10 December 2018

Overlooked Canadian Memory Institutions

Last Wednesday afternoon I attended a session entitled “Memory Institutions in the Digital Age” at Library and Archives Canada jointly sponsored by LAC, The Royal Society of Canada (RSC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA). It built on two reports, an RSC Expert Panel Report entitled The Future Now, published in late 2015 and the complementary assessment Leading in the Digital World, published by the CCA in early 2016.

The speakers reviewed progress, opportunities and outstanding challenges for libraries, archives, museums and other memory institutions in the digital age. Librarian and Archivist of Canada Guy Berthiaume's transcript is here.  Unfortunately having started late the session ran long and there was no time for questions. Had there been I'd have commented on the lack of recognition of science data archives.

Look through the reports and mention of science is scant, most often "library science", "archival science" or "federal science libraries". The numerous organizations that archive scientific data are apparently beyond the pale as memory institutions. C. P. Snow's Two Solitudes are still firmly in place.

Are science data archives valued? They could be. Disposal of government records from government custody is permitted only with the permission of the Librarian and Archivist of Canada. Section 12 (1) of the Library and Archives Canada Act that provides:

No government or ministerial record, whether or not it is surplus property of a government institution, shall be disposed of, including by being destroyed, without the written consent of the Librarian and Archivist or of a person to whom the Librarian and Archivist has, in writing, delegated the power to give such consents.
However,  does the Librarian and Archivist know whether the procedure is being followed? Are departments practicing "shoot, shovel and shut-up?" There are no penalties specified in the Act if permission is not sought. Unlike in the UK in Canada there is no inventory of places where such federal data records are housed. The holdings of data-rich science-based departments and agencies are too valuable a national asset for them not to be deliberated along with humanities holdings.

Canada's Meteorological Service is an example of an agency that holds important records. It has a huge amount of data on historic weather since 1840. Weather is part of our heritage - ice storms and tornadoes - and weather data is fundamental to understanding climate change. While it would seem that those records are well managed, find them online at http://climate.weather.gc.ca/index_e.html, is that the case for the many other federal science-based departments and agencies with legacy data holdings? Who knows?

Under the UK Public Records Act approved Places of Deposit are designated committed to looking after certain data “in perpetuity” and making it available for future research. There's a list of those places here.

If in Canada there is no inventory of such data archives how can we have any confidence they are being appropriately preserved and managed? Bringing them into the community presently dominated by the humanities would be a step forward, maybe the humanities would benefit too.

1 comment:

Gail B said...

Your insight into the lack of care given to protecting scientific data is important. Thanks for this, John.