Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Literary Review of Canada criticism of LAC

The Jan/Feb issue of Literary Review of Canada contains an opinion piece National Archives Blues: Is a precious Canadian asset being digitized to death? by Susan Crean.

I had the opportunity to speak with Susan some months ago, and again after Christmas when she told me the article would be appearing.

She reflects on long experience using archives. The article is a worthwhile read and only 14 paragraphs. I won't attempt a summary except to say Amen to "the real treasures are the archivists, the clue givers."

Unfortunately, in focusing on digitization as an enemy the article goes astray.  Is there any historical researcher, academic or family historian, who has not benefitted from digitized materials?

Not so long ago the digitized newspaper collection of Paper Of Record, which was purchased by Google, was taken offline. There was uproar. Graduate students instantly lost the online archive, an asset they could use with minimal expense, needed to complete their dissertation research. Arrangement were soon made to make the resource available again.

The article hits closer to the truth when it laments "LAC’s narrowing focus and the approach to digitization that seems to assume one size can be made to fit all."

The buck stops, as always, with the leadership, in this case the Librarian and Archivist of Canada who is seemingly disinterested in meeting and listening to the views of public clients, and focused on those of the Ottawa government elite. As Susan writes, LAC has "disappeared behind its website and into a fog of MBA speak." Just look at the pathfinder papers produced a year ago, in contention as a groundbreaking cure for insomnia, with a promise of consultation which has been desultory at best.

While digitization can benefit many it doesn't meet all needs. And some of those it doesn't, described in the article, are just those that bring out the sparkle in Canada's history and produce high quality research articles that lead to books and TV programs that can, or could, illuminate Canada to a much broader audience.

Unfortunately when it counts its clients LAC marginalizes that broader audience, the secondary users who receive services that are only possible because of the work of the specialist "elite" researcher community. If LAC did value those secondary clients it would surely show it, and its dedication to the oirganizational mission, by making appropriate provision for that small cadre of researchers, and a greater effort to nurture its in-house archivist and librarian expertise on whom those people rely.

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