Thursday, 20 September 2007

Reflections on Wednesday's meeting at LAC

I posted what I hope was a fairly objective summary of Wednesday's meeting. Now I'll add opinion.

Meeting participants appreciated the opportunity to express their views, and did so freely. With a couple of exceptions, one a person of whom I would have thought better, the comments were free of rants. Some people were surprised when things that concerned them, but they had never expressed, were raised by others. LAC reps listened and were respectful of clients views. Judging by the record number of hits on this blog today, more than 200 with many from the LAC domain, they continue to listen.

Could LAC be more open about their operation? Clients want to be heard; and know their concerns are being addressed. They can be quite tolerant when things don't get done yesterday. But they need to know they're not talking into a black hole. It would be great to see a list of action items, like "add additional power outlets in the reading room", "move finding aids to areas open outside the hours of 10am - 4pm", posted in the building with target dates and notification when they are complete. We also need to see action on a user group. Treated well clients will be the organization's biggest supporters.

I applaud LAC's ambitions to put more of their most used material on the web where it will be broadly accessible. Online self-service should free up resources.

The ambition would be even more welcome if matched by achievement. The most used LAC record set for genealogy is the census. LAC provides images of 1911, 1906, 1901 and 1851 indexed by location. Thanks to volunteer and commercial endeavours there are nominal indexes available for all four, made possible by the availability of the images on the LAC site.

Missing are original images for pre-1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 censuses. The acid test of LAC's claimed ambitions, and that reallocation is occurring, will be rapid progress on making these images available online. This will harnesses the effort of volunteers and companies to produce nominal indexes. What's holding this up? Lack of funding? Were funds ever asked for from outside government? Is it lack of internal digitizing capability? What?

Unfortunately, and along with lack of a sound system this was the biggest failure on LAC's part at the meeting, the financial impact of reducing hours was not revealed. The savings from seem minuscule compared to the impact. How much would it cost of open for full service, or at least ordering, at 9am rather then 10am? What would it cost to close the reading room at 9 pm rather than 8pm?


WJM said...

Twelve years ago, which is about three centuries in digital years, I worked on a document digitization project for a major legal proceeding.

The firm digitized about 750,000 pages in a few months. Nowadays, it could be done cheaper, quicker, and more accurately, than back then.

LAC's finding aids could probably be done in a year or less. There is the funding issue - the legal matter had all the money it needed to do the job, without asking - but the technology is there.

But even at a pace just a fraction of the speed we worked at then, if LAC had started digitizing the archival finding aids that existed in 1994 or 1995, they would be done long ago.

You are never going to digitize everything, true.

But it's even truer IF YOU NEVER START TRYING.

And LAC, in its infinite capacity to not meet the needs of anyone, wherever possible, keeps breaking The Cardinal Rule of Research Tools:

Something Is Always Better Than Nothing.

An incomplete, impartial, flawed, imperfect, corrupted, or inadequate data set is ALWAYS superior to no data set at all, just as a book with a bad index is better than the same book with none.

There are even possibilities for researcher-assisted finding aids, and hey, here's a wacky idea, how about letting self-serve digital photographers donate their images back to LAC? In many cases it would be superior to the too-low-res scans which they have posted, by way of making stuff available to all Canadians blah blah blah; many of them, for manuscript material, are illegible or barely legible at the existing resolution.

That problem could have been avoided if LAC had had us in on the design paramaters for digitization from the ground floor.

But no.

Anonymous said...

You should be aware that the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) has decided to face this matter of service cuts head on with the following open letter to Dr. Wilson (perhaps the various genealogical organizations should follow this lead)


Ian Wilson

National Archivist

Library and Archives Canada

395 Wellington St.


K1A 0N4

Dear Dr. Wilson

Thank you for your letter of 20 September 2007. After waiting thirty days for a reply to my letters of 20 August and 14 September, I must confess that I was disappointed to find that it contained nothing but the identical boilerplate that has been sent out in response to all the letters of concern that have been sent to LAC over the past few weeks, many of which have been forwarded to me. I am concerned that you do not seem to have been informed of the issues that have been raised in that correspondence. So, I want first to reply to the rationale that you have provided for the service cuts at LAC and then to suggest the serious implications of your new policy. I then want to return to the need for adequate public consultation.

Like growing numbers of historical researchers who have written letters and signed the graduate student petition that was forwarded to you last week (some 370 of those, I am told), I am not convinced by the arguments that your staff in Client Services have been repeating, and which you included in my letter. According to several reports that we received from the "informal discussion session" that three of your staff held with some 50-60 clients last Wednesday afternoon, the real rationale for the cuts was a budget crunch in Client Services. Arguments about prioritizing electronic services appear to be a smokescreen for financial problems within LAC and perhaps an indication of the undervaluing of Client Services within the institution.

Moreover, it strains your credibility to argue that the website is a real alternative to research with the actual books and archival records housed at LAC. No one can seriously contest the value of enhanced service over the internet, but the vast majority of your collection is not available electronically and, in many cases, probably never will be. Most material must be examined in person. At this stage, a good website is largely a useful tool for planning a research trip in order to actually open boxes in the reading room. If there is a major plan for a huge transfer of books and documents into digital form, we would like to hear about it, but, in the meantime, we researchers are sceptical that we can do much without visiting 395 Wellington St.

And now you have made those visits more difficult. Many people from outside Ottawa have told us that they have always tried to work long hours at LAC to minimize the cost (which they often have to cover themselves), and will now have to spend more time (and therefore more

money) in Ottawa. They will also find it difficult to combine research at other smaller or private archives and libraries in Ottawa with visits to LAC. As I am sure you know, a popular approach to research in the past has been to work at LAC after the other institutions have closed. The new hours are a particular hardship for graduate students, who operate on tight budgets and find their trips to Ottawa expensive, Genealogists, many of them seniors, are also inconvenienced. Even in Ottawa, people who hold down full-time jobs and want to conduct research at LAC are prevented from getting access to any of the reference services that are open only for six hours in the middle of the day. As early as 1904, we have been told, the first Dominion Archivist recommended the need for evening hours to accommodate researchers with day jobs.

Like your staff at last week's meeting, we have heard a good deal about the unfortunate consequences of restricting references services to such a short time block. Since the beginning of September, the new hours have resulted in congested service during the new full-service hours with long line-ups and inadequate staffing at counters - not surprisingly since demand has not declined, and the same volume of patrons have to be compressed into fewer hours.

What is becoming clear is that, for many of LAC's clients, this is only the latest step in a long process of deteriorating service. Those opinions, and the anger and resentment that flow from them, make the need for proper public consultation essential now and on an ongoing basis.

To start that process, I would like to meet you as soon as possible to discuss the immediate issue of hours of service and the longer-term question of general levels of service. I will be accompanied by representatives of any groups that share the Canadian Historical Association's concerns, and we will be asking you to create a permanent users' group to help guide the development of LAC services.

Fundamentally, what troubles us is the vital issue of access to the resources for writing about our past at the country's leading repository of those resources. I hope we can convince you and your colleagues at LAC to rethink the direction you have taken.

Thank you. I look forward to hearing from you.


Craig Heron


Canadian Historical Association