at York, the loss of local archives creates a democratic deficit. “You don’t know how much you need archives until you need them,” she said. In addition to preserving raw data useful in legal disputes, St. Onge said well-kept records allow citizens to evaluate policy and buttress their arguments with documentation. “The ability for anyone to do this kind of research allows Canadians to tell their own story, to map the passage of their families across the vast country and to paint a picture of the nation as it used to be, in order to understand where it is now.”