Recently the Government of Canada and the management at Library and Archives Canada have made a number of changes to how Canada’s national library and archives operate. Many of these changes are a great concern to historians, librarians and archivists. I have decided to post a letter that I wrote earlier this week to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, James Moore, and Canada’s national librarian and archivist, Daniel Caron, in order to emphasize what I see as some of the key problems with the recent decisions that their institutions have made.
Dear Minister Moore and Dr. Caron,
I am writing to ask you to clarify the government’s position on how Library and Archives Canada’s modernization plan will be affected by the recent cutbacks. As I examined the Department of Heritage’s explanation of these cuts and LAC’s desire for increased digitization and accessibility, I see several contradictions that appear more as a public relations exercise than any real change. Digitization of archival records is an important process that will certainly benefit the public and make LAC’s holdings more accessible, but only if it is done right. Below I have listed some of the contradictions that I find in your policy; I hope that you will be able to help me understand how you reconcile them.
- Digitization as a cost saving measure: Digitization is certainly a cost saving measure for researchers and probably for long-term access, but I fail to see how it can save the government money as these projects begin. This process requires either subcontracting to an outside firm or the acquisition of new and expensive equipment, the re-tasking and training of staff, and now continual maintenance of both physical and digital records. I do not understand how this can be accomplished under your current plan, which will see a reduction in digitization and circulation staff at LAC by over 50%. To do this right, I would think that LAC will need to increase its human and capital resources, rather than reduce them.
- Digitization as a successful strategy for increasing access to the archives: I applaud these efforts, but I worry about what place archivists will have under this new model. When I conducted my PhD research I benefited exponentially from the digitization of primary source material. These efforts kept my costs down and allowed me to conduct a more thorough and detailed research project than would have been otherwise possible. I could only do this, however, because of the deep knowledge held by the archivists at LAC and elsewhere. Digitization presents a host of new challenges to libraries and archives. The online environment requires new organizational strategies. The organization of digital archives and particularly the creation of new finding aids (the work of archivists) will be key to making these documents truly accessible. Indeed, just yesterday I attended a lecture by the national archivist for the United States, David Ferriero, who has begun a series of innovative web-based projects. One of his central arguments was that access to archivists and reference librarians remains a critical service for the US National Archives. Digitization does not reduce their importance. In this context, it alarms me to learn that LAC plans to eliminate 21 of 61 archivist positions. This decision will make archival resources less, not more, accessible.
- Visits versus consultations: In much of the public discussion about these changes, LAC and the Department of Heritage have cited the number of visits to the website versus visitors to 395 Wellington. On the surface this seems like a fair comparison, but after some thought, I fear that you are comparing apples and oranges. The website and 395 Wellington offer significantly different services. A more important and useful statistic would compare the number of documents and library books consulted online, in person, or through correspondence via interlibrary loan and mail order document copying. This, after all, is Library and Archives Canada’s central purpose, and it is these statistics that should be governing LAC’s decision-making. I would greatly appreciate you sending me this information so that I can make an informed decision about these recent changes.
- LAC’s Collaborative Model and Whole Society Approach: This aspect of LAC’s modernization plan has the potential to really engage with Canadians. Collaborating with regional partners will help LAC follow the accessible regional models of the National Archives in the United States and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Quebec. It surprised me to learn, given this aspect of LAC’s mandate, that funding to the National Archive Development Program will be terminated and some government departmental libraries closed. This program and these institutions help form the structure on which this collaboration could take place and our national archival collections made more accessible to the Canadian public. By cancelling this funding, it seems that the government of Canada is restricting the resources of the very institutions with which LAC seeks to collaborate.
As a regular user of both the website and 395 Wellington, I think that LAC’s modernization goals hold much promise and potential if carefully managed. Information technology is rapidly changing and it is important for LAC to remain current with the latest digital tools that allow the archive to maintain both the accessibility and the security of its collections. I worry, however, when the government’s words are not mirrored by its actions. The very foundations of LAC’s modernization program seem to be undermined by these new government directives. In a climate where this government stands accused of muzzling its scientists, curtailing important information-gathering tools like the census, and limiting its interaction with the press, these contradictions make it seem like you are playing a game of smoke and mirrors with our national documentary heritage.
I suspect that you can sense my malaise with the decisions that you have made. The entire public discussion about these issues has been ironically mired in a lack of information. There is no timeline laid out for how this digitization will occur and what records will first be made accessible. It is unclear how long the entire project will take and whether LAC’s entire collection will be digitally accessible. Without this information, and in the context set out by these most recent changes, it is nearly impossible to know whether LAC’s plans amount to anything more than a subtle mothballing of this important public institution. I would greatly appreciate you helping me understand how you reconcile these contradictions and plan to overcome the obstacles that they pose.
SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow
Native American Studies