Cecilia Muir’s astonishing performance at the ACA plenary yesterday really inspired me. Here’s the result. It’s a work in progress…
Library and Archives Canada is a holy place. It is a cathedral to the national memory; the place where Canada’s stories are enshrined. It is a place where we commune with our ancestors; where we hear them speak to us with voices very like our own. It holds every book ever published in this country; the cumulative creative genius of every Canadian author who ever set pen to paper or hunched at a keyboard. The historical documents which rest in its vaults bear direct witness to the shaping of this nation. They were written by many hands – the hands of the mighty, the hands of the meek; the hands of the many, the hands of the few.
Incongruously, for a modern building, its walls seem alive, resonant with the weight of the stories they contain. Some are stories we all know, some are known only to a few. Perhaps the most important of all are the stories waiting to be told, if only we can give them the time to take life. The stories belong to all of us, all who have ever drawn breath on this soil - and more, for ultimately they belong to the whole world. Library and Archives Canada is the place where those stories are held in trust for all.
Nor has the institution been idle in discharging these weighty responsibilities. It has striven to be proactive – seeking out the stories which are in danger of being snuffed out, which are in danger of being forgotten forever, and seeing to it that they come home. It has been a champion of knowledge, of fairness, of free expression, of the right of the citizenry to really own their collective memory. It has been a world leader in promoting and supporting the work of librarians, archivists, information scientists, historians, journalists, teachers – all those whose business it is to know and to make known. It has been proud of these accomplishments and has rejoiced in sharing them with the world.
Its statutory mandate speaks to this sense of gravitas. According to the law, it is LAC’s duty to duty “to acquire and preserve the documentary heritage” and to “make that heritage known to Canadians and to anyone with an interest in Canada and to facilitate access to it”; furthermore, LAC must “support the development of the library and archival communities.” In so many words we see laid forth a clear vision of LAC’s responsibility to the people, to the nation’s heritage, and to the people whose life’s work is the stewardship of that heritage. The stewardship of the stories, if you will. This vision of LAC has been a source of great strength to Canada’s information professionals - indeed, it has been a source of great strength to all to all Canada’s people.
Recently, though, we have heard of a different vision for Library and Archives Canada. Its mandate as cathedral to the nation’s memory seems to have outgrown its usefulness. The measure of its success, in the words of its own management, rests only its political loyalty to a government which seems to see it as beneath contempt. Its budget is being cruelly slashed; the projected savings are mere pennies in the public purse. The financial gains to the Canadian economy garnered through investment in programs as the National Archival Development Program are beyond reckoning – and yet even the NADP finds itself obliterated in spite of a glowing 2010 Federal audit that found it to be not only cost-effective but actually essential for supporting Canada’s documentary heritage. The very idea that these cuts represent any legitimate cost-saving exercise is folly and must not be countenanced. LAC is under concerted attack from without (as its funding is attacked and its political support is withdrawn) and from within (as its management seeks to undermine its mandate as a heritage leader).
This new Library and Archives Canada risks becoming an actively counter-progessive force in making information available to the public. Thousands of government documents vanish from its website – when will they return? Reference services retract. Archival work across the board is savagely undercut. Cataloguing is disproportionately punished. Digitization is cut by half. Access to a librarian or archivist now requires an appointment. A moratorium on purchased accessions has dragged on into a three-year lapse during which hundreds of historical documents have vanished from Canada forever – many sold on ebay no doubt, going to the shrewdest bidder. Interlibrary loans have been abolished outright. There is even talk of requiring publishers to deposit only one copy of every Canadian book; LAC won’t need a use copy any more, after all.
It is an unhappy workplace – a place where librarians and archivists feel their ethics are unwelcome and their opinions must be left at the door if they are to survive at all. Staff there are being treated shamefully. These are librarians, archivists, library technicians, conservators, information scientists - people who have made it their life’s work to care for the stories of this country. They fear for their jobs, knowing that one in every five people they work with be sacked – but not yet whom. They are forced to compete with their colleagues and friends for their own positions. Layer upon layer of management isolate frontline staff from anybody with the power to ameliorate their plight. Employees are muzzled and fear speaking their minds about what is happening - even in their own time. Entire departments and portfolios of responsibility are being quietly written out of existence. It is disgraceful that the library and archival community has not been more assiduous in expressing its solidarity for our colleagues there.
And where are the rest of us in all this, those who don’t work at LAC itself? Previously, LAC has taken its statutory obligation to “support the development of the library and archival communities” very seriously. Not only we but all Canadians have benefited from that support. Programs like the NADP were the envy of the world, allowing hundreds of small community archives to flourish across Canada – all costing a laughably tiny sum. RAD, Canada’s standard for archival arrangement and description, was widely acknowledged to be among the best worldwide. A librarian from LAC went on to become the first Canadian President of the International Federation of Library Administrations and Associations. The professional achievements LAC has supported have been shining lights in the heritage world.
But now we are told that those days are over. We should expect no further professional support. Canada’s heritage achievements and the huge revenues which have accompanied them are as nothing. Our professional communities can expect no goodwill from the nation. We, it seems, are to be forgotten by the State. Would that it were only us - but it seems that many of the stories are to be forgotten too, and the telling of them is no longer to be cherished. The books, the manuscripts, the photographs, the reels of tape and film, the bits and the bytes – they are to fend for themselves on a free market.
Library and Archives Canada, in other words, is looking rather less holy these days.
It should go without saying that these measures are unrepentantly Philistine. I think that’s actually the point. The authors of these policies, inside LAC and out, seem assured in the belief that heritage and information professionals really are as incompetent as they make us out – that if they withdraw the auspices of the State we, and the stories, will merely wither and cease to be. As if to drive that point home, LAC told the nation’s archivists this week us that if Canada’s national memory and documentary heritage are to be cared for, we must be the ones to do it. We alone. They don’t seem particularly confident that we’ll succeed, and they haven’t seemed very interested - so far - in helping us do so. It seems they’re content to let us be forgotten.
Well, there’s nothing for it. We must take that as a challenge and prove them wrong - and we know a thing or two, after all, about not forgetting. We must somehow manage to help LAC regain its sense of self and its sense of civic duty while realistically planning for a future where the institution is unwilling or unable to live up to its previous role as heritage leader and steward of Canada’s memory. The landscape is changing, whatever we might wish.
Whatever happens, we will have to negotiate with LAC in order to move forward. We’re the professionals, after all, and our voices should be strong and clear in helping plan for the future. That does not mean, however, capitulating to unreasonable demands or abandoning our professional ethics. Our standing at that negotiating table must be as equals not vassals. Riding roughshod over the principled concerns of experts is not the way to formulate sound and sustainable policy. A Pan-Canadian Documentary Heritage Forum – put forward as the means by which archivists and librarians can have some say in the dismantling of Canada’s information infrastructure – has so far turned out to be little more than a rubber stamp on decisions taken behind closed doors at LAC. The whole affair is more than a little redolent of Access Copyright’s juvenile attempts at blackmailing the nation’s universities, and seeing professional organisations cave in to such behaviour is profoundly demoralising. If LAC is unwilling to lead it must be content to follow the good counsel of people whose business it is to actually know what they’re talking about.
If there is a way forward in all this, it is through a renewed commitment to our sense of purpose and our sense of professional identity. We need our professional organisations now more than ever – and we need them to show real leadership rather than crude realpolitik. We need to lean on each other. We need a reinvigorated commitment to our principles around intellectual freedom, equity of access to information, and the necessity of maintaining some degree of remove in preserving and protecting society’s memory - lest it become mere propaganda. We must be more willing than ever to talk about the dangerous ends to which the stories can be put. We must make plain the terrible risks we take when we leave the weaving of narratives which affect all our lives to people who have no higher purpose than winning the next election or turning a quarterly profit. We must be vocal champions of free inquiry and critical thinking and information literacy - and of the freedom of all people to access that information. We must, and I’m sorry to say it, get political. We have to stand up for ourselves, our jobs, and for the stories. And through it all, we must maintain the extremely high standards of professionalism and service delivery of which we are so justly proud.
If we are to look for support, we must first look around us to the people we serve; they must be the final measure of our success. We need to be prominent advocates on behalf of the Canadian people around our core principles. We must grow accustomed to fulfilling that responsibility visibly in the public eye and thereby ensuring that these issues stay in the public mind. We have done an excellent job of drafting lofty position statements around our beliefs in the information professions, but perhaps we have been less assiduous in making them real. Our ethics need to be lived; our principles need to be made real. That is more true than it has ever been. People in the world shouldn’t have to ask themselves questions about what good we are - they should be able to see it plainly. For that to happen, we have to take our role as champions of the public good more seriously than we have ever done before. And we must be vocal about it.
We must also look above us. There is no way to avoid thinking in terms of patronage. If we are to survive in this strange new feudalism, we must prove – now more than ever – that we are worthy of support. First, we must comport ourselves with dignity. We need to respect ourselves and show others that we command respect by virtue of the work we do. When we feel that our concerns are being overridden by policymakers, we must make it publicly known and we must explain why we stand by our assessments. Second, we must be clever in our allies. Many among the mighty do not share our principles; many are cunning enough to fear the stories but not wise enough to understand them. But not all. Some feel the same way you do – seek them out! Be relentless and innovative in seeking new sources of funding. Try to always feel you are bargaining from a position of strength, that you’re one of the good guys. It helps.
This may all seem very grandiose. Many of us didn’t ever think that being a librarian or an archivist was ever going to become a revolutionary activity. Many of us never believed that this would be asked of us. All I ever particularly wanted to do was crawl into a stack of arcane tomes, reading esoteric things and cackling periodically, never to be heard from again. Or maybe to sit on a reference desk, fielding questions and getting to feel like I was making some kind of a difference at the end of the day. I could never quite make up my mind. I certainly never imagined that I’d be called on to embody the principles I hold or that it would somehow become my responsibility to keep those principles alive in the public mind. You may still be thinking that it’s not your responsibility. You may even wonder what any of this has to do with you! All this high talk about “stories” and “heritage” and “memory” – preposterous!
Well, we do have lots of fancy words around the stories, to be sure. And we tend to forget that the mightiest stories - like “Canada” – are built of smaller stories. We could call them by their more prosaic names, if you like. We could call them “information”. We could call them “library resources”. We could call them “archival holdings”. We could call them “data” or “bytes” or “books”. We could call them “memories”. And what do we call ourselves? What do we call the people who care about the stories? We could call ourselves “systems designers” or “archivists” or “informaticians” or “conservators”. We could call ourselves “archaeologists” or “museologists” or “information scientists” – or even “librarians”. We could, more broadly, just call ourselves “people”. We are united, I think, in taking inspiration from certain new stories – especially those being told about “openness” – of data, of source code, of copyright, of access to academic and scientific publications. We’re ultimately a group of people who believe strongly in the transformative potential of knowledge and who share joy at the idea that it can make a difference in our world.
We believe, you see, that it has been worth saving these stories and ensuring that they continue to be told. We believe this is not mere fashion - it is a public good that it be so. We believe that the stories have much to teach us about the best and the worst in ourselves. We believe that without those lessons we are a poorer people. We believe that forgetting them diminishes us and shows profound disrespect for those who have gone before us and the deeds they have done for good and ill. Remembering the stories is our duty, but we do far more than just that. We believe in helping others learn to cherish the stories, to listen to them, to think critically and ask “why is this so?”. We believe in working to make sure that all people have access to them. We believe in helping people write new ones. At the heart of it, we believe that people can use the stories – whatever you want to call them – to accomplish things that will astonish and sustain us all. We stand in opposition to anything which might jeopardize that. Are you one of us?