LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

March 2013

 

The following two articles are updates on the status of changes at Library and Archives Canada, and how these changes are being interpreted by critics as limiting the access of academics, genealogists, and the public at large, to its Ottawa-based materials.  Also, fear is expressed that because of the changes in determining what historical materials will or will not be acquired by LAC, the future of our national documentary heritage is in jeopardy.

First Article is by Joseph Hall, News reporter for the Toronto Star, Published on Sun Mar 10 2013 :

“Many of his comrades were sick from fouled water after breaking camp on Lake Erie that fall.

But as his 21st U.S. Infantry Regiment prepared to attack Canada, — perhaps at Montreal, though Kingston and Prescott were also rumoured targets — Sgt. John Bentley took time in late September 1813 to write a four-page letter to his wife back in Thomaston, Me.

With a price tag of $1,500, that War of 1812 missive was offered for sale as a quill-and-ink first draft of our history.

The body charged with accumulating and preserving such Canadian artifacts turned it down.

It also rejected a collection of personal narratives from fugitive slaves in Upper Canada dated 1856. The same goes for the correspondences from 1836 to 1839 between senior British officials on the state of Indian tribes in the colonies.

Indeed, since 2009, Library and Archives Canada hasn’t wanted a whole lot of the historic letters, journals, books and maps it once collected so dutifully, critics say. It has also, they charge, stopped collecting a comprehensive array of this country’s current cultural and artistic output and limited the access that academics and genealogists have to its Ottawa-based materials.

And as of February, it’s barely even lending out books anymore.

A decade-old service, LAC’s interlibrary lending program gave libraries across the country access to its unparalleled Canadian book collection, a reservoir that includes at least two copies of any piece of literature published in the country since the 1950s.

The lending volume has been declining, in recent years, but LAC still loaned out more than 20,000 books last year through the program, says James Turk, head of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

“And the Library and Archives Canada just cancelled it, full stop.”

That “full stop” is not an entirely accurate description of the LAC policy, says Daniel Caron, the organization’s head. He says discussions are underway to ensure books are still travelling across the country.

In the meantime, Caron says LAC will continue to provide electronic search engines that allow outside librarians to find books and documents in other centers.

But only if searches of all other libraries show the sole copy rests in LAC stacks, will the national centre lend it out. The decision to radically alter its lending program is the latest twist in what many Canadian librarians and academics see as a deliberate move by a secretive federal government to gut the institution, this country’s equivalent of the U.S. Library of Congress.

“The Library and Archives Canada is most assuredly being dismantled,” says Turk, whose organization is helping lead a growing pushback.

“Every country, their equivalent of the LAC . . . is a national treasure,” Turk says.

The first blow, Turk says, came when the decision was made after Caron’s 2009 arrival to alter LAC’s mandate to collect and keep the full gamut of the country’s cultural offerings, past and present.

“They are moving to a much narrower approach. They use terms like ‘well, we’re going to have a representative acquisitions model. We’re going to have essential documentary heritage.’ ”

The problem with eschewing the comprehensive collection model, Turk says, is we don’t know now what might prove “essential” decades down the road.

“Fifty years ago, had there been this approach, we may not have collected material about residential schools, for example.”

Caron, however, says that in its various incarnations over 140 years, LAC has never been completely comprehensive, a task he labels impossible.

“This idea of comprehensive . . . it was a dream,” says Caron, whose budget took a $9.6-million hit over three years in the 2012 federal budget.

“We had a collection (in the past) that was built differently because in (the) . . . pre-digital world, we were able to control to some extent the printed environment,” he says.

The digital world is changing the picture. Caron points, for example, to LAC’s six-decade old legal right to receive two copies of all books published in Canada – a practice which continues today.

With the proliferation of electronic media, however, the organization has much more material to choose from than ever, and has to be more “selective,” he says.

“It’s not everything that is of enduring value,” Caron says with understatement “We need to have the tools to be able to appreciate, to appraise, to evaluate what is being produced there.”

Moreover, Caron says, electronic materials give LAC a new opportunity to be more rigorous and revelatory with its collections, not less. It can now, he says, go beyond government documents and newspaper stories to blogs and other electronic analysis, to chronicle today’s important events for future generations.

Caron admits, however, that the experts needed for this web-based archiving have not yet been hired. And he does not know when they will be.

“These competencies honestly are not easy to find on the market,” he says.

In the meantime, Caron says he has “invited” current LAC archivists and historians, used to dealing in the analog milieu, to help on the electronic retrieval side.

Caron also points out that there are 800 archives and some 25,000 libraries in Canada that can help serve as a collective repository of our culture and history.

But with its perceived reluctance to purchase materials from our past, LAC is also directing important pieces of Canada’s shared history into private hands, experts say.

First offered to LAC, the Bentley letter, for example was later sold to a private collector.

Liam McGahern — who sold the letter — is president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of Canada and says collectors in his organization would routinely offer their Canadiana finds to the national archives first.

McGahern, however, says LAC placed a nine-month moratorium on such purchases in 2009 to assess their acquisition policies.

“And really since that started they’ve really just stopped,” he says.

Caron says LAC is still acquiring historic material, although with a more discerning eye.

He suggests that previous regimes often spent money unwisely, with materials of questionable historic value being purchased simply because “year-end budget” surpluses were available.

“Someone told me once that seven copies of a rare book is not too many copies,” he says.

Caron says LAC has now implemented protocols to judge the historical importance and rarity of materials to best use its budget. But that budget tells a story.

In 2008-09, before Caron’s appointment, LAC spent $385,461 on historical items. In 2011-12 it spent nothing; in the 2012-13 fiscal year it spent $12,000.

But critics say the shift they see in collecting strategies also take LAC down a different path than its U.S. and European counterparts, where a more comprehensive approach continues to be sacrosanct.

“The whole world is going through modernization and digitization,” McGahern says. “But the great libraries, the Library of Congress, the British Library, they’re still actively engaged in acquiring things. You can’t document and archive and digitize what you don’t have.”

The Library of Congress’s acquisition budget hovered steadily between $18 million to $19 million annually from 2009 to 2012.

Critics also charge LAC has limited its hours and redeployed its seasoned archivists from specialty to generalist roles.

As a result, Turk says, many requests for information, from historians or genealogists for example, go unanswered. Hours reductions, staff cuts — from 1,192 in 2009 to 946 this year — and a decentralization of collections have added to the headaches, Turk says.

And LAC’s move to a new, digital age is far too slow in coming, Turk says.

Caron admits that, even now, only about 1 per cent of his collections have been digitized, but says priority is being given to those materials that are most in demand.

Caron also says some of the digitization will also be farmed out to private-sector and non-profit groups who donate to the archives.

Critics believe LAC’s perceived diminishment is symptomatic of the current Conservative government’s reluctance to divulge information of any kind.

As Ottawa shifts to electronic record keeping and communications, Caron says LAC will rely more on officials to decide what materials to send to his collections.

“People are working on Twitter, they are working on Facebook, they are working on many social media,” he says.

“And so we force them to say ‘if it is a decision that is of importance, if it is something that has enduring value . . . you need to bring it to us, so make sure you keep it.’ ”

How much Ottawa will keep and share has become a burning questions with some top librarians, who worry its move to online-only access by 2014 can lead to a loss of information by government fiat.

“You can take down the content or whatever before (we even) notice,” says Sam-Chin Li, government publications librarian at the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library.

Li and colleagues at the University of Alberta had to scramble to save documents from a federal aboriginal website that was shut down with minimal warning last month.

Many would be tempted to use LAC budget reductions — from $172.64 million in 2008-09 (which included some special capital costs) to $117.7 million in 2012-13 — to explain changes made at the organization, Turk says. But that would be a mistake.

“For what they’re cutting Library and Archives Canada they spent more than that ($28 million) in their celebration of the War of 1812.”

 

Second article: Canadian Library Association Responds to Article on LAC in Toronto Star:

CLA submitted the following Letter to the Editor of the Toronto Star, in response to a recent article featuring Library and Archives Canada (see above article).

“Letter to the Editor

The Toronto Star

In response to the story on Library and Archives Canada (see story above), the Canadian Library Association (CLA) is deeply concerned about the significant reductions being made within the institution.  The changes being implemented as part of LAC’s modernization plans (e.g. the sharp reduction in purchased acquisitions), in addition to cuts to services and activities due to their 2012 budget reduction (e.g. ending interlibrary loan services), result in the inability for LAC to meet its mandate.  Public stewardship of Canada’s documentary heritage, ensuring the long-term preservation of materials and facilitating access to them, is central to LAC’s mission.  Decisions such as ending interlibrary loan services are being taken unilaterally, and consultation with stakeholders on how to fill the service gap only happen once the decision has been made.  The future of our national documentary heritage is in jeopardy.  CLA was founded in 1946 and one of our first activities was advocacy for the establishment of a national library; the National Library of Canada was established in 1953.  Sixty years on, we must continue to advocate for a strong national institution that has the capacity, both financial and professional, to meet the mandate set out in its legislation.  Dr Caron does not have to look far for people with the competencies to manage documentary materials in the new digital environment:  they are librarians and archivists.

Pilar Martinez

President, Canadian Library Association”

 

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