National Council of Women of Canada - Blog

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Libraries and Archives at Risk

By Penni Stewart

We have learned a lot about minority government over the past few years. Conventional wisdom characterizes minority governments as consensus seekers, prevented by Parliament from doing anything too outrageous, and therefore governing in a way where the majority’s preferences rightly take priority over the minority’s preferences. But any federal government, majority or minority, is the federal government and has near dictatorial control of the huge apparatus of our national government. Stephen Harper’s tremendous innovation was to break the relationship between Parliament and governing and to apply his genius to the task of transforming Canadian government and society.

From its minority perch, the Harper government has worked at producing a cultural transformation. Funding cuts have decimated the social landscape. Gone is support for well-established programs like the court challenges program, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund and Kairos. But other victims of defunding include small neighborhood organizations that work with immigrants, refugees and working class people. One is the Davenport-Perth Neighbourhood Centre, near where I live, that provides a variety of health and community services in a poor area of Toronto. These government “initiatives” explicitly target equity and organizations serving marginalized communities.

Last summer’s decision to cut the mandatory long form census, however, was qualitatively different. In a vivid demonstration of anti-intellectualism, secretiveness and opportunism, Harper defied his own ministers as well as a once-in-a-lifetime coalition of academics, students, health professionals, corporate elites, business and religious leaders. Like nothing before, this decision pointed to the government’s intent to fundamentally restructure Canadian democracy towards increased individual and less community responsibility, a reliance on markets, and deeply conservative values. What was wrong with the long census form was that it measured the social inequality that is the natural outcome of policies based on neo-conservative faith.

This brings me to my “case study” of the rewriting of government organizations in the corporate image: the modernization project at Libraries and Archives Canada. Formed through the merger of the National Library and National Archives in 2004, the new body is the key Canadian institution responsible for the acquisition and management of our cultural history. It is entrusted with ensuring that present and future historians, genealogists, researchers and ordinary citizens have access to a complete and transparent documentary record of their society. Such a record not only sustains our collective memory, but is a means of holding government accountable to its citizens.

Acquiring and maintaining public records has traditionally been recognized as the work of professional librarians and archivists. Archivists, says Susan Crean, writing in the Literary Review of Canada, are “the real treasures” of archival research. Unfortunately, archivists and librarians are now absent from the leadership of Libraries and Archives Canada. In 2009, Daniel Caron, an economist, was appointed the Librarian and Archivist of Canada and there are currently no archivists or professional librarians on his senior management team.

The modernization project began last spring with a mandate to review how collections are acquired and preserved. One emerging priority is digitization, in preference to support for on-site consultation of paper records. The complexities of the digital age, with its burgeoning information, are said by Libraries and Archives Canada to make: “comprehensive acquisition and preservation unattainable goals,” necessitating “informed preservation decisions.” This worries historians and other archive users who are concerned this new approach will lead to a truncated cultural archive because of misguided selection or purging criteria, especially in the absence of professional expertise.

These concerns are well placed. In a recent speech, Mr. Caron talked of the need for a new record-keeping regime to identify government documents with “business value,” and the “systematic elimination of all other information.” The Canadian Historical Association counters that a holistic approach to records is needed because often the value of a document only becomes apparent long after its production. Digitization itself will never be complete, according to the association. In a recent comment, CHA notes that “A good website will remain not a portal to the whole collection, but largely a useful tool for planning a research trip in order to actually open books or boxes in the reading room.”

Decentralizing where documents are held, and partnering with external organizations is also proposed for Library and Archives Canada. Decentralization will make carrying out research much more difficult, and as the number of collection sites multiplies, so do concerns about maintaining standards. In keeping with the Harper government’s commitment to privatization, some of the partnerships will be with private businesses, threatening public access to our heritage.

The new business model has led to strained relations between Library and Archives Canada and its users. Most researchers using the national institution travel long distances to consult material in collections, requiring extended hours of service. In 2007, an abrupt change in services for retrieving and consulting material sparked public outrage. The conflict was resolved with the creation of a “services advisory board” that included representatives of user groups across Canada — at least until 2009, when Library and Archives Canada simply stopped calling meetings and let the board membership atrophy. This has excluded key communities from public consultation on the modernization efforts.

The restructuring plan for Library and Archives Canada threatens our cultural heritage. CAUT is embarking on a multifaceted campaign to underscore the importance of restoring librarians and archivists to the leadership of Library and Ar­chives Canada; ensuring that acquisitions are directed to preserving the comprehensive historical record; creating standards and conditions for digitization under the oversight of professionals; holding public consultation; and ending the privatization of records.

1 comment:

  1. "Mr. Caron talked of the need for a new record-keeping regime to identify government documents with “business value,” and the “systematic elimination of all other information.” "

    This statement is totally misleading. Mr. Caron is talking about the "business" of the departments themselves -- "business value" is a government buzzword to talk about what departments do. and "systematic elimination" refers to proper archival disposal methods -- so they won't just be tossing stuff in the basket. Because there is a major digitization project underway departments must rationalize what they want to keep and what is not of value to them. Penny Steward should know better.