The recent news out of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has been devastating: slashed programs, reduced or eliminated services, moratorium on new acquisitions, distribution of existing collections to other institutions, and other depressing announcements. This is more than a response to budgetary constraints. Clearly LAC has a mandate from the Harper government (I refuse to say “the Canadian government”) to turn LAC into a records management unit for the bureaucracy.
Nothing wrong with records management. However, it is not a memory institution; it is not stewardship of our history and culture; it is not what LAC was set up to do.
So, now what?
I applaud all my colleagues who have railed about this. They are writing letters, planning marches, stirring up support, and other good things. Among them: Michael Steeleworthy | Ontario Library Association | Canadian Council of Archives | Canadian Library Association and many other voices. It is hard to get libraries and archives on the national agenda. More power to them.
My problem is this: it is unlikely to be effective.
The majority Harper government has shown every indication that it will steamroller its ideology through the workings of the government and the country at large. It’s a done deal. And there is very little chance that a future government of any stripe will rescind these cuts. Frankly this just doesn’t happen; governments move on with other issues.
So? Give up?
My suggestion is not to save LAC but to repatriate it.
Not to try to fix it, but to take it over.
I want Canada to form a distributed, collaborative network of academic libraries and archives to take on the national responsibility of a memory institution. Maybe institutions like LAC are old school anyway. There are other ways to do this work in the 21st century.
Remember, the collections beyond to Canadians, not the government. The services should support citizens, not the bureaucrats. The legacy is not ideological but social and cultural. LAC is ours. Let’s run it.
To do this we need to form a collaborative organization linking libraries, museums, and archives to operate this distributed collection and service. We need to take on the long term responsibility that this government is refusing to do. Yes I know we have no money or space or staff; we need to do it anyway.
Shouldn’t we partner with LAC on this? OK but let’s be careful. Not being harsh here. LAC has a history of not always playing nice with others. The wonderful and visionary Alouette Canada initiative (now part of Canadiana.org; a good model for at least part of this mission BTW) was launched with strong support from LAC; they enthusiastically offered to seek federal funding for this national, collaborative project. Money they did get and it went to LAC digital projects not those of the consortium. Lesson: Don’t get fooled again.
Am I dreaming in techno-colour? Perhaps. But if we don’t take dramatic action based on radical collaboration, we will watch as all this erodes and is eventually gone. We could hope the Harper government comes to its senses. We could hope LAC defends itself and reclaims its role. Or we could take matters into our own hands.
So, to be colloquial, we need to hack the system to preserve it.
I suggest we oppose regressive policies with a positive, progressive spirit of collaboration and action. I’m not going to whine anymore; I’m going to organize.
BTW for those attending the Canadian Library Association Annual Conference in Ottawa, Daniel Caron (Librarian and Archivist of Canada) is speaking on Thursday morning and holding a Q&A session Thursday afternoon. These are excellent opportunities for Mr. Caron to explain all this (as of now he has not made a public announcement) and assure us that I have it all wrong.
Depending on Mr. Caron’s defense of the role of LAC, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) might want to consider how appropriate it is to have LAC as a member. They hardly seem interested in being a research library or archive or in providing leadership in the community of interest that animates CARL.