I’ve written about the situation at Library and Archives Canada before (here and here); things aren’t getting much better despite all the protests and consultations. I’m the Editor-in-Chief of Access, the magazine of the Ontario Library Association. The most recent issue included my editorial on LAC which I’m posting here.
Slowly but surely we are watching a train wreck. It is a derailment of national proportions and implications. The debacle at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) arising from their budget reductions and policies changes is devastating.
As I write this, on Canada Day ironically, we know a few things: LAC will restrict collecting, deaccession material, end funding for partners, cut staff, and eliminate services. As the centre piece of their “modernization” program, they will advance digitization as the solution for just about everything. And mostly tellingly, they will label anyone who challenges these directions as Luddites.
OK. I’m a Luddite.
The keynote address of Dr. Caron, the National Librarian and Archivist, to the annual conference of the Canadian Library Association in Ottawa was appalling. 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 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.”
I am not chastising LAC for making budget cuts; they were required to do their bit. I understand; I’ve had to manage fiscal constraints. I am criticizing LAC, and doing so in the strongest possible terms, for not collaborating with other libraries, archives, and museums to achieve those reductions while still sustaining (even growing) a national capacity for Canadians. Writing in the Globe and Mail, the esteemed historian J. L. Granatstein called the LAC actions “vandalism.” To that I would add an arrogance and a failure of vision.
The proposed Pan-Canadian Documentary Heritage Network (PCDHN) is presented by LAC as a solution that would create a distributed cooperative model. However, despite the rhetoric of working together, the LAC position seems to be: we believe in collaboration as long as we are in the drivers seat. Epic fail. So 20th century.
Library and Archives Canada is not like any other department of the government. LAC serves Canadians not the government. Big difference. Transport Canada does what it needs to do to run its business; if it wants to reduce its library and staff, so be it. I might express disappointment but not moral outrage. LAC is different. It belongs to me.
When memory institutions become tools of ideology alarm bells should go off big time.
What to do?
We can write outraged letters and emails. We can march on Ottawa. We can promise to vote appropriately at the next election. Won’t make a difference. The next government will not reverse these cuts nor these policies, no matter what their stripe. Such is the nature of politics; other issues will dominate the day.
We need another strategy.
David Lankes, author of the brilliant Atlas of New Librarianship, has written a new book about libraries and librarians called Expect More. The audience for the book is not those who work in libraries but those who use them or perhaps don’t use them: the general public.
The message is simple and clear: expect more. Libraries, librarians, library workers can do more than they currently do to support and transform your lives. Lankes is brutal in his analysis: “Bad libraries build collections. Good libraries build services (of which a collection is only one). Great libraries build communities.”
We want and need great libraries in this country. This is our responsibility. The defense against the vandalism at LAC (and in any of our libraries) is to demonstrate in our daily involvement with libraries, archives, and museums that these institutions matter because they build community, because they develop human capacity.
Shame on LAC for turning their backs on Canadians. Don’t let us do the same.