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.”
the place looked. Devoid of any colour or joy, it seemed dead, absent of people, of books…of life.
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
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.
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.