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Possibly deranged; definitely political.
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Canadiana & LAC: paywalling Canadian heritage?

Heads up, people.

Reports from the CLA conference in Winnipeg indicate that Library and Archives Canada are currently in talks with Canadiana to both:

  • (A) outsource some digitization work on LAC holdings to Canadiana, and
  • (B) develop a paywalled content delivery system for Canadian digital heritage held by LAC

Apparently there is talk of profit margins, paywalling, an ad-supported portal site, and specialised services and/or tailored curation for high-value customers. I imagine we will see a press release touting the supposed benefits of all this within a month or two.

Slow down. Read that whole first section again. Now read it a third time.

There are so many things wrong with this I hardly know where to begin. Here are a couple of immediate observations:

  • Heritage holdings under LAC stewardship are public property. Canadians have already paid for these items to be acquired, preserved, and made accessible. Forcing them to pay for these items again is tantamount to an admission that LAC has wasted public money and is no longer worthy of public trust. I repeat: this decision amounts to an announcement that LAC no longer feels that it can, or should even attempt to, meet its statutory mandate under Canadian law as “a source of enduring knowledge accessible to all”. 
  • "Public-private partnerships" of this kind far too often - usually, I would contend - shake out as ways of privatising profit and publicising risk on key components of civic infrastructure. Their organisational and funding structure effectively creates a private, for-profit monopoly claiming exclusive rights to what is properly a public good. Anybody who has ever tried to deal with BC Hydro or Translink here in British Columbia knows what I mean.*
  • At every turn, for years and years, Library and Archives Canada has defended the total disembowelling of its ability to provide in-person service to Canadians by saying these changes will result in increased, and more universal, online service delivery. Paywalling digital heritage is a total betrayal of these promises and reveals the mendacity behind LAC’s rhetoric in recent years.
  • This project acknowledges what many of us have been speculating all along - by terminating so many expert staff and throwing away decades of expertise and infrastructure built by Canadian information professionals, LAC has indeed compromised itself to a point where it is unable to continue. When we said LAC couldn’t afford to lose all those librarians and archivists and information architects, this is what we meant.

I’m not prepared to listen to reason on this. I don’t care about the good intentions of the people who might be involved. They may be lovely, lovely folks. Good for them. That doesn’t change the fact that this plan should never have been hatched in the first place. Everything that follows from that starting point is tainted.

If we ever needed proof that LAC has been negotiating in bad faith with both heritage professionals and the citizenry it exists to serve, this is it.

*Am I being too obtuse? OK, try this on: public-private partnerships are frequently a legal way of stealing citizens’ property and then selling it back to them at a premium. That is to say, not cool.

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