Library & Archives Canada : Access Denied?

As we continue this series on the crisis at Library and Archives Canada, and its effect on how any library will be able to provide the people in its community with access to their heritage, here is Professor Ian MacLaren’s letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, from the Edmonton Journal, September 13, 2012:

“As a proud Canadian, proud Albertan and sometime supporter of the current federal government, I recently wrote in distress to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

I did so as a scholar who has spent years researching and publishing about pre-20th-century British expeditions seeking a Northwest Passage. Canadians know this to be an interest of Harper and his government’s.

My distress arises out of his government’s gradual, imperilling withdrawal of funding needed for the efficient operation of Library and Archives Canada. Staff have been cut and service hours sharply diminished, the purchase of materials has been curtailed and loan policies have been cancelled outright.

Scholars from other cities, provinces and countries coming to Ottawa to do research have had their inquiries go unanswered and their trips to Ottawa end in failure to access any records because of the dearth of staff to either reply to correspondence or fill standard requests to see records.

The organization is in utter disarray. In the past half-dozen years, Library and Archives Canada has so deteriorated, it is failing to fulfil its legislated mandate.

The national library was founded in 1953. Its most recent charter, the Library and Archives Canada Act (2004), states one of its chief purposes is to acquire and preserve “the documentary heritage” of Canada. Books and unpublished manuscripts like letters and other documents are the eyes through which we see our country.

The budget cuts have been so deep and capricious as to suggest no understanding of what Library and Archives Canada should be.

The result will be the devastation of what Canada is, as a concept and an idea and as the very real place in which we lead our lives and raise our children. To dismantle a nation’s library and archives is to shoot a bullet through its temple.

A personal example illustrates the value of the library and archives to Canadians who, like the prime minister, take an interest in this summer’s search for John Franklin’s ships, the Erebus and Terror, off King William Island. Earlier in my career, in the 1990s, I was involved in locating two books of watercolour sketches made by George Back, a midshipman who served under Franklin during the first of his overland expeditions to the Arctic.

These sketchbooks, which I found in a house in Gloucestershire, England, contain the first known pictures of any part of Alberta (the lower Athabasca River and Fort Chipewyan. Some of these were published in a book, Arctic Artist, in 1994).

Because Back had been in the Arctic five times, on canoe trips and ocean voyages, he was the paramount adviser to the Admiralty during the search in the 1850s for Franklin’s lost expedition. With William Edward Parry, Back remains a towering figure of 19th-century explorations of what now forms our Canadian Arctic.

Although private collectors wished to obtain the two sketchbooks, I discussed with their owner the possibility of opening negotiations with Library and Archives Canada so it could bid to obtain them in advance of a public auction. Working with staff, we succeeded in effecting the sale.

These priceless documents and works of art now reside in Ottawa, where they belong. But will anyone ever see them again?

Intentionally or unintentionally, Harper’s government is conducting what amounts to a search-and-destroy campaign against Library and Archives Canada and thus against the cultural memory of Canadians. Think of it as brain surgery performed on us, to deprive us of or deny us access to our memory. That would amount to a shocking withdrawal of our ability to function.

This is an issue of deep importance to all Canadians. The prime minister must be urged to take measures to reverse the brutal withdrawal of the levels of funding needed to keep the national library and archives from becoming a disgrace in the eyes of Canadians and of foreigners wishing to research Canadian subjects.

Surely, Harper is too great a fan of our history, too proud a Canadian to let this happen. Surely, he will not want Canadian history to remember him for this.

Prof. Ian MacLaren, University of Alberta, Edmonton”

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