Library and Archives Canada: History and the Realpolitik

I went to Library and Archives Canada recently to do some research. Entering the building on Wellington Street in downtown Ottawa I was struck by how Soviet-like the place looked. Devoid of colour and joy, it seemed dead; absent of people, books, life; the grim closets that pass for exhibition space lay bare – three sterile, empty rooms with nothing in them.

I asked the receptionist why there weren’t any exhibits on display. “There hasn’t been anything going on here for more than a year and a half” she told me. “And there’s nothing planned that I’m aware of.”

Not that the space ever was much to ‘write home about’ – it’s never been widely promoted; in fact the miserable little postage stamp of a visitors parking lot serves, more than anything, as a disincentive to come to the place. Three pathetic little exhibition rooms, no parking – and no exhibits planned. This is the place that history holds in Canada’s national memory? This is ‘making our heritage known to Canadians’?

On New Year’s day 2008 during a photo op at Mario Annecchini’s 2001 Audio Video store Stephen Harper announced that his Conservative government was making good on its promise to cut the GST from seven to six to five per cent.

This move, known in political circles as an example of ‘Starving the beast,’ has, since its execution, cost the Federal government an estimated $11 billion in revenues per year. The ensuing ‘fiscal budget crisis’ has in turn given the Conservatives a laudable, responsible-sounding script with which to sell smaller government, and impose cuts to important federal institutions, in this case Library and Archives Canada.

The problem is that these cuts are crippling.

They are preventing LAC from fulfilling its mandate; its mandate to acquire and present the country’s documentary heritage, to make this heritage known to Canadians and other interested parties around the world, and to facilitate access to its collection of source materials.

Judging from recent budget cuts, the empty and inadequate exhibition space I witnessed, and the lack of public programming, it’s clear that the current government thinks little of Library and Archives Canada. Instead of the reverence that most civilized countries bestow on such institutions, our leaders treats it with disdain, doubtless believing that their behaviour will go unnoticed by a nation much more concerned with ‘jobs,’ the economy, and the Olympics; that cuts to LAC will exact minimal pain at the polls.

Perhaps they’re right. But the peril threatened by such ignorance is significant.

In almost every episode of his brilliant television series The Ascent of Money, historian Niall Ferguson is filmed in a library referring to a real manuscript or codex, an original business record or a centuries-old history book. With these source documents he corroborates and identifies sociological advancements and economic setbacks, innovations for the public good and corruption that has bankrupted entire countries. Old Ponzi schemes cooked up by people such as stock market originator John Law are compared to similar transgressions today, masterminded by the likes of Enron’s Ken Lay.

Naomi Wolf does similar work in her book The End of Democracy and the movie based on it, illustrating how encroachments made on civil liberties by the Nazis in 1930s Germany bare striking resemblance to those introduced in the name of fighting terrorism during the past decade by George Bush Jr.

These ideas and opinions could not have been formulated without access to original, verifiable source materials. Without these documents, ‘truths’ cannot be gotten at, lessons cannot be learned, comparisons cannot be made. At the same time, without knowledge of them, freedoms can be taken away. Democracy can be undermined. People can get shafted.

By shafting Library and Archives Canada and diminishing the role it plays, the Conservative government shafts all Canadians.

History helps us to understand present trends, and to avoid past mistakes. It provides a giant source of data from which we can study the collective human condition, learn about how our society works and understand why it changes. In the free, Western world, history serves as a reminder of the dangers that face democracy and open societies. Access to, and knowledge of history typically produces good, engaged citizens. It provides answers to questions about how and why national institutions emerge, what values are important and worth fighting for, and how changes to institutions and values can affect our lives. Studying and knowing about history encourages responsible public behaviour and creates informed voters enabling them to compare and evaluate past, present and future governments and leaders.

If, for example, more Canadians had known that minority governments have over the years been among the more productive in Canadian history (Pearson’s minority introduced universal health care, student loans, the Canada Pension Plan, the Order of Canada and the Maple Leaf), perhaps fewer of us would have listened to Stephen Harper’s plea during the last election for a majority government, the only way, he contended, he’d ever be able to get anything done in Ottawa.

Perhaps, if more had known that majority government in Canada is in many ways the same as a dictatorship, and that it fosters disdain not only for democracy but for the institution of Parliament and the role of the public sector, Library and Archives Canada wouldn’t be in the soup it’s in today.

Cutting funding for an institution that teaches us about history threatens what we take for granted. Nonchalance about rights and freedoms is a direct result of not knowing how important they are to us.

That acquisition and presentation of history is being neglected by the federal government is nothing new. What is new is the way in which the Conservative party is pointedly bleeding and mismanaging the institution responsible for this task, and how brazenly – or brilliantly, depending upon the colour of your tie – it is using public funds to finesse the historical record for partisan purposes.

Using public funds for partisan politics is, according to many, morally questionable. Some might call it undemocratic. Others, illegal. Should Ontario Premier Dalton McGinty’s signature and best wishes appear on the stubs of government welfare cheques and other support payments?

At the same time the Conservative government is cutting LAC, should it be funding War of 1812 celebrations? Will this, as Carleton University Prof Paul Litt suggests in a recent article for iPolitics, be succeeded seamlessly by First World War centenary commemorations? “Recall,” Litt writes,

that in 1984 Orwell’s Big Brother state was constantly at war to keep its own citizenry in line, and you can see the efficacy of this approach. The Harper nation requires cultural heritage only as a source of superficial symbols to propagandize its citizens and differentiate it from competitors in the global marketplace. For this a postmodern rhetoric in which image trumps substance is sufficient.
 Cuts to cultural institutions do more than just dismantle the machinery of the progressive state,” says Litt, “they bleed the substance of our nation, facilitating further decentralization of the federation. Welcome to a new type of country, a “Little Canada” with a public sphere devoid of any communal heritage beyond the branding needed to sell Canada to the world and the government to the electorate.

Just as the public won’t put up with Conservative party communications people writing the nightly news for Peter Mansbridge, so shouldn’t it object to the manipulation of history for partisan purposes?

With its focus on war, the Conservatives are diverting public money from an important independent institution and using it to bolster a political agenda.

If history is important, then so too are the source documents upon which it is based.

One of the reasons source documents are so important is that they can’t easily be changed without people knowing about it. It’s difficult to alter them, or erase them, without it being noticed. Digitized documents on the other hand are more easily revised or erased . . . and typically have short seven- to eight-year lifespans.

According to noted archivist Terry Cook, history and source documents also provide accountability. In order to successfully prove negligence or to sue the government, you need source evidence to prove your case. You must produce the record. With human rights violations, for example, in order to prove wrongdoing, you must show that your ancestors were wrong done by. Archival records are essential if mistreatment is to be proven in a court of law. They’re also essential to the prosecution of wrongdoing. For example, retired Navy Admiral John Poindexter lost his job as National Security Adviser under Ronald Reagan in the Iran-Contra scandal in part because of the existence of a memo he wrote approving of Oliver North’s lying to Congress.

Form affects meaning. When text is moved from the codex to the screen it changes. New methods of reading and types of devices change the conditions under which a text is received and understood. Historians when trying to make sense of the past must understand the meaning of a book; understand how it was read, what its relative value was to society. To forget this is to introduce the risk of a distorted interpretation of the past.

Source documents aid in the scholarly and popular telling of history. They’re important to the function of research: in the tracing of personal genealogy, for example, they provide proof of events having taken place, a physical connection with the past, and evidence of blood ties. Seeing an original handwritten letter or diary entry can at the same time satisfy an intellectual need and cause an emotional reaction.

That digitization will allow many more people access to LAC collections is beyond doubt. What is questionable is that it be undertaken at the expense of collecting and preserving essential historic source materials.

It’s more important to ensure that history is recorded and preserved – and that source materials are displayed in context and made available for research and study – than it is to go into a scanning frenzy.

If there’s a need to choose – and given the ‘fiscal crisis’ we’re in, it seems we must – then scanning should take a back seat to the acquisition of what’s historically important, to preservation and to the contextualized display of source materials. Only then, once these essential objectives have been accomplished, should we consider scanning. The opposite is now taking place.

A National Library should facilitate the study and understanding of material culture. Scanning is clerical work. Set up some technical agency, Scan Canada, or better yet – if this is what Mr. Harper wants – farm it out to the private sector, let them deal with this menial task, and let librarians and archivists do what they were trained to do.

There are four important tasks facing Library and Archives Canada: yes, to digitize important original documents so that the public can access them online; to develop a strategy to capture documentation representative of the explosion of digital activity currently taking place in Canada; to ensure that important source materials continue to be acquired and preserved; and to display in context and make accessible these source materials to Canadians so that they can see, experience and learn from them in person.

This last task is the most important, and it’s the one that gets no mention at all from Daniel J. Caron, Librarian and Archivist at Library and Archives Canada. Speaking to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, December 6, 2012, he said that “we are moving further away from the concept of a traditional institution, one that would serve as a stand-alone monolithic entity solely responsible for providing Canadians with access to documentary heritage.” Further on in his presentation he declared “we’re not in the museum business.”

No support for a strong comprehensive, central depository. No bold acquisition policy; no national, co-ordinated, innovative presentation programs. By neglecting the physical, Library and Archives and those leading it deny Canadians an important emotional, spiritual, and educational experience, and they weaken the nation.

Last year I launched www.literary tourist.com, a website that contains databases listing thousands of literary destinations, activities and events in Canada and around the world. One goal was to encourage book-lovers and others to get out from behind their computers and into, among other places, used/ antiquarian bookstores and rare book libraries – face-to-face with booksellers and librarians, admiring books, meeting and talking to experts. In short, the idea was and is to help people enjoy the pleasures that can be had from being out in the real world, interacting with actual people, encountering real books, engaging with live culture and experiencing genuine historical source materials.

Some of this sentiment is captured by Lawrence Lande, one of Canada’s all-time great book collectors in his Adventures in Collecting (a beautiful book designed by Robert R. Reid in 1975). Here he writes about the importance of source materials as they pertain to the process of learning about and understanding Canadian history. Addressing a room full of McGill University professors, he says

As a layman, I told them that if I were teaching Canadian history I would try to harness as much of the source material that I could lay my hands on which McGill possesses in her libraries and museums. For example, I would attempt to set up a room with furnishings from the time of Confederation in Canada, including the pictures on the walls and the journals of the day on the table. I would involve my students with the poetry and the literature that was read at the time and the popular music of the day; the clothing that was worn; the medical and social practices and the problems of the day, including alcoholism; and even the methods of transportation and so on . . . .
 Future librarians will be collectors, curators, custodians, and teachers. Because of their access to source material, they will have a knowledge of knowing how to set the stage for any period of history. They will be imaginative in their use of frequent displays of such material. They will have a much wider and continuing involvement with professor and student. They will understand that source material is a medium of communication that not only serves to expand one’s knowledge of the past, but contributes to an understanding of what motivates us today.

The Conservative government is playing games with Canadian history, and in so doing, cutting the legs out from under an essential player. Source materials are not being displayed these days by Library and Archives Canada. Digitization is the priority. This is far from ideal.

In the best Lawrence Lande world, all Canadians would pay attention to history and participate in its acquisition, preservation and presentation. In order to get there, we need government to reinforce the idea that history is important, not some play thing for incumbent parties to dress up using public funds and parade around in order to get re-elected. It’s a resource that must be curated for the good of the country, and kept as far away from politicians as possible.

4 Responses to Library and Archives Canada: History and the Realpolitik

  1. Mike More says:

    The government seems to be trying to make up the funding shortfall by charging for the use of the facilities. The auditorium will cost you $187 + HST in 2013 rising to $748 + HST in three years. Did you want to use the projector? That’s another $500. Wireless? $125. Microphone on the stage? $140. But don;t expect this money to go to LAC. It will go into the general government coffers.

  2. Michael Swift says:

    I was associated with the Public Archives of Canada/National Archives for a period of more than 40 years, both as a student/researcher and as a staff member. I witnessed the work done by 3 great builders: Dr. W. K. Lamb, Dr. Wilfred Smith and Dr. Jean-Pierre Wallot who created an institution envied around the world. It is so sad for me now to see that institution destroyed, either by design or by incompetence, so sad that I can not bear to go into that empty shell of a building on Wellington Street. I refer to the Archives because my association was with that institution, but I know the same can be said of the National Library, built from scratch over a period of 50 years under the leadership of Dr. Lamb, Dr. Guy Sylvester and Dr. Mariann Scott. Perhaps we should learn a lesson from the First Nations People and, rather than lamenting the destruction of these institutions, we should should start our own “Silent No More” campaign.

  3. DMartens-CWA says:

    Researchers are also feeling the effect of the cutbacks to LAC. When I was last there, I was informed that a resource I would need was being phased out (microfiche), and to have help from a reference librarian I would need to make an appointment.

  4. Christina Roberts says:

    Yes, indeed, let’s start a “Silent No More” campaign.

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