Restructuring at Library and Archives Canada, 2012
A favourite program of mine is the series “Who do you think you are.” In it, famous people are followed as they trace their family’s history. Sure, there is a bit of selection in the process, and sure it is all a bit melodramatic, but at its heart lies the connection of the featured celebrity with their family’s past. One of the ways that this connection is demonstrated is through the visiting of various archives and institutions as clues to their ancestors’ lives are revealed. Why do they do that? I think the main reason is to give the person on the journey the opportunity to actually touch their ancestor’s past, to see, feel and smell the documents and objects which reveal their story. For me, that is the principal purpose of an archives, to reveal the past. The value of these objects are their survival to this day, and their ability to demonstrate their story through their physical and intellectual properties. You cannot replace the object in this process.
Library and Archives Canada announced on the 1st of February their changes in the way the public can access the Archives’ collection. In their “New Approach to Service Delivery” they tout the giant success that they feel their website is with its half a million hits a month, as compared to the declining numbers of actual visitors to the Archives’ building in Ottawa, only a measly 2000 a month. It is clear from their statements and their decision to cut the general reference service and genealogical reference service hours and to oblige patrons to make an appointment for reference services, that they believe that their future lies wholly in the digital age.
Am I against having Library and Archives offer searchable digital collections? God, no! I think it is a marvellous idea. LAC should be available for all Canadians. But herein lies the rub. It is the lack of advance planning and the creation of internet/ digital facilities which make the realisation of this idea unrealistic. Have you ever had to use the Archives’ search engine? Have you ever tried to look something up on the Library’s catalogue? They are not that straight forward, and quite frankly, even for someone with years of archival experience, difficult to navigate. I was trying to find a letter written to Lord Elgin in 1849 from the St Andrew’s Society of Montreal, and it took a bit of doing. Try and look up one of my theses, not so easy. You would think since I know my name, it would be.
And that is of course when the web site is operational. It clearly cannot handle the half a million hits a month that it currently gets and goes down on a regular basis. Myself and many of my colleagues have tried to access the site during normal business hours only to find that it has gone down, or that it has slowed to the point of wading through molasses. Weekends are no better. If you are so super keen to see Canadians use the site, then shouldn’t it be geared better so that they can navigate it, and access it.
And is it realistic to believe that all of your collections can exist online? What about the documents that are restricted? You cannot put them online when you have restrictions for viewing them, when you make researchers already wait months, sometimes years to see them. And, what of the value of actually seeing the document or artefact from the collection?
By minimising the contact the public has with the Archives and with its Archivists and Librarians what are we saying about the value of their work. What are we saying about the value of the objects they protect and preserve? As I said earlier in this post, the value of the object not only lies in the words written on their pages, but the objects themselves. They exist as physical reminders of the past. Their pages could be tear-stained, the weight of the book could be huge, the pages might make a crinkly noise when they are turned, these objects were intimately connected to their creator, who touched them, bound them, etc. These are all important factors in connecting with the past, and are not possible to understand when dealing with the digital image.
What do we want from our National Archives and Library? Having a building where people are able to access the actual documents and books of our past is an important part of its function. If the administration of LAC continues to reduce on site services, of course fewer people will come. What is the point of going there if no one is there to help you? But then what is the point of a website that doesn’t serve its purpose to assist its patrons in finding the documents they want?