20 January 2013

James Turk on the future of archives and archivists in Canada

On Wednesday evening 125 people attended a session sponsored by the Eastern Ontario Chapter Archives Association of Ontario on "What We Have Lost: What We Stand to Lose The Future of Archives and Archivists in Canada".
The several panellists gave interesting perspectives. My notes are most coherent for the points made by James L. Turk, Executive Director, Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).
CAUT is very disturbed about what is happening at Library and Archives Canada. LAC's problems are not about money, a fraction of the cost of one new fighter jet. It's about priority.
Turk's personal experience previously impressed on him the value of specialist archivists who know the records in depth.
Turk referred to Susan Crean's article in Literary Review of Canada National Archives Blues http://reviewcanada.ca/essays/2011/01/01/national-archives-blues/ as a motivator for their concern.
Daniel Caron ignored CAUT request to be consulted for six months until comments on LAC modernization were posted on CAUT website, to which LAC responded on a post on its website that everything CAUT said was wrong .
In June 2011 CAUT sent a detailed open letter to LAC on their concerns, footnoted with the sources of information. Of particular concern were the redefinition of mandate of management regarding legal deposit and federal government records, very different from the broad comprehensive collection mandate in the Act and as described by the National Librarian and National Archivist when the joint organization was founded.
There are lists of unique nationally significant documents that LAC has declined to acquire since it instituted a purchase moratorium.
The Save LAC campaign has morphed into the Canada's Past Matters campaign http://canadaspastmatters.ca/ as the broader implications of government cuts and changes became apparent.
LAC claims to be using a more collaborative approach to fulfilling its mandate
BUT, that means LAC is downloading its responsibilities. A forum for consultation is being significantly boycotted by user groups as whitewash.
LAC claims to be redefining items to be collected based on how well they represent the whole of Canadian society.
BUT, that means LAC is no longer acquiring heritage materials and de-scoping legal deposit.
LAC claims it is improving access to its holdings by making descriptions simpler and more relevant.
BUT, that means access to LAC holdings have been severely compromised through cuts to staff and services, and reducing the number of descriptive fields available to search collections from 25 to 10. It reflects a contempt for the work of professional archivists.
LAC claims it is ensuring digital as well as analogue preservation
BUT, in reality 50% of digitization staff were surplused in April (note, something Daniel Caron has denied), only half of one percent of the collection has been digitized to date, and at the present rate it will take 300-700 years to digitize the collection.
LAC claims it is building it's capacity to manage and fully carry out its mandate
BUT, in reality LAC has cut staff by 20% except for management, capacity has been deminished across the board in every professional category at LAC. Expenditures are being reduced from $125 million in 2009/10 to a projected $95 million in 2014/15, a 24% cut with no allowance for inflation.
Some of the lowlights of recent developments are:
- The ending of Interlibrary loan. LAC claims to be working to digitize high demand content, and consulting with Interlibrary loan partners.
- Changes to legal deposit. Provincial and territorial government publications no longer collected. Loose leaf publications and updates no longer considered to be covered by legal deposit.
- Specialist archivists being transformed into generalists.
- Cancellation of the peer system of merit review.
- End of the collection of non-digitally born records as of 2017.
What's to be done? CAUT has the Save LAC and Canada's Past Matters campaigns. PIPS had a Halloween Zombie march on Brains being Sucked out of LAC. University of Alberta Librarians had a protest; there was a trek to LAC last spring and; protests at the Canadian Library Association meeting where four peacefully protesting people were ejected from a meeting with Daniel Caron despite being registered delegates. (Not mentioned by Turk were the many letters sent by individuals and genealogical societies, such as from the Ontario Genealogical Society at http://www.ogs.on.ca/home/pdfs/advocacy/2012-LAC-ministerletter.pdf )
News to me was that The Royal Society of Canada is in the final stages of putting together a nine-person international expert panel to produce a report and recommendations dealing with LAC in the context of other archives and libraries across Canada. It can be hoped that the government might listen, but experience with his government is not encouraging.
Suggestions on additional steps that could be taken to reverse the damage at LAC would be welcome at turk@caut.ca.

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