The National Librarian and Archivist Speaks to the Canadian Library Association. Now What?

“Missed opportunity” is the charitable way to describe Dr. Caron’s keynote address last week to the annual meeting of the Canadian Library Association. More honestly, it was a train wreck.

Or maybe it was just the provocation we need to move us past rhetoric into action.

Caron is the National Librarian and Archivist (although his actual title is different and quite revealing: “Deputy Head and Librarian and Archivist of Canada and Chair, Heads of Federal Agencies”).

Speaking to the assembled library community from across the country was his opportunity to engage the audience in a collaborative vision of a progressive memory and research institution. It was his chance to turn all the negatives around the cuts at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) into a compelling and inclusive vision for the future.

He didn’t do that. He did the opposite. He insulted us. Why?

To a digitally savvy audience with extensive experience in social media, community engagement, and stewardship of all information formats, Dr. Caron delivered a technology focused speech which one commentator said would have been interesting “if it was 1997.”

While extolling the virtues and power of ubiquitous networks and participatory technology, he followed up with a unilateral vision of perfunctory consultation around something called the Pan-Canadian Documentary Heritage Network.

No one I could find could tell me what this was (least of which were those who had actually been to the meetings with LAC about this “network”). The LAC website has this to say about it:

The development of the network represents a profound shift in LAC’s relationships with stakeholders, from a service leader in traditional library and archival activities to an innovative national facilitator, coordinator and key collaborator in a broad national network.

I’d actually be OK about this; I think it is what we have been trying to do in this country for many years in academic libraries through the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (of which LAC is a member). In fact, I would go out of my way to make this happen.

So, I’d like to do this but something has broken down: trust.

If LAC wants to be a “national facilitator, coordinator and key collaborator” it would have used the PCDHN (now there’s a acronym that’s going to catch on) to mitigate the impact of the cuts, to engage the community in innovative solutions, and to bring the community together during the profound challenges we all face.

Times of financial constraint have been some of the most creative periods for our profession. The Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CRKN) and Scholars Portal (from the Ontario Council of University Libraries) both emerged during some of the deepest financial crises in our field.

I’m not berating LAC for making cuts (I’ve had to manage severe budget reductions, I know how hard this is), I’m berating them for lack of imagination and leadership in leveraging these challenges to create powerful new responses.

The PCDHN website notes: “It may take some time for this shift [to a facilitator, coordinator, collaborator] to be fully understood, so communication will be the key to making the networked approach work.” I’d say so. Especially if the person responsible for this vision alienates his audiences and insults potential allies.

Just so we are all clear: consultation is not engagement. If you want to understand the difference (and the promise of real engagement), look at Donald Lenihan’s Rescuing Policy: the case for Public Engagement.

Movies are fond of having alternative endings; you get to pick the one you like best. So here are alternative endings to this post. Your choice.

Ending #1

So, in the end, perhaps Dr. Caron’s speech to the Canadian Library Association was very helpful after all. It provided a clear insight: the greatest threat to libraries and archives in Canada is the National Librarian and Archivist. How ironic. How sad.

We need to wrest control of LAC from the government and give it back to the people to whom it belongs.

I’m quite serious.

…Mike

Ending #2

So, in the end, perhaps Dr. Caron’s speech to the Canadian Library Association was very helpful after all. It marks the end of the beginning, and the beginning of a new phase. How progressive. How hopeful.

We need to challenge LAC and the library & archival communities to re-imagine our collective responsibilities, get past the ideological barriers, and serve Canadians in the manner they deserve.

I’m quite serious.

…Mike

Ending #3

See Ending #1 and Ending #2.

I’m quite serious.

…Mike

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11 Responses to The National Librarian and Archivist Speaks to the Canadian Library Association. Now What?

  1. Superb, Mike. And I expect nothing less from you. I’m serious. If anyone can help bridge this chasm, it is you. Here’s my PollyAnna again: let’s get the right people in the room to collaborative develop a way that Canadians win and LAC, libraries and archives, set their turfs aside for the good of the broader Canadian landscape.

  2. I think we all need to re-read the Symons Report from 1978. New academic libraries needed to be created then and the ones already built needed to be boosted up and supported. It’s time to maybe do the same thing again. Mr Ridley is right that we need to focus on places like University libraries to enable the preservation of our heritage. But are we doing this, are we thinking about this? Is this even in the library administration radar? From my perspective in my area of the world of libraries, map libraries are definitely not being bolstered? In fact, most map libraries are being gutted for student space and the collections dispersed. Can it really boil down to saving our heritage vs. study space? Librarians are ready to take this on, without a doubt, but is admin willing to go to bat? Can we find a way to have study space and save our heritage?

    • Mike Ridley says:

      For those who may be interested (and who may not know of it), here is the Symons Report:
      To Know Ourselves
      It is a classic. Check out the Advisory Committee.
      Marcel, your last question re “study space and save our heritage” is poignant. There are always choices and yet we have to do both (and more). I do think the issue of heritage (preservation, stewardship) is on the radar of library administrators. Perhaps we all need to re-commit to this.

      • I would agree that preservation is probably on the radar at most institutions, but only to a certain extent (data archiving for instance is the biggest buzz), but we need to go all the way and actually provide subject specialists to go along with these collections. The diluting of subject specialties was one of the biggest disasters at LAC, long before the current debacle, and accentuated now with the current situation.

        Acquiring and preserving great collections is one thing, but having great collections that are accessible — fully accessible is a different beast. Collections that need to be digitized or that are even born digital require people to describe them, provide space (a home) for them, work with them to promote their use, and help researchers use them. Without subject specialists, we’re just replicating what LAC is doing.

        We can preserve all the geospatial and research data we want, for instance, but without the hiring and training of specialists to work with these data, we might as well print them out and put them on the shelf in a storage facility. Just by having these data does not make them useful.

        We are going to need to get our acts together if we are to do a better job than LAC. Let’s just hope that down the line if we start filling retirement positions or even creating new positions in libraries that we don’t just focus on IT skills, but that we look at subject specialty as well.

        Marcel

        • David H. Michels says:

          Marcel, I strongly second your comments. Developing subject expertise needs to be a priority. But this requires specialization beyond the traditional MLS. As you note, too many vacant positions are left unfilled, and most of those that are filled are at the lowest (and cheapest) ranks. This leaves us with existing staff; what can we do to support and develop specific expertise beyond the MLS?

  3. Sarah says:

    Mike,
    Please don’t leave public libraries out of your vision. I am a Reference Librarian at a public library and I have been trying to figure out what I can do that will actually make a difference. I don’t think letters will help because this government doesn’t care. It doesn’t care about research, logic, history, culture and the list goes on. So. What can I do and what can public libraries do to help preserve LAC in some form or another before all that is left is a shell?

  4. Jane Schmidt says:

    We need to step up our retention efforts by actually putting things like the Thunder Bay Agreement into action. The CLA debacle of 2012 is exactly what we needed to give us the kick in the pants to move away from the inertia of coordinated last copy retention. We also need to get going on incorporating monographs into the agreement.

    Locally at Ryerson we have committed to doing RACER searches of titles (both serials and monographs) that are being considered for weeding. If three or fewer libraries hold the title, we are marking it for permanent retention and binding it for preservation (especially important for the large number of cirlox bound gov docs). I’ve actually been very surprised by the number of unique titles our humble little collection holds. It’s a time consuming step, especially as we work our way through a major weeding initiative, but one that I am more convinced than ever is a crucial one. We’ve got to start somewhere and I encourage others to incorporate this into their deselection workflows.

  5. Michael Gourlie says:

    While I can’t speak for the library side, it always seemed to me that the PCDHN duplicated the work of the Canadian Council of Archives in terms of building an archives network.

  6. Stephanie Walker says:

    It is EXTREMELY difficult for any arrangement where someone who is not a librarian, but is appointed with the title librarian to lead libraries, to actually work. I know. I’ve been there. Almost always, what happened was that the ‘leader’ presumed much, dismissed virtually all advice, and mouthed platitudes about cooperation and consultation while completely ignoring the increasingly desperate attempts by those under him to get him to see sense. And of course, things would implode. Once in a blue moon, this sort of arrangement has worked out – when the person appointed to lead realized that there really were things she didn’t know, and honestly worked with those who did the actual day-to-day library work. But with the prevalence of huge egos everywhere, the latter situation is rare.

  7. Pingback: the cuts to library and archives canada « librarianaut

  8. Mike,

    Great review of Caron’s keynote. Here’s my “mashup” of his address.
    The interaction with Karen at the end says it all.

    JF

    [This is the link to Jim’s video: Dr. Caron’s Keynote at CLA (video from Jim Forrester) …Mike]

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