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Library and Archives, Canada’s National disgrace (Part 1 of 3)

One of the reasons I launched www.literarytourist.com  was to encourage book-lovers and others to get out from behind their computers and into used, antiquarian bookstores, rare book libraries, writers festivals – face-to-face with booksellers and authors, listening to their stories, learning from them, buying their books.  In short, the goal was to help people to enjoy the pleasures that can be had from being out in the real world, interacting with actual people, encountering real books, engaging with live culture and genuine historical source materials.

Some of this sentiment is captured by Lawrence Lande – one of the all-time great Canadian book collectors – in his Adventures in Collecting (a beautiful book designed by Robert R. Reid in 1975) about the importance of source materials to the process of learning and understanding Canadian history.

“During our Centennial year, I published through my Foundation at McGill, a small work entitled “A Check List of Confederation Pamphlets. It is a summary description of about one hundred pamphlets printed prior to and during the year of Confederation, 1867, and some years later for our Western Provinces. These pamphlets were published in English and French, some for and others against confederation. I had an opportunity of discussing this work at a luncheon meeting with ten or eleven McGill professors, each of whom was involved in his own particular discipline. As a layman, I told them that if I were teaching Canadian history I would try to harness as much of the source material that I could lay my hands on which McGill possesses in her libraries and museums. For example, I would attempt to set  up a room with furnishings  from the time of Confederation in Canada, including the pictures on the wall and the journals of the day on the table. I would involve my students with the poetry and the literature that was read at the time and the popular music of the day; the clothing that was worn; the medical and social practices and the problems of the day, including alcoholism; and even the methods of transportation and so on. I would present them with a hand-writing analysis of the Fathers of Confederation and other well-known Canadian political figures of that year. I would include a study of the problems of our neighbours below the border resulting from the Civil War, the Fenian raids, the economic conditions and the type of currency used. I would have Xeroxed copies of some of the printed material that was pertinent and distribute this material to the class. I would encourage my students to possess, through Xeroxed reproductions, their own home-made laboratory of Canadian history, and to become collectors within the frame of their own modest means….”

“Future librarians will be collectors, curators, custodians, and teachers. Because of their access to source material, they will have a knowledge of knowing how to set the stage for any period of history.. They will be imaginative in their use of frequent displays of such material. They will have a much wider and continuing involvement with professor and student. They will understand that source material is a medium of communication that not only serves to expand one’s knowledge of the past, but contributes to an understanding of what motivates us today. They will encourage collecting and collectors, but as precious as source material might be to the collector, its contribution can be gauged only when activated by the researcher.”

And now to the nub of it: I went to Library and Archives Canada today to do some research on Canadian book design. Upon entering the building
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on Wellington Street in downtown Ottawa, I was struck by how grim and soviet-like
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the place looked. Devoid of any colour or joy, it seemed dead, absent of people, of books…of life.

Here’s a look at the exhibition
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space
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at Canada’s national library.
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Yes. That’s it, three sterile,
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empty rooms,
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with nary a book in sight.

I asked the woman at reception why there weren’t any exhibits on display.  “There hasn’t been anything here for more than a year and a half” she told me.

I later learned that management of the main floor of the building has been turned over to Public Works, meaning that community organizations previously free to rent space for their various book related events and activities at no charge, now have to pay “market rates”.  The Library itself no longer, apparently, has control over its own space.

Not that it ever was much to speak of – it’s never been promoted; in fact the miserable little postage stamp
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of a visitors parking lot serves, more than anything else, as a disincentive to come to the building…

What an embarrassment.

Three pathetic little exhibition rooms, no parking – and no exhibits planned. This is the face of modernization?

‘Digitize’ is the new mantra. Access for all. The virtual over the physical.

And decentralization.

Let’s spread the collection across the entire country. So what if this makes it even more inconvenient for scholars and others to get the full picture. Who cares about efficiency, or continuity or critical mass, the important thing is that every square centimeter of this great country gets its fair share…of everything…regardless of logic.

Digitization will allow many more people to access the collection. No question. But this should not be undertaken at the expense of collecting and preserving essential historic source materials.

It’s more important to ensure that history is recorded and preserved – and that source materials are displayed  – in context – and made available for research and study, than to go into a scanning frenzy. If there is a need to choose, then scanning should take a back seat to the acquisition of what is “important” historically, to preservation and to the contextualized display of source materials. Only then, once this has been accomplished, should we consider scanning.

Just as the band Black Keys is balking at the perfection of technology and the “loss of our ear for raw music”, so too should we who cherish the ‘real’, rebel against digitization programs that are being foisted on us, at the expense the actual…the raw.

Ogling polished fakes is no substitute for experiencing the genuine article. Instead of the permanent, what we’re being offered is the ethereal, the ephemeral; instead of the actual, we’re being fed the virtual.

What I saw today, within stark, neglected walls, was evidence of a serious abdication of responsibility at Library and Archives Canada.  A failure to do justice to our past. This is nothing short of a national disgrace.

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17 Responses to “Library and Archives, Canada’s National disgrace (Part 1 of 3)”

  1. Brooke Broadbent Says:

    Nigel

    Yessss!!!

  2. S.B. Ravdin Says:

    Alas, so much is being lost, not only in the preservation of the national heritage, but also in the encouragement of the passion for history among the young. What happened to the obligation to “benefit … present and future generations” or the commitment “to be a source of enduring knowledge accessible to all”? (c.f. LAC mandate)

  3. Amanda Says:

    PWGSC taking over public space in LAC was news in October… unfortunately, the original Ottawa Citizen article is no longer freely available online. Here is a reproduction:

    http://www.freedominion.com.pa/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?nomobile=1&f=2&t=148419

  4. Jan Kellett Says:

    Absolutely, you have hit it right on the head. It is shameful that a great country like Canada doesn’t take more pride in it’s heritage and culture. We (small press publishers) were advised some time ago that LAC would no longer be purchasing or requiring our books for legal deposit. Compare your pictures of the austere, uninhabited, and unloved LAC with say, the British Library, a vibrant, beautiful and actively-used space. What went wrong?

  5. Alfred Van Peteghem Says:

    Library and Archives Canada have, for the last three years, apparently changed their mandate from preserving Canadian history to dilapidate it. I attended a couple of meetings with staff from Library and Archives. The actual librarians were served with the same snowjob as bookdealers, “stakeholders” (to use the new bafflegab). We were “consulted” about our opinions, and eventually received a non-reply reply thanking us for our input, which was completely ignored. The plan of undoing Library and Archives Canada had already been hatched by the senior bureaucrats, and has since been implemented.

    I have been an antiquarian bookdealer for 42 years and experienced various acquisitions librarians, only one of whom in the mid-1970s thought it was his mandate to avoid buying books the (then called) National Library of Canada did not yet have.

    The present acquisitions librarians would like to continue building a great Canadian library, but have been curtailed in doing so. I will not comment on the archives part, because the last competent person in charge there, Robert Gordon, retired around 1990. Knowing his successors to be incompetent, he tried to set up a committee for acquisitions, but if you don’t have a feel for the job, it does not matter whether you are one or a committee.

    Future generations will realise how their cultural heritage has been squandered under our conservative government. Sad.

  6. Beverley Ann Chartrand Says:

    As a subject cataloguer I worked at the National Library of Canada from its early days until its demise. Once it was sucked into Library and Archives Canada its role was diminished considerably. The writing was on the wall. When I departed in 2006 I left behind many demoralized colleagues. Now that what we worked hard to achieve has been so devalued, I cannot bear to return, even for retirement celebrations of friends. Professional librarians and archivists are no longer in charge. LAC is being run by bureaucrats for bureaucrats as an ordinary government department, to the shame of Canadians and the world.

  7. Brian Busby Says:

    Your experience is my experience, Nigel. The decline is dramatic. That the man who currently holds the title of Librarian and Archivist of Canada has no background in either field says much about the respect the current government has for the institution.

  8. Matthew Handscombe Says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever met the bookman who had the time of day for librarians (“the enemies of books” generally in conversation) and I’m not sure why it should be such a shock that our federal institutions don’t reflect the best of us.

    I realized this is partially your point Nigel, but it would never occur to me to visit LAC for research and find its only utility to be a source of persistent urls/digitization. If I needed a book, I’d find it at a University or buy it online. If I wanted to talk to someone who could help me navigate an area of Canadian print history, I’d google an expert and get in touch directly. If I needed more, I’d start a blog and encourage conversation. Hooray digital!

    Has there ever been a “great” period for LAC? It seems as though it’s been in decline as long as I’ve known about it.

  9. Susan Crean Says:

    You might want to take a look at CAUT’s campaign to save LAC. I’ve written about it, as have others. Here’s the message re the campaign on YouTube and facebook. Thanks for your interest.

    “Distinguished Canadian journalist and writer, Susan Crean, talks about the importance of CAUTs Save Library and Archives Campaign in a new short video which is at http://www.savelac.ca/videos/lac-writers.aspx

    “Susan has also written a powerful article about the LAC titled “National Archives Blues” which you can find on the Literary Review of Canada web site http://reviewcanada.ca/essays/2011/01/01/national-archives-blues/

    “Please take a moment to view the latest Save Library and Archives Canada campaign video and also read Susans LRC article.

    “Also, please visit the new Save LAC Facebook page, hit like, and pass it along to your friends and colleagues:

    http://www.facebook.com/savelac

  10. Maria Sabaye Says:

    Thanks for the article. I just heard that they have cut its budget too; so I guess it will look more miserable quite soon.

  11. Tony Woodward Says:

    I retired from the National Library of Canada in 2001 – not Library and Archives Canada which had not been created then so I cannot think of it under that name. I feel totally ashamed at the neglect it has been allowed to fall into, and the utter erosion of its mandate. I am so glad I don’t work there anymore, because the people who still do must feel completely demoralized and I feel so sorry for them.

    Canada is a so-called First World nation but apparently it is the only one that no longer has any regard for its heritage (the collective memory of a society), and that for me indicates that we are now rapidly becoming a third world country. Beyond this words fail me and I could be a lot more scathing but not in public.

  12. Carrol Lunau Says:

    I retired from LAC as a librarian and policy analyst in 2006. I joined NLC in 1983 after working in several university libraries. When I joined NLC it was an exciting place to work full of passionate and committed staff who believed in the preservation of Canadian published heritage and in making it available for all Canadians through the development of the library resource sharing/interlibrary loan network. When I left the library was being eroded and the commitment to the library community was disappearing.

    Since retirement I have been working on family history and used to make heavy use of the resources of the library and the archives. With the changes they have made I no longer visit the building and what I want is not and most of it will not be available online in my lifetime. Instead of going to LAC I pay to travel to archives in Toronto and Newfoundland. I feel sad every time I pass 395 Wellington and cannot understand the mindset of a government that is systematically cannibalizing our history and culture.

  13. Gerald Parker Says:

    I worked for the National Library of Canada, first as head of music cataloguing, later as head of the recorded sound collection, from early 1978 to mid-1984. I was passionate about my work. The N.L.C. was to collect and to document Canada`s music, recorded, printed, manuscript, and in manuscript. Little did I know that a Tory regime would so little value the Canadian heritage, musical and otherwise, that my work eventually would count for little. This distresses me, not just for what I tried to do, but what my many colleagues at the N.L.C. strove for, often with as much ardour as my own. Stephen Harpoon`s Tories do not deserve to be Canadians; banish them to the Arctic! No, I would not want them there, either, really, for that`s Canada, too!

  14. Gerald Parker Says:

    Sorry about that repeated “manuscript” in my comments above!

  15. Gerald Parker Says:

    I share the feeling of shame that Tony Woodward (whom I knew well when I was at the N.L.C.) expresses for what the National Library has become. Tony expresses very well these sentiments and the sympathy that we former employees of the N.L.C. feel for those L.A.C. employees who have to work for such a diminished institution. The L.A.C.`s diminishment contributes to an erosion of the Canadian identity.

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