UBC’s School of Library, Archival and Information Studies (or iSchool, as I believe it prefers to style itself) finds itself in an unenviable position at present. Its ALA accreditation - a vital criterion for issuing the MLIS degree - was reduced to “Conditional” earlier this year owing to numerous concerns on the part of the committee; UBC will lose its ALA accreditation entirely if these problems are not addressed within two years.
Meanwhile, the MAS program - one of the best, and indeed one of the only, postgraduate archival education programs in the world - faces an uncertain future in spite of the consistently excellent theoretical and practical contributions of its students and alumni and its relatively strong support from Canada’s archival community. What Canadian archivist has not heard of Luciana Duranti or Heather MacNeil? What archival student has not read Reto Tschan’s seminal comparison of Jenkinson and Schellenberg? SLAIS students so consistently win ARMA scholarships - often several in any given year - that it almost seems unfair.
In the midst of all this upheaval, the School is soliciting feedback from the community on its proposed criteria for new graduates across all its programs - I strongly encourage all Canadian information professionals to participate, as Canada has comparatively few centers of higher education for information professionals, and what befalls one has significant implications for the future of all. This is especially true with regard to archives. The survey itself closes tomorrow, but I encourage interested groups and individuals to write to the school, if so inclined, with comments.
I don’t want to editorialise too much about the criteria themselves, except insofar as I can’t resist pointing out that the emphasis on foundational ethics is so slim as to be non-existent - a major concern for me. I encourage you all to head over to the survey and share your own thoughts - a few words in support of libraries, and archives in particular, might go a long way.
UBC’s School of Library, Archival and Information Studies (or iSchool, as I believe it prefers to style itself) finds itself in an unenviable position at present. Its ALA accreditation - a vital criterion for issuing the MLIS degree - was reduced to “Conditional” earlier this year owing to numerous concerns on the part of the committee; UBC will lose its ALA accreditation entirely if these problems are not addressed within two years.
My opponents have talked a lot about the need for the library to re-envision itself, to reshape its image for the 21st century so people don’t think we’re dusty dead old spaces filled with books anymore. Newsflash: people dig books! That’s gonna persist. It would be a shame if they became the domain of hipsters, like vinyl has - and I say this out of the purest sense of altruism, because my personal book collection is, like, majestic. First crack at the sale table has its advantages, amirite? I directly benefit from library discards. Full disclosure. And while we’re on the subject of full disclosure, I’d remind you that one of my opponents thinks that reading and writing are doomed and that literacy is actually already dead…but that’s kind of puzzling because I definitely am reading these words right now. So maybe take what he has to say with a grain of salt.
But seriously. Collections are a tangible part of our aesthetic. Our brand. As much as it pains me to speak in terms of marketing, the concept of “brand” is important and will continue to be so in our society. Whether we like it or not, collections are a big part of the reason we exist in the consciousness of the general public at all. That alone is certainly not inconsequential. The aesthetic of the library has a powerful mystique, a comfort to offer, and we interfere with that at our peril. Let’s remember the words of one of our greatest poets, Maya Angelou, who passed away this week. Speaking of the shelter libraries had given her as a child, she said:
"I read every book. I read every one. I always knew…from the time I found myself at home in that little segregated library in the South, all the way up until I walked up the steps of the New York City library, I always felt, in any town, if I can get to a library, I’ll be OK. It really helped me as a child, and that never left me. So I have a special place for every library, in my heart of hearts."
That sentiment is shared by so many people. So many. Those kids are still coming to the library today, reading those books, goofing around on our xboxes or our recording equipment or our 3D printers or whatever other zany and ingenious things we’ve managed to shoehorn into our big, brawling, rough-and-tumble idea of what a library collection can be.
That’s not to say the frustration we experience in feeling constrained by our brand isn’t real, or that it doesn’t have anything to teach us. I know people who rail furiously about the indelible association of books with the concept of the library - and they are worth listening to! - but to me this frustration speaks to a need for diversification, not the abandonment of what is, at its core, a remarkably successful social experiment in trust, community, and sharing. What could be more radical than the idea of a place where you just hand people valuable things to walk out the door with and everybody just expects they’ll be brought back and that’s accepted and normal? Are you kidding me? That is awesome. And I’m not ready to tell people facilitating that it’s inconsequential.
But all this prating on my part is sounding pretty defensive, when of course collections don’t actually really need defending. It’s already the 21st century. 2014. Let’s look back one hundred years, to 1914 - events were taking place then which gave shape to the whole rest of the century. Let us not dare make the make of believing our own days are inconsequential. We will be sorely tested in this century - as indeed so many of us are already sorely tested - and it is my fervent hope that libraries will be there to help. More than that, I hope we will continue to tailor the services we provide the communities we serve and their needs rather than hurtful, unhelpful maximalist ideas about what is and isn’t worthy of libraries. Collections matter, however we decide they’re going to look over the course of this century. Acknowledging that costs us nothing, while denying it does both ourselves and our patrons great harm.
A few weeks ago, I was a participant in the CLA Great Debate, the moderation of which has justly occasioned so much comment. I will not contribute further to that worthy discourse here; instead, I would like to share some remarks from the debate itself—the resolution was given as “Be it resolved: collections are inconsequential to the libraries of the 21st century”.
I was debating in the negative alongside Jane Schmidt (Ryerson University); opposed, in the affirmative, were Mike Ridley (University of Guelph) and Jennifer Burns (YBP Library Services). Below you will find Jane’s and my first negative constructive arguments—this is where we lay out the reasons collections aren’t inconsequential.*
According to the UKOLN (UK online learning network) A collection is an aggregation of physical and/or electronic items. e.g. library collections; museum collections; archives; library, museum and archival catalogues; digital archives; Internet directories; Internet subject gateways; collections of text; images; sounds; datasets; software etc. A collection may be made up of any number of items from one to many. Libraries are deeply invested in their collections.
Some would say that they are our bread and butter. The notion that their consequence is in question is likely quite shocking to many of you in this room as many of your livelihoods are deeply invested in collections. Last year, for example, CRKN licensed $88million worth of journal literature alone! I’m sure that the funding bodies of those participating organizations would be keen to hear more about this notion that we are throwing incredible sums of money at content that is apparently irrelevant. Of course, the conservative government would agree with our opponents, perhaps we’ve misjudged them and rather than being the librarians they claim to be, they are moles for Tony Clement.
Ranganathan, in his discussion of the 5th law of library science (the library is a growing organism), states that we shall assume that the library must and does grow. He refers to the Quincy plan, which is to equalize the rate of weeding out and the rate of accessioning after the size of the collection reaches an arbitrary norm. Our opponents would have the audience believe that we have reached that arbitrary norm, that in Quincy’s time and place was 40,000 books. Indeed, we can confirm that the growth of human knowledge and its need to be packaged, organized, and for the time being, sold, has not, and will not peter out any time soon. Indeed, even though the aforementioned book has been in existence for over 80 years, the only original and complete copy I was able to find online was in a (you guessed it) library. Thanks to University of Arizona’s Digital Library of Information and Science Technology for, you know, doing that.
Two minutes in, library collections 1, no library collections, 0.
Libraries do not merely collect books. Indeed, I agree that most quick facts, and even some in-depth knowledge can be found through relatively idle browsing. I even hear that the internet is on computers now to facilitate this phenomenon. Collection development as it exists in libraries is a multi-faceted entity unto itself, and thus far has not been duplicated by commonly available tools such as Google or Amazon. Have you ever really looked at some of the titles that Amazon recommends for you? Have you ever had to wish that you could un-see an image after a particularly poorly worded Google Image search? That, my friends, is what a collection development librarian can do for you … minimize your exposure to Occupational Hazard: The Ultimate Workplace Romance Box Set when you were searching for organizational behavior.
Scenarios that persist in extolling the decline of the library are usually grounded in technological determinism. The big guys are doing it better, so why should we even try? Except, clearly they are not. Hell hath no fury like the engineering prof who is informed that a core journal in their field will no longer be available via the library. How many times has a student asked you if the library had their textbook? And, let me tell you about the time that we tried to cancel the Alternative Press Index due to low use during a budget cut scenario. When we informed the poli-sci faculty, they practically demanded our heads on a stake. One was actually quoted as saying “I had no idea that even existed! We must have it”. Simply put, if we don’t have collections, faculty will be lost at sea with nothing but paywalls everywhere they paddle.
The pessimist (cough, Rick Anderson) may interpret this as the library solely acting as a purchasing agent, while the optimist (Barb Fister) insists that “our history and future are in the promotion of our shared resources and spaces for idea creation that can flow from this atmosphere”. Slate recently posted about the desire students have to be surrounded by books. “Collections are the biggest thing that separate libraries from Jamba Juice”, the article insists, “Libraries have a problem with shiny things”. To abandon collections in favour of “every 3D printer it’s giddy user” and “Every giddy user their latest in hot tech trends” is to abandon our very foundations. Ranganathan would not be impressed.
So Jane has done an admirable job of showing us why simply dismissing the notion of ‘collections’ is a lot more complicated and problematic than it might seem—databases, journals, books, computers, even 3d printers, all are part of collections. My colleagues on the other side have recounted a lot of anecdotes about books, which were weird, and sort of talked about the wonderful happy pony land we’ll all inhabit when we bail on collections and gallivant free and naked into the brave book-free new future. I’d like to add to all that by talking a little bit about the real world that we actually inhabit right now.
First of all I’d like to remind you that in the real world, the word inconsequential means “not important” or “not worthy of thinking about”. My colleagues are supposed to be defending the notion that collections are beneath our consideration, that they’re already so passé they don’t bear talking about. In other words, the only way for them to win this debate would be not to participate in it, so I’d like to thank them for being game enough to come out anyway.
Now before I get too far into gear, I’d like to point out that I am a public librarian. I am, in point of fact, the only public librarian sitting up here today, which of course means I actually work for a living. I work directly with members of the public every day, trying to help them meet their information needs, and I I hope you’ll forgive me if it colours my perceptions somewhat.
I also hope you’ll believe me when I say that the idea that our user base would be OK with us abandoning collections is completely absurd. I work in two of the largest cities in the province—one of which also happens to be among the fastest-growing cities in Canada—and our patrons hugely value our collections; they routinely tell us so. That feedback is not inconsequential to me, and neither are the people it comes from. We frequently hear that we’re the only way patrons have of accessing the internet, reading the newspaper, getting a good book to curl up with—all of which fall under the remit of collections. I am not prepared to dismiss those needs as unimportant.
Jane talked a bit about technological determinism—our innate tendency to let our excitement over the potential of new technology cloud our judgement, to skew our thinking about who is and isn’t left out of the new paradigm we so gleefully envisage. Libraries are as guilty of this as anyone. We have to be careful that in our genuine, well-meaning desire to implement transformative technologies we don’t lose sight of the fact we’re not all on a level playing field.
And the playing field is not level. Away from the ivory tower, income inequality and poverty are proliferating at a remarkable rate in this country. Just a few weeks ago, the OECD published a report showing that Canada has one of the fastest-growing rates of income inequality in the developed world; that is a decades-long trend that shows no sign of reversing but is in fact increasing in severity. This province has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world. For many communities, access to library resources is still a much-needed lifeline.
Here in BC, for example, we have a program called Write to Read which helps to establish libraries in first nations communities, and that program deals exclusively with books at this stage. Good old-fashioned books. And those books, those “collections”, are greeted in those communities with joy when they arrive. They are loved to death, because the people know how precious they are—something like ⅔ of Ontario’s first nations communities don’t have public libraries at all.
So when you see a program like Write to Read, before you dismiss it out of hand please remember that those are the only books a lot of kids in those communities to have access to. My opponents would have you believe that is inconsequential, that work of that sort is not the proper province of libraries because collections are so yesterday. I dare you to go tell that to the people who benefit from these programs.
Of course it isn’t only socioeconomically less fortunate people or those living in remote communities who benefit from access to library collections—everyone benefits. Library collections unite us, giving us access to a shared body of knowledge that is inherently democratic and curated specifically to enrich the cultural and intellectual life of our communities.
Nor should we ignore or abandon our role as advocates for the rights of people who use our materials. The fact we are so invested in collections gives us whatever credibility we have with publishers, with licensers, Amazon, and the rest. If you think we do a shitty job now, wait and see how much pull we have when we get out of the business of resource sharing.
Wait and see how much Elsevier listens to you when you aren’t a potential stakeholder in the protection racket anymore. Look at what Amazon is doing to Hachette right now—that is insane. Our voice is sorely needed in these debates. Look at the open access movement, or the concept of institutional repositories. Those successes stem directly from our thinking about collections and how we can re-contextualise them for a new era.
And I’ll tell you another thing - I have university students coming to me on the public library ref-desk almost every day, looking for copies of textbooks they can’t afford and that their academic libraries don’t provide in sufficient quantity. Oops! Maybe the reason people can feel justified in abandoning collections is because they’ve done such a poor job with them that their users have despaired. Just throwing that out there.
Perhaps I can wrap up my evisceration of this fatuous proposition with a few words on the subject of predictions in general: “Predictions are a mug’s game. If they come true, you likely didn’t push your thinking hard enough. If they don’t come true, you risk looking like an idiot” - which, of course, was said by Stephen Abram.
* NB: I was mildly put out not to have been in the affirmative on this—I had planned to portray a truly villainous, mustache-twirling library futurist of the most smarmy and vile sort, but as it happened we were not in short supply for this caricature even without my intervention.
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 Isaiah—and since it is Easter, after all—I can’t resist a Parthian shot: “Now Will I Rise, Saith the Lord”: Augury, Authority, and Arrogance in Post-Recession Library Consulting
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.