Budget cuts to libraries, archives, and information centres jeopardize access to Canadian government information

This has not been a good spring for Canadian librarians and archivists, especially those who work at federal libraries and archives, which are being de-funded and dismantled by federal budget cuts. These information centres sustain government and public research capacity. Their ability to create, preserve, and provide access to public information in our country is at risk.

These cuts, and the centres and programmes in jeopardy, include:

I’m missing some announcements since I was away when so many of these cuts were announced, but this list nonetheless clarifies the seriousness of the situation. In the space of a few weeks, the federal government has severely hampered the nation’s ability to gather, document, use, and disseminate government and cultural information.

You can learn what many of these cuts mean in clear, practical terms by reading this post written by my archivist friend, Creighton Barrett, at Dalhousie University’s Archives and Special Collections.  Creighton explains how these cuts negatively affect the university’s ability to collect and maintain the records used by scholars and citizens in one community alone, and rightly notes that they are a “devastating” blow to information access in Canada. Now, consider how Creighton’s list grows when you add to it the ways in which these same cuts affect the libraries and archives in your own community, and then all other libraries and archives in Canada. And we haven’t even touched what these broader cuts mean for LAC’s programming and resources, StatCan programming, and the research capacity of federal departments and agencies. “Devastating,” may well be an understatement in the long run.

These budget cuts are a knock-out punch to how public information is accessed and used across the country. The cuts not only affect the library community and possibly your civil-service-friend who lives down the road. They will affect the manner in which our society is able to find and use public information.  If public data is no longer collected (see StatCan), preserved (see LAC, NADP, CCA), disseminated and used (see PDS/DSP and cuts at departmental libraries), then does the information even exist in the first place? There will be less government and public information, fewer means to access this information, and fewer opportunities to do so.

Take a moment and recall the freedom you have been afforded to speak freely in this nation.  The utility of that freedom is dependent on your ability to access the information you use to learn, to criticize, to praise, or to condemn.  If knowledge is power, then a public whose national information centres and access points are ill-funded is a weakling. Libraries and archives provide Canadians with direct access to key government information, and for that very reason, they should be funded to the hilt.

This is where I get to my point: We are now facing a situation in Canada where government information has suddenly become far more difficult to collect, to access, and to use. The funding cuts that Canada’s libraries and archives face is an affront to the proper functioning of a contemporary democratic society. These cuts will impede the country’s ability to access public and government information, which will make it difficult for Canadians to criticize government practices, past and present.

I mentioned on Twitter that these cuts show us that the work of librarians and archivists are crucial to the nation’s interest. We are not mere record keepers, and neither do we spend our days merely dusting cobwebs off of old books. We are the people who maintain collections of public information, and we are the people who provide and nurture access to information. Many of us see ourselves as guardians of the public’s right to access information.  If we take on that guardianship, then we must defend and protect these collections and access points. I’m not talking about a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 job. I’m talking about advocacy, which doesn’t have an on/off switch. Either you do it or you don’t.

So, what should you do? Get informed, speak up, and act.  Write letters to the editor. Write to your professional associations and other like-minded organizations; lend them your support, and when needed, tell them to add force to their own statements. Write to your MPs, to other MPs (especially to MPs who sit on government benches), to cabinet members, and to the PMO. When you’re socializing with friends who aren’t librarians and archivists, mention how our work affects their work and their personal lives. Massive cuts to the nation’s libraries and archives do not serve the public good. These cuts may help balance the financial books, but they create an information deficit that inhibits research, stymies dialogue and criticism, and makes government more distant from the people.

Muppet News Flash: Digital Libraries cost a lot of money (but don’t tell the general public)

A recent piece in the New York Times is reminding me why people don’t understand the enormous costs (let alone the time and effort) associated with digitizing a world’s culture.  Natasha Singer’s January 8 article does a great job at helping the public imagine the possibility of a Great American Digital Library, and she even quotes Benjamin Franklin to lend her argument a certain value that is created when ideas are linked to the nation’s forefathers.  What the news piece is real light on, however, are financial figures.  Check it out and see.

The article neatly summarizes the digitization efforts of certain national governments, compares them to the Library of Congress’s American Memory project and then to the Google Books project.  We learn that the LoC project has no formal connections to any public library projects and that several leading figures and organizations would like to collaborate on one giant digitization venture.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could coordinate our efforts, standardize systems and processes, and make it accessible to archivists, researchers, and to the public?  Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

My problem lies with the way the article pays short shrift to the costs of such an effort. After telling us that Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society would like to develop a “digital public library of America,” Singer tells her readers that:

Of course, practical matters — like cost, copyright issues and technology — would need to be resolved first.

“The crucial question in many ways is, ‘How do you find a common technical infrastructure that yields interoperability for the scholar, the casual inquirer or the K-12 student?’” Dr. Billington says.

The New York Times does precious little in this article to break down the costs associated with a digitization project, let alone one of the magnitude to which it alludes.  What we’ve got listed are “copyright issues” and “technology”, which don’t touch the human capital required to develop and then maintain this digital archive.  And when Singer says technology, I don’t know if she means hardware, software, maintenance, preservation, or all of these things together.  And the piece says nothing of the physical plant required to house these servers, because even computers must be stored somewhere.  A digital library on any scale is expensive, but this article doesn’t explain why.

Now consider this second quotation, which considers the value of the Google Books project and then notes that in the future, copyright costs may have to be settled by universities, research facilities, and other PSEs:

People can read out-of-print items at no cost on Google Books, if those works are no longer subject to copyright protection. But if a judge approves a settlement between Google and copyright holders, subscription fees to access scans of out-of-print books still covered by copyright will have to be paid by universities and other institutions.

An American digital public library would serve as a nonprofit institutional alternative to Google Books, Professor Darnton says.

Now we have an example that raises the spectre of “subscription fees” without explaining the burden these fees are to universities.  I have no doubt that when most people read “subscription fees . . . will have to be paid by universities”, they don’t have a sense of the business models and financing at play; for a lot of people, what will really matter is that the buck stops somewhere but thankfully not with them.  As librarians, we know that our electronic resources, as valuable and cost-effective as they are, eat up a large part of our (largely taxpayer-funded) budgets.  These “subscription fees” are not at all like the fees people pay for cable tv or internet connection at home.  PSEs and their libraries pay through the nose to large, for-profit organizations for electronic access to materials that are often funded by the PSEs themselves.  And even in the case of non-profit organizations like JSTOR, the fees remain costly.  So a “non-profit institutional alternative” that seeks to facilitate digitization and access to a nation’s cultural heritage at reasonable rates could still leave a collections librarian bruised.

Digital Preservation is a labor of love: this machine cost nothing to Penn State and this man is happy to volunteer his time and expertise.

We need to get real when we talk about digitization projects to the public, especially when we talk about huge mega-projects like a mass digitization of American cultural history.  Articles like this New York Times piece do nothing to explain the real costs involved in digitization, collections, and electronic access.  And cost is where it counts.  Too often at the reference desk do I find myself explaining to students that material found on Internet is not free and that the dollars they pay for access on their smartphones or at home covers the cost of transmission but not for “content.”   We need to start educating people so they understand that a monthly data plan or Internet bill pays only for the pipes through which content is downloaded to their devices and not for the actual development and maintenance of the content they are retrieving, let alone the infrastructure (human and physical) required to maintain it.

I apologize if I sound like a cranky curmudgeon here.  Like most librarians, I fully believe that information wants to be free.  But that’s only a desire.  Information may want to be free, but right now it isn’t.  And it’s up to people like us to explain to the world the real costs associated in our information landscape.


Cheney and the archive.

Confirming to a degree, or at least highlighting my thoughts from earlier this weekend that archives are focal points and physical storehouses of a culture and its memory is the recent CBC news article reporting that a US Federal court has ordered Dick Cheney to preserve records from his time serving in the office of the vice-president of the United States.  Although certain questions arise regarding the levels of privacy within a public office (i.e. is every scrap of paper ever written on in the office part of the public record?  what is its public value?  how does it affect the nation’s interests and security?), we find in the news-piece a common opinion that archives exist to safeguard records.    The fact that the plaintiffs, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has demanded that Cheney’s personal papers be preserved for the public record betrays the significance of the archive’s ability to create remembrances from its records.  CREW understands that we remember, discuss, write, and publish on that which is in the archive; demanding that a wide range of Cheney’s papers be included in the public record can potentially affect the manner in which future societies will reconstruct Cheney’s actions as VP.

This is nothing new, of course.  We turn to archives for historical, social and cultural context – that is the very reason why archives exist.  The recent push toward digitization, however, a push toward a new and all-encompassing storage method and format, asks us to reevaluate our points of access and to reconsider their meaning.  Digitization can bring Cheney’s papers to so many more people, but only if the people has access to the proper technology.  One doesn’t need a post office or a library card to access our cultural memory anymore.  Now, one needs the latest software and newest technological platform to transfer and decode the remembrance..