I recently referenced a letter sent by Bibliographical Society of Canada President Janet Friskney to Canada’s MPs. Here it is in its entirety:
7 August 2012
Dear [Member of Parliament]:
The executive, council and membership of The Bibliographical Society of Canada / La Société bibliographique du Canada (BSC/SbC) are gravely concerned that recent and planned cuts to public services, collections management, and staffing at Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada (LAC/BAC) will leave this federal agency in a position where it can no longer meet its legislated obligations to Canadians. For this reason, we strongly recommend that, as an elected member of the Parliament of Canada, you ensure that the cuts proposed – or already initiated – do not transgress Parliament’s obligations under the Library and Archives Canada Act.
Canada’s documentary past is the collective heritage of all Canadians. In consequence, the health of LAC/BAC falls within the purview of all Members of Parliament, and not solely that of the Minister of Canadian Heritage to whom LAC/BAC officials report. Indeed, Members of Parliament would be falling short of their fiduciary obligations were they not to scrutinize the implications of recent and planned budget cuts at LAC/BAC. Until Members of Parliament have had an informed debate about how budget cuts will be managed so as not to undermine the collection and preservation of, and access to, our national documentary heritage, Parliament is not performing as it should. Without a full and detailed disclosure of the cuts (we understand that LAC/BAC has yet to submit its budget to the Parliamentary Budget Officer despite a request that it do so) and investigation of their potential consequences, the Parliament of Canada will not be in a position to make an accurate and informed judgment of the implications of these budget cuts to LAC/BAC.
LAC/BAC is a national institution accountable to all Canadians. The Library and Archives Canada Act (2004), which merged the institution’s venerable predecessors the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada, imposed significant obligations to collect and preserve Canada’s documentary heritage, and to make those materials accessible to all Canadians. LAC/BAC was also legislated to provide leadership in “the development of the library and archival communities.” The BSC/SbC, an organization whose membership is deeply committed to studying and disseminating knowledge about the history of Canada’s documentary heritage, is of the conviction that shifts in policy at LAC/BAC in recent years, coupled with recent and planned budget cuts, leave the institution in a position where it will no longer be able to fulfill its legislated obligations to the people of Canada.
LAC/BAC is Canada’s equivalent to the British Library or the US Library of Congress. The institution houses a vast array of published and unpublished documentary materials related to the history of Canada. These materials run the gamut from books, newspapers, and magazines through photographs, films, videos, art, maps and sound recordings to the records of government, organizations and private individuals. Building these holdings has been a painstaking effort that dates back more than a century. Some collections held at LAC/BAC run into the hundreds of thousands items, others into the millions. These documents illuminate Canada and its development in a multitude of ways, and serve as the raw materials out of which the chroniclers and storytellers among us build our collective memory. Failure to provide the resources to collect, protect, or provide access to Canada’s documentary heritage in an effective and sensible manner suggests a betrayal of the legislated obligations of the Library and Archives Canada Act, and of the trust that Canadians bestow when they elect individuals to serve as members of the Parliament of Canada.
A prominent and obvious example of the failure to meet obligations resides in the decision to abolish LAC/BAC’s interlibrary loan service in 2013. Interlibrary loan is a fundamental method of providing Canadians throughout this vast country with access to significant portions of their documentary heritage, without regard to their physical location or their economic circumstances. The decision to eliminate the service is shocking and, indeed, incomprehensible to those of us who are committed to the ideal of democratic access. Should the retired family history researcher living on a small pension and residing in Kelowna be denied access to microfilmed records that once could be ordered from LAC/BAC through his public library? Will the student based in Saint John be forced to change her thesis topic because several key books she needs are only available at LAC/BAC, and she hasn’t the time or money available to make a trip to Ottawa? Will scholars teaching at universities across the country only be able to access important research materials held at LAC/BAC between May and August because the rest of the year their teaching schedules limit their ability to travel to Ottawa?
Even those who can visit LAC/BAC in person will meet new challenges to access. In the past, onsite reference and consultation services were readily available. Today, the opportunity to consult with librarians and archivists is by appointment only and subject to restricted hours. So, while most Canadians can walk into their municipal public libraries and count on in-person reference services and research support from a professional librarian or archivist, we can’t expect the same level of service or professionalism from the national institution legislated to serve all Canadians. Staff at LAC /BAC is to be reduced by 20 per cent, a cut that will leave important collections of private papers – such as those related to Canada’s literary, musical, Aboriginal or multicultural heritage – bereft of dedicated archivists. As a result, even when researchers make an appointment, the level of expertise they can expect from LAC/BAC staff will be reduced. Reduction in the number of archivists and archival assistants will also inhibit the speed at which collections are processed for public use, and the rigour with which preservation practices are applied to them.
On LAC/BAC’s website and elsewhere, the institution’s officials have rebutted stakeholders’ concerns about access and preservation with assurances that the institution is embracing a new model of service that emphasizes online delivery of services and digital access to holdings. Canadians experienced in working in libraries and archives are not reassured. Indeed, these assurances are worrying since they suggest a lack of basic knowledge on the part of the highest officials assigned to preserve and provide access to our documentary heritage. How will LAC/BAC be able to deliver a printed work in digital form if that work’s still under copyright, and it would transgress copyright to reproduce it in an electronic form? As for archival holdings, it should be obvious that the sheer volume of materials and the financial constraints inherent in digitization of such records will inhibit how much material LAC/BAC can realistically place online.
Digitization is an expensive and complex business, so how can officials at LAC/BAC plan to make digitized versions of its vast holdings the primary method of access? Do members of Parliament realize that the current cost for even one high-end scanner suitable for digitizing archival materials is about $100,000? Then to mount items on the web requires the additional expenses of meta-data creation, custom programming, web design work, and storage and maintenance over the long term. All of these aspects of digital reproduction come with labour costs. Presumably efforts in this direction will also be hampered by the institution’s planned 50 per cent reduction in staff in its digitization office. So, just how many decades of dedicated effort do LAC/BAC officials have in mind when they talk about digitizing the institution’s holdings?
Another pressing concern related to digitization is the following assertion among LAC/BAC’s listing of “Modernization Innovation Initiatives”: “Up to now, most of the descriptions of LAC holdings were written by archivists and librarians. These descriptions, known as metadata, will be done by creators, donors and users.” Every Member of Parliament should be deeply disturbed that LAC/BAC officials are willing to compromise the integrity of record keeping of Canada’s documentary heritage by having people untrained in archival or library practices do the major and fundamental work of writing official descriptions. Such an action will inevitably produce records of uneven quality, detail, and accuracy. To propose or condone an approach so lacking in professionalism demonstrates tremendous contempt for Canada’s documentary heritage.
The impact of reduced staff (through layoffs or failure to replace those who have resigned) is already evident in a break down in record keeping at LAC/BAC. The New Book Service on the institution’s website, which is supposed to be updated monthly, is presently showing February 2012 as its current month. This service is the key method by which researchers are able to identify new Canadian titles, and is a particularly vital resource for tracking works issued by Canada’s small presses or self-published by Canadians since such data may not be captured elsewhere. In addition, researchers utilizing Amicus, the national library catalogue that LAC/BAC is responsible for maintaining to a high standard, report that the database’s records are not being updated as the status of books shift from pre-publication to published status. We also have anecdotal reports from researchers that the physical locations of archival materials are not being updated in LAC/BAC’s internal database when they are subject to relocation within storage areas. If that situation is allowed to continue, portions of our documentary heritage will end up misplaced – and therefore inaccessible for consultation – for years.
The BSC/SbC also has concerns that LAC/BAC is not meeting either the collection or leadership roles expressly assigned to it under the Library and Archives Canada Act. Collection practices for several years have been passive – for a time, there was even a moratorium on purchasing and donations, a strange policy for a national library and archives to adopt, and one which met with criticism from stakeholders at the time. Antiquarian booksellers who have identified special documentary heritage items specific to Canada – significant books and papers that would have been purchased by LAC/BAC or its predecessors in the past – report being rejected, or re-directed to other libraries and archives in Canada. Presumably this practice is tied to the new collaborative, decentralized model of documentary heritage collection being articulated by the institution’s officials as part of its “Modernization Innovations Initiatives.” The “holdings review” noted among those initiatives also raises the spectre of possible de-accessioning of what’s already held in LAC/BAC’s collections. Stakeholders in LAC/BAC do not see these actions as examples of good collections management.
Moreover, while on the one hand LAC/BAC has publicly professed a desire to move toward a more “collaborative model” of collecting and preserving Canada’s documentary heritage, on the other it cut entirely the National Archival Development Program. The modest annual budget of $1.7 million devoted to this program supported local archives and their initiatives in communities small and large throughout the country. Projects and staff have been eliminated at provincial and local archives as a result of this decision. In the view of stakeholders, this decision exhibited neither leadership nor a collaborative sensibility.
Is Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada still living up to its legislated mandate? In the view of the executive, council and members of the BSC/SbC, the answer is a definite no. Should you probe the issue further, I think you’ll find that many other organizations and individuals from across the country feel the same.
Librarians, archivists, historians, genealogists, and many other stakeholders have been registering their concerns about the cuts with the Minister of Canadian Heritage, and their local MPs, but so far to no avail. Indeed, one MP responded to one of our members quite dismissively with the comment: “Library and Archives Canada operates at arm’s-length from the Government under the directions of the Librarian and Archivist of Canada. As such, it is responsible for its operational decisions including the implementation of Budget 2012 decisions.” To this MP I would respond: LAC/BAC is the result of an Act of Parliament. If LAC/BAC’s officials are instigating budget cuts that place the institution where it can no longer meet its legislated obligations to Canadians, then every Member of Parliament should be taking notice of the situation, and acting to change it.
In your capacity as a Member of Parliament, I prevail upon you to see that the Minister of Canadian Heritage James Moore ensures that the budget cuts associated with LAC/BAC be fully disclosed to Parliament by the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, an action which will place the Parliament of Canada in a position to study and debate the proposed cuts, and to determine whether it must intercede in order to ensure that the institution continues to meet its legislated mandate to collect, preserve and provide access to Canada’s documentary heritage on behalf of all Canadians.
I would also recommend that a deputation of MPs representing all parties meet with stakeholders whose overriding concern is to see Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada live up to its mandate, and perhaps even exceed it, as we move forward into the 21st century. As president of the The Bibliographical Society of Canada / La Société bibliographique du Canada, I would be pleased to facilitate such a gathering in the near future.
Janet Friskney, Ph.D.