Library and Archives Canada is, at its heart, the record keeper of Canadian history. Good or bad, if it happened here, it is likely that there are some records which speak to these happenings. But our National Archives which stores our collective past and our National Library which stores our collective voice is in deep trouble. Its budget is shrinking and its ability to serve the people whose past it products is at risk through mismanagement, underfunding and under-appreciation.
There have been a number of studies conducted which have gone to the heart of the problems at Library and Archives Canada, and solutions that could help it. I won’t touch any of these here. Rather I am going to approach the institution’s presence in Ottawa on Wellington. I will merely touch the surface, but then the surface is the first thing you notice.
A lot of rhetoric goes around political circles about how important the business model is, and how it should be applied to the business of government. So let us take some of these business principles and apply them to Library and Archives Canada, and treat it like a retail service point.
Library and Archives Canada sits on prime real estate. It sits at the west end of Wellington Street, about four blocks from Parliament Hill, and less than two from the Supreme Court of Canada. The area is so prime that the Conservative government chose the site in between the Archives and the Supreme Court for its carbuncle of a Memorial to the Victims of Communism.
This is the main drag, where visitors to the Capital will walk (in good weather) down Wellington to the Canadian War Museum, or back again to Parliament. What an excellent vantage to attract interest in their collections. Wasted.
Go past the building on Wellington and you would be hard pressed to identify it as the National Library and Archives. Only a rather small government bog-standard sign is present on the east corner in front of the building. There is nothing on the building to proclaim its purpose. It stands merely as a mid-century office building. Proceed to the front door and there is an interesting sculpture of a park bench in front. and the two frames for banners, currently holding the images for the current exhibition inside – “Double Take/ Volte Face”. There is nothing to indicate that the exhibit is being held in the National Library and Archives. It just is an exhibit. The frames have the Government of Canada logo on the bottom.
Walking in the door you still would not know that it was an archive or a library. You are first confronted with a large desk, which you assume is for information, but there is no clear marking. You might also notice a lot of people heading to the left and talking to a security guard, but the check in process is not clear. There is no signage. Of course, the desk in front is for new registration or renewals but unless you go up to the smiling staff member and ask; how would you know? And behind the desk there is a sunken space, now filled with a temporary exhibit. From the door the exhibit is mostly hidden. Then to your right and left there are large corridors and doors, and it all remains a mystery, unless you ask a guard or staff member.
For the most part this main floor is wasted space. There are many rooms around here, but unless the PWGSC have rented one of the rooms out for a conference for another government department, they sit empty. There is also on this floor the ‘lunch room.’ A small space set aside for researchers to eat, and purchase cardboard food from the few vending machines.
The institution once had an extensive cafeteria on the 5th floor, with a vendor who made food, and sold it to both staff and researchers. Granted the food was overpriced, underwhelming, and the hours of operation unsuited to the hours of the building’s operation, but it was there. It closed over a year ago, and researchers were given the option to go to this small room on the first floor, or to take the adventure outside and walk at least 5 blocks to find the sparse selection of food services in the immediate area.
Most businesses and services understand that the longer you keep the people in the building, the more money they will spend. And since we are talking about business models here, why isn’t LAC taking advantage of what is essentially captive audience and giving them a place to spend their money, and have that money ploughed back into the business?
Selling your product
Library and Archives Canada should be compared to other institutions that offer the same service. Their market is the same as the National Archives in Washington, DC, and the British National Archives in Kew (outside of London). Both these institutions have gift shops. They sell supplies for researchers – paper, pens, batteries for cameras, USB sticks, pens and pencils. They also sell books, and copies of items that are in their collections. For a collection rich in visual images, owned by the Archives, the ability of the person visiting the site to obtain copies of them is problematic. If you want an image from LAC you have to go online, find the image, order it, and then wait quite a while for the paper copy to arrive at your door. Go to the National Gallery on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, and you can, with far more ease, buy printed versions of their most popular works, in their gift shop, and take it home with you that day.
A gift shop should not only be seen as a means to make money, although that is surely an important consideration for an institution which is in financial stress. Gift shops valorize your product. Selling interesting items which use the institution’s name and logo advertises the place over a larger area. Selling items such as books which tell parts of Canada’s story (researched in that very building) provide and audience for your product, and a market. Selling images or reproductions of books or manuscripts in the collection likewise valorise your products, and your mandate.
As stated above, walking into the building you would never realise what the building held. All the marvellous collections, rare and amazing pieces of Canada’s history, are hidden from view. Some of the unused meeting rooms could be transformed into a permanent exhibition space, one which features some of the gold that the National Library and Archives contain. The temporary exhibits are interesting, but there should be a permanent space dedicated to explaining to the visitor what the institution does. Shows to Canadians the value of the collections, the mandate of preservation, perhaps even examples of how the Archives and Library undertake the preservation, conservation and repair of Canadian heritage.
A good business tries to impose its message on the public, justifies its existence, its prices, its services, and tries to attract more people into using them. If no one knows you are there, how can you expect them to support the business of heritage? With such a prime central presence in the Nation’s Capital there is a great opportunity to harness its physical situation to further its mandate, and also to capitalize on the visitor to the building – both those attracted there for the researching opportunities, and the more casual public who visit out of curiosity.