“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.
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.
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.
See Ending #1 and Ending #2.
I’m quite serious.