Musings of an archivist / librarian.
Possibly deranged; definitely political.
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Library Thesis Ideas: Eschatology Edition

Recent mutterings about the “Future of Libraries” - much of which would tend to suggest that libraries are heading for a swift and violent demise which can only be staved off by forking over huge sums of money to library planning consultants - has been a source of much mirth to me. In honour of Good Friday, I propose some potential Ph.D. thesis topics which situate themselves at this confluence of librarianship and eschatology:

  • No One Knows the Day or Hour”: Eschatological Literature and the Prophetic Tradition in Library and Information Studies

  • "It Shall Fall, and Not Rise Again": Millenarian Trends in Early 21st-Century Library Discourse

  • "I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth": Vision and Vicissitude in Library Futurism, 2004-2014

  • "The Beast that Ascendeth": The Rise of External Consultants in Library Strategic Planning

  • "The Time is Come for Thee to Reap": A Critical Exploration of Motivation in Library Consultancy Firms

  • "His Head and His Hairs Were White Like Wool": Charting the "Grey Man Group" Phenomenon in Canadian Library Consulting

  • Blessed is He That Readeth”: Flattery, Fraud, and Client Retention in Library-Vendor Relations

  • "As Soon As I Had Eaten It, My Belly Was Bitter": Fiscal Impropriety and Buyer’s Remorse in Strategic Planning

I should probably stop there - for everyone’s sake. These practically write themselves. All the above quotes are from the Book of Revelation, with the exception of the first two, which are from Matthew 24:36 and Isaiah 24:20 respectively. And since we’re on Isaiahand since it is Easter, after allI can’t resist a Parthian shot: “Now Will I Rise, Saith the Lord”: Augury, Authority, and Arrogance in Post-Recession Library Consulting


"The Future of Libraries"

That is not dead which due dates can deny / and with strange aeons e’en fines do not apply

This eldritch couplet derives from an obscure prophesy titled only “The Five Years" which blasphemously hints at the dread "future of Libraries" foretold elsewhere in the awful Biblionomicon. Although that most famous of grimoires makes frequent allusions to this cataclysmic event, this verse represents the most direct extant description of the horrors that will be visited upon creation when the mysterious “Five Years” have passed.


"Life in a Glass House" - my presentation from BC Library Conference 2014

Here’s my full notes from our BCLA Conference session on Wednesday; combined notes from Justin Unrau (Librarianaut) and myself can be found - for a limited time only! - at this link.

Justin and I are going to do a split session today, and our theme is “Life in a glass house”. The “glass house” is kind of a visual metaphor for a phenomenon that I think we’re all increasingly familiar with. We’re getting used to being spied on. The spying is driven by technologies that we use every day that are increasingly ingrained in the functioning of our societies. This spying has become pervasive, insidious, it seeks to watch us even in what should be the safest and most private of settings – like a library.
And the feeling is that there’s something wrong with this state of affairs - duh!

Instead of safety and privacy,  your phone is spying on you, your tablet is spying on you, your computer is spying on you, and now we talk more and more about the “internet of things” in which appliances have gone berserk and your fridge is spying on you, your toaster is spying on you, your nose hair clippers are spying on you – if they could only talk, right? - and so on and so forth.

As far as library users are concerned, we – library workers - facilitate or hinder this surveillance by the ways we administer our networks and our public computers. For many of our users we are a primary point of access to the internet – this is something people depend on to undertake necessary tasks that they might not otherwise be able to accomplish. And not only that; library computers are there for education, entertainment, and recreation. The fact that we undertake to provide these services is to our credit. But under our noses, external interests are picking up every last crumb of data about our internet users for reference, for re-use, for re-sale.

So who are these spies? Who’s the wolf at the door? We can point to some broadly identifiable groups. We might talk about government agencies, at home and abroad, who are surveilling us for political reasons. This has been in the news a lot in the last year with Edward Snowden’s ongoing work.

We might talk about corporate interests who want to know what we think and how we like to look at things so they can sell us products, or sell us as products. We might talk about criminals, malicious third parties who want to steal our personal information to perpetrate fraud with it or sell it on to the highest bidder.

And there’s no reason these categories – y’know spies, criminals, corporations - are mutually exclusive either. Throwing that out there.

Now some types of spying are easier to evade, some more difficult, but to throw up our hands and say “I don’t wanna hear it, I don’t wanna know!” is not an option. Especially for libraries. We can’t tell our patrons, “Move along, there’s nothing left to see”, however much we might want to. It
is tempting to look at problems of this magnitude and say “…what the hell am I doing here, I don’t belong here?” but the question we need to be asking ourselves is “where do we go from here”.

And you know what? Again, to our credit, I really think we
are saying that. We implement deepfreeze on our computers and protect our users’ data where we can through our licensing agreements, privacy policies, and so on. But we can do more, especially in a climate of pervasive digital surveillance. Deepfreeze doesn’t prevent tech companies and advertising firms from tracking our users’ every move online. How would we feel if external interests were proposing similar surveillance of other library services and facilities? Let’s consider some analogies.

  • The library washrooms are getting a little long in the tooth. A vendor offers to replace all the fixtures in the bathroom for a vastly discounted rate. To do so, however, they want to install monitoring devices in each stall so they can conduct market research, which they then sell on to waste treatment companies. They assure you that there is no significant risk to your health and that the cameras will be totally surreptitious.

  • Publishers are concerned about declining sales; they ask you for access to patrons’ borrowing records so they can aggregate that information and use it to decide what to publish, and how to market it, in the future. They assure you the data will be anonymised.

  • A local company approaches the library and offers to subsidise your collections budget; in exchange, however, they want to place prominent advertising on the spine of every book. Favors for favors.
Now the biggest difference between these outlandish scenarios and what’s actually happening on our computers? In all the above examples, somebody asked the library’s permission first - and of course the second one was a trick, because that’s already happening with ebooks. In any case, I don’t think any of us would expect our patrons to learn about those situations and say “well…no one gets hurt, you’ve done nothing wrong” (So there’s a clear case for taking a more active approach to promoting privacy on our computers; we don’t allow third parties access to our patrons’ borrowing records, the very idea is obscene. Why should we be comfortable with allowing third parties access to every transaction our users make on our computers? Over my dead body…right?

The way we administer our networks represents choices we are making on behalf of our users. We understand that. Many libraries practise internet filtering, so the concept of somehow censoring or controlling what users can and can’t see on our computers is not foreign to us. And there is, of course, the intellectual freedom aspect. I remember during the opening keynote Ivan Coyote was saying “what you look at in the library is private” as a reason to cherish and value what we do. Well, that needs to be true. People’s minds don’t expand in a climate where they’re fearful of surveillance.

And I think we get that. We’re not saying “I don’t want to talk about it”, a lot of us are basically saying “privacy’s great - I want it but I don’t know how”. Fortunately, there are a lot of excellent tools out there we can use to help protect our patrons’ privacy. I’d like to just talk briefly about a few of these. Now, the tools I’m going to be talking about today are all browser extensions – these are components you add on to an internet browser to affect the way it handles traffic. I use all these at home and I would
love to see similar technologies in use on library computers. I’m going to be using firefox in my demo.


First, most basic, let’s take a look at an extension called HTTPS Everywhere. This add-on was developed by the Electronic Frontier Federation – a big name in internet security and policy – in conjunction with Tor, which is pretty much the granddaddy of privacy technologies online. What this add-on does is force, where available, a secure HTTP connection between the user and the website they’re connecting to. This is a pretty big deal – it provides a degree of encryption for web traffic and gives you a reasonable degree of certainty that you’re connecting to the right website, that the site you’re visiting is what it says it is. It’s far from perfect – the 2013 surveillance revelations threw focus on some vulnerabilities of the technology – but it’s still an excellent place to start. So we can see here from the lock icon in our browser that we have a secure connection – and here, HTTPS everywhere is telling us that it’s working for at least one connection. But what if we go check out another website - hold on, no lock icon! But https everywhere is still telling us we have one or more secure connections? Let’s take a look…wait, our only secure connection is to Google APIs? What happens if we try to make a secure connection to this website? (type https…) OK, so we can see from this that a secure connection to the site isn’t actually possible. So you still need to keep any eye on the icon, because a lot of sites will not permit secure connections. Now why the heck are we connected to Google APIs as well?


Well, that gives us a great opportunity to look at the second tool I want to show you today. This is an extension called Disconnect, and I really love it because it does two things. First, it uses a filter list to block over 2000 known trackers from accessing information about your browsing habits, which is awesome. These include some of the biggest names in the business, so the usefulness of this tool for protecting your privacy from the worst offenders really can’t be overstated. The second thing Disconnect does is that it actually shows you what connections it’s blocking, so you can get a handy visual representation of just how many people are trying to eavesdrop on your browsing. Let’s take a look here at a website near and dear to all of our hearts: Buzzfeed. Wow, that’s, like 20 trackers just on the front page. Yikes. OK, let’s visit a website that’s a little less spammy and see if that’s an improvement - let’s check out the Guardian. Whoa! Same thing. So you get why an extension like this is not only a valuable privacy tool, but a valuable teaching tool. I highly recommend it. As an added bonus, it’s been shown to speed up page load times by quite a bit because it’s blocking so many superfluous connections.


Now have you noticed anything a little unusual about the websites we’ve been looking at? A sense of something missing? Well, that brings us around to the third add-on I’d like to show you today, which is probably my personal favourite. That’s Adblock Plus. Adblock does what it says on the box: it blocks ads. Like Disconnect, Adblock Plus also uses filter lists to block content - not unlike we do, as a matter of fact, when we censor the internet for “inappropriate” material. Adblock also has anti-tracking and anti-malware lists you can subscribe to, which I use to give an added layer of protection. Let’s take a look at something pretty innocuous - the BBC website - without adblock. Even on this bad-boy, we have this giant banner ad, we have this little side panel guy, and down at the bottom a handful of contextual Google ads. I don’t want to see that! And I don’t have to - let’s load the same page with AdBlock. Amazing! I’ve been using Adblock for years, and I’m not going back. Once you get used to it, you’ll wonder how you managed before.

Now these technologies are all really easy to use. You can have all three up and running on your machine within ten minutes, and I encourage you all to do so. Getting these to work on library computers is completely manageable if we decide it’s something we want to pursue. Unfortunately, these tools aren’t enough. I have barely scratched the surface in the time we have today, and there is far more we could be doing and should be doing in defense of patron privacy. Tools like these, however, are a great place to start. Anybody can use them - it gives you empowerment, a sense that there’s something you can do right now towards papering the windowpanes of your own glass house. I hope that’s encouraging to you; if you’d like to learn more about this stuff, which I highly recommend, Justin and I have put together a list of resources to help you do that. Feel free to shoot me an e-mail or hit me up on Twitter, as well - there are a growing number of really smart library folk who are working to address the problem of the glass house, and I’m more than happy to put you in touch with them and their work. Thank you.


Article: “Ew, Malware! Why public library computers are dirty in more ways than one” (Ruth Collings)

Slide deck: “Protecting patron privacy on library computers” (Dorothea Salo)

Prezi: “Defense Against the Digital Dark Arts” (Eric Stroshane)


Info: “HTTPS Everywhere FAQ

Info: “About Disconnect

Info: “About Adblock Plus

Interactive tool: “Tor and HTTPS” (EFF)

Article: “How to harden your browser against malware and privacy concerns” (Tech Support Alert)

Article: “4 simple changes to protect your privacy online” (EFF)

New Order Papers shed further light on DFO library crisis

Two Order Papers released this week paint a bleak picture of library closures at the department of Fisheries and Oceans - a process euphemistically termed “consolidation”.

Order Paper Q-266, a 37-point inquiry worth reading in full, delves into the specifics of consolidation with precise questions about the DFO’s digitisation programme. The Department has argued that this is an ongoing, intensive effort which will revolutionise service delivery while offsetting the loss of redundant materials from its collections. Instead, the figures show that digital titles comprise less than one per cent of the DFO’s collections.

And what of the digitisation programme itself, whereby unique DFO materials are to be made remotely accessible to the public? It sounds like an austere process; staff are described as using “multi-function office equipment” to digitise materials “as part of their tasks”.

These tasks, in recent years, have also included overseeing the closure of 7 of the DFO’s 11 branches while negotiating to discard tens of thousands of items from their collections. It all amounts to a near-impossible undertaking for a library system with fewer than 30 full-time staff and only one dedicated digitisation specialist.

Only four of the 11 libraries were granted any additional resources to support digitisation in 2012/2013, when consolidation efforts were at their peak. These additional funds comprised only $168,318. Another question asks how many staff have been specifically trained for digitisation every year over the last ten. The DFO declines to give numbers, saying only that:

"a set of digitization best practices for the libraries of the Department is provided to the staff, who receives on-the-job training on applying them."

The shorter Order Paper, Q-238, asks a fairly simple question: 

(a) was the general public given the opportunity to salvage or obtain library materials which would otherwise have been discarded during the consolidation process;

(b) if so, through what media or methods, and when was this opportunity communicated to the public; and

(c) on what dates and times did the public, or will the public, have that opportunity?

For each of the eleven libraries, the answer is substantially the same:

While there was no formal outreach to the general public, opportunity was provided to universities, libraries and other local partners. When items are being integrated into the library at the [name of receiving institution] there is an opportunity to identify surplus material, which is put on display and available to the general public.

I must admit I’m not quite sure what that means.


Confirmed: Library and Archives Canada seeks to outsource AMICUS to OCLC

After long speculation, Library and Archives Canada have at last confirmed that are in talks to outsource AMICUS, Canada’s national union library catalogue, to the private sector. Negotiations are at a fairly advanced stage; yesterday LAC issued an Advance Contract Award Notice detailing their proposal to contract the work out to OCLC. While it has become clear in recent years that LAC no longer possesses the capacity to develop robust digital solutions in-house, and while AMICUS’ decrepitude has increasingly been the target of frustration and embarrassment in recent years, questions still remain over a number of specifics proposed in the tender. Not least:

  • "…the Service Provider’s externally hosted solution will replace the existing LAC implementation of the NUC for all public access and library contribution and data sharing functions."
  • "While LAC currently hosts its growing collection of digital objects internally, on its own servers, in the future, LAC may consider utilizing the Service Provider to host some or all of its digital objects…"
  • "It is further anticipated that the Service Provider will provide services and/or operate internal systems that will support the Last Copy Network." (NB: the LCN is the official name of LAC’s hastily-contrived successor to its now-defunct ILL service)
  • The Contractor’s library systems software, databases and documentation will remain the property of the Contractor. Any configuration of the Contractor’s systems specific to LAC’s requirement and any specific custom code relating to the development of linkages from the Contractor’s systems to LAC’s internal systems for the purposes of undertaking the work will be done by the Contractor and will remain the property of the Contractor.

In an age where other jurisdictions are moving toward distributed, collaborative, open source, robustly public infrastructure to support digital librarianship, Canada’s continued drive to further fragment and privatise information services seems all the more disappointing and short-sighted.


Full Interview - Library Journal Mover & Shaker of the Year

This morning I was humbled to learn that I was named a “Mover and Shaker of the Year” for 2014 by Library Journal. I have been overwhelmed by the kind congratulations I have received and I extend my sincere thanks to all who have taken the time to offer well-wishes. I am very proud to be a part of this community. I would also like to thank the friends and colleagues who nominated me for this - I’m not at all sure I’m worthy of the honour, but the fact that you thought so means a lot to me.

In a spirit of proactive disclosure, I have appended below my full responses to the Library Journal interview for the award (NB this was given before LAC had implemented improvements to the Code of Conduct in December of last year).

What was your path to librarianship/career trajectory? And how did you get involved in issues of freedom of expression and access to information?

I guess you could say my devotion to libraries began early - I grew up in rural Virginia, and as soon as I started displaying an interest in reading my mother began taking me to the library at least twice a week to load up on books. I was a ferocious reader; books were my constant companions, and I’ll never forget how blown away I was by the realisation that I could read something in a book and then somehow make use of that information to effect change in the wider world. Learning to do something, to make something, to broaden your horizons, to explain something to others - it still kind of blows my mind, to be honest. So I carried that attachment to knowledge and libraries forward through my life, until the last year of my History MA in Scotland when I was offered a job placement as an archivist in Aberdeen University’s Rare Books and Special Collections department. That got me interested in archives. I really enjoyed the work and being able to make such direct use of my training as a historian, but it wasn’t until I moved back to the States a year or so later and took a job on the reference desk of the Mount Vernon City Library that I really went “wow…this is it, this is for me”. I loved reference work, but I also realised just how much information-seeking behaviour was dominated by decisions being made out of the user’s sight - by libraries, by vendors, by search engines, or by the simple omission which takes place when important information is never made available to begin with. So I think my dedication to intellectual freedom, or to keeping the public good at the forefront of information policy, flows from the ways I myself have benefited from free access to information…and from some of the real inequities or shortcomings in access to information I’ve seen both through studying history and through reference work. My archival training is also a big influence - archivists think carefully about how issues relating to access, accountability, and evidence are tied to the ways we record and share information. Freedom of information and expression are crucial. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this century will be beset with pressing challenges for our societies and the world we live in - our ability to find creative, inclusive solutions to those problems hinges directly on the degree to which people are empowered to think for themselves and contribute to broader discourse around the difficulties that we ultimately must face together.

Could you briefly explain/describe the role of the Information Policy Committee of British Columbia Library Association? I’m assuming that it is similar to ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and the Washington Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Interest Group.

The Information Policy Committee (IPC) are a standing committee within the wider British Columbia Library Association (BCLA). Our official mission, as it stands, is “to advance the interests of citizens and library users in gaining and maintaining affordable and equitable access to information, and to ensure that the public interest is safeguarded in any government decisions relating to information policy.” So in a way we are broadly similar to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, but we tend to focus more on the policy side of things. That means we look closely at decisions being made by influential groups within society - especially government entities and internet or telecomms companies - with a view to understanding how those decisions will affect access to information for the public at large. Following from that analysis we do what we can to steer policy in a positive direction; one of the things I’m really proud of is the plurality of approaches the committee has been able to take in pursuing these goals. These range from sharing our own commentary and analysis with allied organisations, working with journalists to shape media coverage or raise awareness of contentious issues, working directly with politicians to advance policy goals, working with other library and archival associations to build consensus and cooperative action around matters of mutual interest, and working with allied organisations outside the traditional library field to advance important information policy issues the library community at large isn’t quite ready to tackle yet. The IPC is helped in this work by BCLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, which deals directly with freedom of expression and censorship issues. We are also proud of our good relations and partnerships with local and international advocacy groups - OpenMedia, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, and others, which have enabled us to be part of some really great work. The IPC is very well supported by BCLA’s leadership in our efforts, which I’m very thankful for. BCLA is a great organisation to be a part of.

What were some of the outcomes of your work speaking on behalf of librarians and archivists in Canada in regard to the code of ethics and the government locality requirements?  The more specific the answer—numbers, statistics, etc—the better.

There were several major outcomes to the work around the Code of Ethics specifically, and I think they fell into two broad stages. The first centered on raising awareness: following the initial disclosure of information about the Code, I worked with journalists at both national and industry-specific media outlets - the CBC, Ottawa Citizen, Academic Matters, and others - to write or promote coverage around the issue. I managed to get hold of the training documentation which accompanied the Code, which was in some ways even more absurd than the Code itself, and share that through my blog. There was such public interest in the story that I was able to give an interview for CBC Radio’s “As it Happens” which generated a lot of attention. Alongside the media blitz, the issue was raised formally during debate in the House of Commons, which was really a watershed moment because the government ended up being quite embarrassed by the story. We were working behind the scenes with other civil society groups to encourage them to promote the issue as well. That pressure, and that embarrassment, helped contribute a few weeks later to the resignation of the Librarian and Archivist of Canada under whose leadership the the policy was developed. That’s what triggered the second phase of the effort, which involved working with other Canadian heritage and library organisations to develop a formal statement on the qualities we expected of the next Librarian and Archivist of Canada. Thanks to a lot of hard work from many people we were able to put together a statement that was endorsed by more than 24 groups including virtually all the national, provincial, and territorial library and archival associations as well as organisations representing historians, genealogists, and universities. I think it was a real achievement and a great precedent, and we’ve used that statement to keep up pressure on the government as the search for a new Librarian and Archivist of Canada continues. But really one of the best outcomes, as far as I’m concerned, is that the whole debacle has created some space for a a wider debate around freedom of expression within libraries, and I think that’s sorely needed.

It struck me as odd that librarians and archivists, who as a profession typically standing up for access to information and free intellectual discourse for others, had to defend their own right to freedom of expression. I wonder if you could comment on how that experience has impacted you personally and professionally?

I think I can say, hopefully diplomatically, that it has been an eye-opening experience. A big part of my personal mythology revolves around libraries being the good guys, in a manner of speaking, and so to see not only a library but the most important library in the country imposing these grotesque, almost Orwellian restrictions on its employees was devastating. It was more so because the nature of the restrictions meant that the people affected couldn’t even speak out about what was happening to them. My natural reaction to seeing people get bullied is to get angry, and this was no exception - I was furious. The more I worked to raise awareness about the situation at Library and Archives Canada, however, the more I realised that restrictions on librarians’ freedom to frankly discuss their work are actually quite widespread. Some are tacit, and some are formal, but really there are a lot of people in libraries who feel that they will face professional approbation if they talk critically about difficult library issues - ebook licensing, say, or approaches to income inequality - in public. I have run into a bit of this myself. So on one hand many people have embraced my work because of what it’s seeking to do, while in other circumstances I tend to be treated a bit guardedly because I’m a guy who’s frequently talking critically about uncomfortable things. Ultimately the experience has strengthened my resolve to stand up for the right of everybody in libraries - patrons and employees alike - to be treated with respect and dignity.

What advocacy work have you been involved in recently? What projects are you taking on in the next two years?

The main focus of my advocacy work recently has been around internet privacy. This is something I’ve been interested in for a long time, but the recent revelations from Edward Snowden and others regarding the sheer scale and pervasiveness of corporate and government surveillance of internet users’ private activities and communications have really added a degree of urgency to the effort. So right now I’m looking at raising awareness of small-scale, usable tools that libraries can implement to give their users a better measure of privacy and security on library computers - basically what I’d like to see is kind of a strategic framework that public libraries can look to when and if they decide to start thinking a bit more broadly about protecting user privacy. It’s not such a hard sell if there’s a concrete plan of action people can look to for an example. That’s my main focus right now - if we don’t let the government snoop into our patrons’ borrowing records, why on Earth would we be comfortable with non-consensual third-party surveillance of what users are doing on our computers? When we take away patrons’ choices about how they can access information - which we do every day through the restrictions we place on library computer use and the partnerships we cultivate with vendors - we need to be sure the decisions we are making for our patrons are ethically sound. There’s some soul-searching to be done here.

More broadly, and at least tangentially related to the above, we’re experiencing a spate of public-private partnerships between libraries and private-sector bodies here in Canada which may be detrimental to libraries and our users in the long run; some of that may need unpacking in the coming year. There are also a number of pretty unenlightened legislative moves here in Canada aiming to compromise the openness of the internet, and a number of sinister international trade treaties that aim to do the same and to impose pretty heinous new copyright strictures to boot - *cough* TPP! - so there’s a lot of work to be done there too.

There’s too much to choose from in the realm of information policy these days; there’s never a shortage of work, it’s more a matter of figuring out how best to focus one’s efforts and resources so as not to get overwhelmed or succumb to despair. Not to be too melodramatic or anything.

What’s the best thing you’ve learned from your successes? What about from the projects or efforts that didn’t turn out exactly as you’d hoped?

The best thing I’ve learned from my successes, such as they are, is that there are a whole lot of people out there who really care about libraries, about freedom of expression, about free inquiry, and that they sometimes crop up in places you wouldn’t expect. Last year I wrote a piece for the Tyee, a prominent Canadian independent news outlet, on the budget cutbacks at Library and Archives Canada and their consequences. It had almost slipped my mind when word reached me that it had ended up one of the Tyee’s top five most-read stories of the year! Tens of thousands of people read that piece, which on the face of it wasn’t exactly about the most headline-grabbing issue, and that was really encouraging to see. It’s always such a pleasure to meet other people who are interested in these issues and to hear their perspectives and the way they’re advancing advocacy in their own communities. Especially within Library and Archives Canada, I’ve met so many great people who are really struggling to do their jobs in the face of huge challenges because they believe in the work. Raising awareness about the conditions they face is a motivating factor for me. And just getting to hear the stories of people who have benefited from free access to information, especially getting to participate in those interactions myself on the reference desk…the impact of that on my life is difficult to overstate. This has all taught me to persevere by sticking to my principles - and a very important component of that effort is to never cease re-examining what those principles are and why they are important.

Failures? Too many to recount! Sometimes you win the battle and lose the war, as it were. With the Library and Archives Canada issue, for example, we kept pressure on them for so long to reform their management culture and policy directions, but when all was said and done, even though the chief architect of the institution’s worst recent decisions was forced out of office, many of those decisions and policies - including the Code of Conduct itself - have remained in place in spite of nigh-universal condemnation. So there is a lot more work to be done.

After these disappointing experiences, however, Canadian librarians are realising more and more that if things here are going to get better, we may have to build the solutions ourselves as a community and move away from our reliance on monolithic central institutions and organisations to get things done. Think about in the States - if the Library of Congress were to just stop maintaining the LoC Classification system, for example, what would you do? What if they decided they weren’t going to catalogue titles they receive through legal deposit, or that they were going to dramatically reduce the quality of their catalogue records? Those are the sorts of questions we are having to confront right now in Canada, and it’s a steep learning curve. But I’m optimistic. In the final analysis I think we’ll see that some of these “failures” have in fact contributed to us getting wiser and building better, more resilient, more distributed solutions for the future.

What sort of work do you do as a librarian at Burnaby Public Library? (I’m looking for just a brief answer, such as teen librarian, adult librarian, providing programs, such as …)

Any and all kinds; I work in every branch, on every desk that I can. The one constant is that I am always working with the public. The front lines!

Where do you go from here? Are there any issues or challenges you’re eager to take on? Will we see you as BCLA president?

I would really like to see librarians taking their place at the forefront of digital information policy advocacy, because we have invaluable perspectives to contribute to these debates and a long, proud tradition of advocacy in the public interest. Right now the bulk of the work specific to the digital realm around issues like copyright, digital rights management, internet censorship, free access to government information, and the like is being done by non-library groups like EFF and OpenMedia, and while I hugely admire their work I would love for that to change. But in order for that to happen, library advocacy needs to become more self-aware, more sure of itself, and less naive. Banned books week is great! But the really dangerous efforts at censorship right now aren’t book challenges - they’re enacted through policy changes far from libraries themselves. Too often the real threats to free expression and free inquiry pass unremarked by libraries until it’s too late. So I’d like to see library advocacy become more confident. We need to get our hands dirty - only ever talking about things that make people feel good is a strong temptation, and one that tends to be borne out in professional culture. That often leaves us at a disadvantage when we need to confront real, pressing issues. Attitudes like this are perhaps unlikely to propel me into the loftiest reaches of power, but we’ll see what happens!

Tell me something about yourself that’s not related to librarianship, such as your passions, hobbies, causes, etc.

I’m an extremely bizarre person. One of the things I really like is cycling everywhere, which is handy because I never bothered to learn to drive. I also like collecting books, but I’d really rather distract you from how out-of-control that habit is getting, so I guess I’ll draw attention to some other hobbies. The less-weird among these include cooking, anything to do with good beer, writing and playing music using my growing collection of instruments…and historical European martial arts. That’s a fancy way of saying “fighting with heavy and dangerous swords”. Helps keep things in perspective.


Order Paper reveals DFO library situation far worse than thought

A newly-released Order Paper provides disturbing insight into the chaotic, poorly-managed “consolidation” of libraries at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The initial question, posed by MP Lawrence MacAulay , asks:

With regard to the consolidation of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ library system, for each…[location]:

(a) how many items from the library’s collection have been retained for consolidation in another regional·library;

(b) how many items have been (i) deposited in other federal government collections, specifying which collections, (ii) offered to libraries outside the federal government, specifying which libraries and how many have been accepted, (iii) sold, (iv) discarded;

(c) for each location, how many items have been digitized, distinguishing government of Canada publications, other government publications and items other than government publications;

(d) for each location, what have been the costs associated with discarding surplus items; and

(e) what are the file numbers of any contracts or invoices for the removal and disposition of discarded material?

The response is chilling. The government reveals that the DFO offered a staggering 84,067 items to other libraries, including universities, but records indicate only 221 of those items were accepted - that’s about one out of every 380 items. Many of the DFO libraries reported that it is simply “unknown” how many items were accepted by other institutions; the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John’s, by contrast, indicates that not a single item of the 28,177 it offered found another home.

It is worth noting that items were offered to these external libraries only after being offered to other government departments; the response indicates that not a single item was accepted into the collection of any other federal institution or department, apparently including Library and Archives Canada. In other words, these items - all of which were bought and paid for with taxpayer money - have been lost forever from public ownership.

The document also reveals that of the seven closed libraries, only one kept a record of how many items it discarded - the others responded to the question about how many items they discarded (that’s “threw away” for laypersons) with the single word “unknown”.

Perhaps the most astonishing revelation, however, is the government’s response to the question about how many items were digitised - it reads, simply:

"The Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ systems do not enable us to determine the number of items digitized by location and category."

In other words? Digitisation, the much-touted panacaea being used as a catch-all way of dodging criticism for throwing away taxpayer-funded information, is being carried out in such a haphazard way that the government has no idea how much has been digitised, what collections digitised materials originate from, or even what those materials are.


Some thoughts on “questionable legality” of federal library cuts

This story from the Tyee is quite interesting in several particulars; the long short of it is that MP Elizabeth May has called into question the legality of recent cutbacks, cullings, and closures at federal libraries which have been making headlines in recent weeks (and months, and years).

Among other things, May has raised the prospect of the Library and Archives Canada Act a sweeping and seldom-mentioned piece of legislation that, interpreted broadly, might be considered to govern a quite extraordinary range of activities relating to disposing of government informational holdings by individuals and departments. It is, insofar as such a thing exists, the Magna Carta of Canadian federal recordkeeping legislation.

The crux of the Act, as far as we are concerned in discussing the culling of materials from federal institutions, is twofold: sections 12.(1) and section 16. The former asserts that:

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.

Astute minds might wonder about the definition of the term “record” here it is given elsewhere as “any documentary material other than a publication, regardless of medium or form”. This would certainly seem to include raw research data, but excludes any formal publication. Publication, in turn, is defined as:

any library matter that is made available in multiple copies or at multiple locations, whether without charge or otherwise, to the public generally or to qualifying members of the public by subscription or otherwise. Publications may be made available through any medium and may be in any form, including printed material, on-line items or recordings

This distinction between records and publications is why section 16 is important. It reads, very tersely:

Despite the Surplus Crown Assets Act, all publications that have become surplus to the requirements of any government institution shall be placed in the care or control of the Librarian and Archivist.

Curiouser and curiouser! Would this not tend to indicate that oversight for all library materials being culled from federal departments should properly have flowed through the person of the Librarian and Archivist of Canada? As far as that goes, the aforementioned article makes the interesting assertion that Elizabeth May has in fact “spoken to the current Librarian and Archivist of Canada” whose response has led her to believe that the Library and Archives Canada Act has not been followed with regard to the disposition or culling of materials at recently-closed Federal libraries. I imagine this would be with regard to one or both of the sections cited above.

Following on from this, May’s assertion that she has spoken to the Librarian and Archivist is most interesting; Canada does not, in strict point of fact, currently have one. Hervé Déry is now, quite literally, on borrowed time; his is an interim appointment, and one that has actually exceeded its statutorily mandated maximum 6-month term to boot. A couple of months ago term was extended, apparently indefinitely: I have written about this at more length elsewhere.

What will come of all this? I think that the government will contend that May misunderstands the Act, and there’s really nobody to gainsay them on this. In spite of the (very) sweeping powers invested in the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, the Library and Archives Canada Act does not really provide any practicable provision for meaningful oversight of those powers. It also does not provide meaningful or transparent penalties if the auspices of the Act are not respected.

Indeed it would seem to me that, under a conservative reading of the Act, many individuals and departments in the federal government have likely been playing fast and loose with it for years. I am not aware of anybody being taken to task over it. I would be interested to know if anybody can provide examples of the Act being invoked to censure individuals for inappropriate recordkeeping.

This is all, of course, part of a feedback loop of sorts. Any discussion of cuts to Canadian knowledge infrastructure inevitably brings us back to questions about the savage and disproportionate cuts to Library and Archives Canada’s own budget in recent years. When a country invests wide-reaching oversight for government accountability and information management probity in a single institution, and then ensures that the institution is so poorly funded that it cannot possibly exercise its own statutory responsibilities in this regard, there is bound to be a collapse in transparency.

All too often, this results  as in Canada at present in huge, fiscally irresponsible losses of taxpayer-funded public information like those we have seen recently at the DFO and Health Canada among others. When such a situation arises from a government that it is legendarily obsessed with propaganda and suppressing information that could portray them in a bad light, not to speculate in terms of deliberate engineering seems disingenuous at best.

From where I am sitting, Canada’s devotion to the concept of documentary accountability as a pillar of democratic governance seems truly wretched. I would invite the government to prove me wrong about any of this, but they have generally preferred to insinuate that the onus is on the public to demonstrate that they are acting wrongfully in such matters*. This, of course, represents the government’s tacit rejection of a relatively straightforward expedient  demonstrating, through proactive disclosure and transparently accountable recordkeeping practises, that they are doing the right thing.

*The beauty of this is that the public’s very means of doing so is ever-increasingly circumscribed by Canada’s arcane, ancient Access to Information legislation and the government’s own increasingly alarming tendency to hamstring the regulatory bodies tasked with maintaining and providing access to records.

Q-785: Order Paper on Federal Library Closures

The attached order paper, dated 19 June 2013, is a response to parliamentary inquiry Q-785 regarding the closure and consolidation of federal departmental libraries. Appended are responses from every ministry; the document is searchable.

The question reads:

With regard to government libraries: (a) since January 1, 2012, which departments or agencies have closed, or will be closing, their departmental or agency libraries; (b) what is the rationale for each closure; (c) what evaluations, studies, or assessments were conducted and used to make the decision to close; (d) what are the dates and file numbers of those evaluations, studies, or assessments; (e) what are the plans for the disposition of the holdings of the libraries; (f) what evaluations, studies, or assessments were conducted and used to make decisions concerning the disposition of holdings; and (g) what are the dates and file numbers of those evaluations, studies, or assessments?

Of particular note are the responses regarding plans for identifying and disposing of library materials at the affected departments, especially in light of recent controversy over library closures and cutbacks at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Library and Archives Canada (LAC). In almost all cases, departments pointedly avoided revealing what, if any, rationale they followed in identifying or assessing what materials in their collections would be discarded. This raises real questions about the degree of planning and thought that went into what has been, by all accounts, a haphazard and rushed process.

When asked what assessments the Department of Fisheries and Oceans conducted to make decisions regarding the relevance and disposition of their holdings, for example, the response was a single  nonsensical sentence: “The options for disposition of holdings were determined in alignment with Library and Archives Canada’s authorities granted to the Department.” The response then goes on to tacitly acknowledge that no formal assessment was undertaken (see [g], page 29). Earlier in their response, the DFO also revealed that the decision to close their libraries predated any assessment to determine whether this represented sound policy (see [c], p. 28).

Many thanks to Lorne Bruce of the Ex Libris association for digging this up and passing it on to me.


Why I Left Librarianship (Guest Post)

The following is a guest post from a friend and former colleague who recently left the library profession for work in another field. We worked together for almost two years; towards the end of that time we talked a lot about her decision to leave the field. Selfishly, I tried to persuade her to hold on in the hopes things would improve - she’s one of the most competent people I know and I had hoped to continue working with her throughout my career. In the end, she moved on; it was the right decision for her, but, in my view, a loss for the profession.

Like just about everyone else who started library school, I began my MLIS with the intention of working as a librarian. I knew going in that the job market wasn’t wide open, but after graduating and becoming more aware of the precarious nature of library work in the lower mainland, I felt I had no choice but to accept a job in a different field. I’m not going to rehash all the reasons why precarious employment is awful for everyone involved; Myron and many others have recently done so, and I won’t repeat the excellent points they have raised. Instead I can explain why I am not willing to pursue library work at this time.

Let me start by saying that I am one of those fortunate people who could - financially and logistically -  afford to take a precarious position. My partner has a full-time, stable job (though like many others he is on long term contract and does not have benefits) and I do not have children or any other circumstances that require I maintain a particular schedule.  Even having established this, I do not feel that accepting an infinite period of precarious employment would help me achieve the things I want out of life personally or professionally:

  1.  Consistency in day-to-day living - I enjoy my work, but it is not the sum of my being. I get a lot of value from the activities that I pursue outside of my employment, which make me a happier, more well-rounded person.  These activities require regular and consistent time commitments. Having no regular schedule or ability to make even short-term plans would severely interfere with my pursuits outside of work and general well-being.

  2. Long term financial and family planning – I would not be out on the street if I took an auxiliary position, but I already I spent my 20s paying off student loans, living in cheap housing and working temporary jobs. I don’t want to do this anymore. This type of living simply doesn’t allow you to plan responsibly for the future, and once you hit a certain age and need to start making significant long term plans (e.g. children, major financial decisions) this lack of stability becomes much more significant. I know this is a reality for many people, and they make it work, but it is not one that I wish to volunteer for if I have the luxury of a choice.

  3. Quality of work - Beginning a new job is exhausting. You have to continuously process new information, build relationships, and make the best impression possible. It usually takes months to get past this “new job threshold” and feel settled in a new position. I cannot imagine never really settling in to a workplace, or that I’d do my best work under these conditions.

All that said, in order to be able to work as a librarian, I would have dealt with all of this for a certain period of time if it resulted in a reasonable possibility of moving into a full time position. This is really the crux of the problem: taking an auxiliary/short term library position in the current job market essentially means accepting these conditions indefinitely, and this is not something I’m willing to do.  I understand the concept of putting your time in, but this only makes sense if there is light at the end of the tunnel. I have watched my friends as they have struggled to find jobs, and this does not appear to be the case with most of the available library work in the lower mainland.

The auxiliary system used by most public libraries doesn’t look much like an opportunity to get a foot in the door. It looks more like being crammed onto the  front porch, with as many people shoved in next to you as possible, knowing that most of you have little chance of ever getting into the building. Ultimately, I am not willing to sacrifice my quality of life in every other area just for a job, regardless of how much I want that job. So for now at least, I have stepped away from the library scene.

There are many, many very talented and accomplished librarians working in the lower mainland so I doubt that my exit from the library scene is any great loss. But if I have moved on for these reasons, others probably have too, and still others may only be able to wait out the current conditions for so long. Having a limited number of jobs is one thing; people will keeping looking until they are able to get one. However, if the vast majority of available jobs are highly undesirable, qualified people - especially the most talented new professionals - will eventually stop applying for work in the field.

I love libraries and would love to put my degree to use as a librarian, so I sincerely hope that hiring practices in the lower mainland change so that I might have a chance of doing so while maintaining a reasonable standard of living. In the meantime, I feel I have no choice but to take my skills where they – and I – will be valued so that I can enjoy the quality of life that we all deserve.

(by S. Martin)