Happy Spring! We’re almost there, people, I promise.
I’m beginning this post with that statement since it recalls an entry I wrote last year about taking on a limited term appointment as Wilfrid Laurier University’s Government Information Librarian. It was a rather productive year as the GovInfo Librarian, and I loved my time in the job. Moving to Ontario gave me the opportunity to meet many colleagues in Canadian LIS who I would otherwise only get the briefest introductions to at national conferences. It also meant shifting “consortial cultures” as I moved from a CAUL province to an OCUL province and had to learn a brand new vocabulary of committee names and acronyms. And it also meant having to re-learn what “hot, hazy, and humid” means, let alone the value of central air.
But I digress, it was a pretty good year. The past 12 months has been full of new colleagues and friends, introductions to new scholarly resources, publishing and speaking opportunities, and a chance to “make a difference” at the workplace. Sometimes, you leave the office later in the day than you intended, but you leave later because you really do enjoy your work. And that’s a good thing.
Like February of 2012, February of 2013 was a month of changes, and March 2013 is a month of announcements. I’ve now accepted an appointment as the Laurier Library’s Data Librarian. Needless to say, I’m quite excited by this news and can’t wait to get the ball rolling. One of my main responsibilities in this portfolio is to help develop the Library’s research data management infrastructure and to facilitate research data access, usage, and collection on campus and in the communities we serve. There are some big steps involved, but my plan is to leverage the knowledge gained at CARL’s RDMI summit in January 2013 as we roll out services and resources to students, staff, and faculty on at Laurier.
Reports will follow, as they have in the past. (I’ve thought about starting a brand new blog to collect my thoughts on data management together in one place. I’ll post a link here if I do.) In the mean time, I’ll leave you first with a link to the photoblog my spouse and I maintained while work forced us to live in different provinces for an entire year – check it out: I must say we did an awesome job. And I’m also going to leave you with some YouTube clips. It’s impossible to talk about being a data librarian without making a Star Trek reference:
And also this one. When talking about living in Waterloo, ABBA will sooner or later be mentioned. Without fail..
1. Research Data Management, Data Lifecycles, and Research Data Lifecycles
What is research data management? I won’t go into textbook-detail suffice to say we’re talking about systematic practices that govern how research data are defined, organized, collected, used and conserved before, during, and after the research process. That sentence is a mouthful and it covers a lot of ground, so I suggest you look to Chuck Humphrey’s Research Data Management Infrastructure (RDMI) site for a more focused definition. Chuck is hailed in Canada for his data management expertise, and he led many sessions at the workshop. He explains that:
Research data management involves the practices and activities across the research lifecycle that involve the operational support of data through design, production, processing, documentation, analysis, preservation, discovery and reuse. Collectively, these data-related activities span the stages of project-based research as well as the extended stages that tend to be institutionally based. The activities are about the “what” and “how” of research data. (source)
Chuck’s website is a great introduction to the existing RDM gap in Canada, and we referred to it several times in the course. It neatly summarizes key information such as the shaky progress and history of RDM in Canada, where the Canadian RDM community stands in the world today, the differences between data management and data stewardship, and why the Canadian research community should focus its attention on building infrastructure to support RDM as opposed to building a national institution to guide it.
Beyond talking about what RDM is and isn’t, we spent a lot of time studying where RDM sits within the research lifecycle. Many people are familiar with the data lifecycle model since it introduces us to the many facets of data management, however, the CARL course proposed that we instead examine data management practices as an integral part of the larger research lifecycle. Rather than focusing only on data at the expense of the larger research project, the course facilitators asked us to apply RDM within the entire research process, using the following model from the University of Virginia:
The salient point is that research data management isn’t limited to only the data life cycle; it affects the entire research process. (A simple example: data management strategies should be discussed well before data are created or collected.). Furthermore, if we want to develop sound RDM practices, we need to think like the researcher, understand the researcher’s needs, and include our work within their processes. If you’re not working with the researcher, then your RDM plan isn’t working.
2. Local RDM Drivers and Activities
If understanding what research data management is and where it affects the research process was one takeaway of the course, analyzing our local data environments was another:
RDM drivers, such as your library’s consortial collaborations, number of staff, existing IT relationships, administrative support, etc., are the parameters that shape and support your local RDM programme.
The activities in your RDM programme, meanwhile can be broadly categorized into the four areas: collection, access, use, and preservation (note: activities can fall into more than one category, and the order is not linear).
Discussing the things that affect our data landscapes and the activities we could perform helped us understand what is possible at our own libraries. I think a lot of us found this useful because all of our unique circumstances (e.g., library and university sizes, existing infrastructure and knowledge, etc.) can make RDM a bit nebulous at times. Although our focus is the same – RDM – our individual goals and aims might be different – are we building our technical capability, or are we designing soft systems that focus on relationships? Are we only collecting new locally created data, or will we also gather existing, completed projects? The answers are going to depend on your local situation.
The course facilitators were careful to help participants understand RDM as a necessarily scalable enterprise. Don’t create a monster RDM plan. Instead, contextualize your local RDM drivers and your library’s capabilities and desires so that you can mitigate the risks of creating an RDM plan that doesn’t fit your organization. The aim is to create a system and process that brings clear benefits to the researchers.
3. Planning… and Doing
The final takeway from the CARL RDM course, which you may have noticed I’ve been building up to, was straight-up, no-nonsense, get’er-done planning. The course facilitators built opportunities for real action into the course, which is probably one of the best parts of the week. Generally speaking, the academic enterprise undertakes a lot of talk and high-level planning before things happen. This is often a good thing (read: I demand critical inquiry), but it can also stifle action (read: I despise institutional inertia). However, this CARL course found a way to bring together discussion and action. It gave us theory, but it demanded practice. Before the week was out, we had all talked about 3-year planning, considered how such a plan might look locally, and started to write one. Of course, these drafts aren’t ready for prime time, but my point is that before I came back to the office on Monday, I already had written the skeleton of a research data management plan that shows my library’s potential RDM activities and stakeholders, outlines activities and scopes, and offers timelines and deliverables. It didn’t make me an expert (and neither do I claim to be one), but it did offer some tools to help the library step out and make positive change.
So was the CARL RDM course money well spent? It sure was. It’s not too often you come back from an event with a new community of practice, insight on a vital part of the research enterprise, and a plan to put everything in action. Hat’s off to the course facilitators for putting on such a great week – I think you’ve started something necessary, and good, for Canadian research.
(And some time next week, I’ll start gathering up some of the key readings from some of the bibliographies they presented us… I’ll try not to turn the next post into a lit review, but it may come close to it.)
2012 has come and gone, and it’s been quite a year. If you’ve been following along on this blog or elsewhere, then you probably know that my theme for these past twelve months has been “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” Since starting a term position as Government Information Librarian at Wilfrid Laurier University, I split my time between Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Waterloo, Ontario. So, not only do the students at the Library’s Second Cup know my name and face, but so do some of the stewards and other professionals at Porter Airlines in Toronto. I’m now part of the jet-set, and I can also rhyme off CANSIM tables to you like nobody’s business.
Taking on a new position in a new city (and new province) means that there has been a lot of learning and adjustment. A new job brings new duties and new work cultures. And a new city means new roads and neighbourhoods, new cafés and pubs, and new local cultures. I’ve traded in a Maritime hospitality built on lobster, rum, and sea shanties for Kitchener-Waterloo’s beer, schnitzel, and breads. (and I love bread. Not kidding). Waterloo has pockets of cool, and I’m getting on quite well here.
My favourite part of this position has been my work with statistics and data. Like many university libraries across Canada, responsibility for socio-economic data at the Laurier Library lies largely with the Government Information Librarian since so many of our statistical resources come from Statistics Canada. (You can read more about the relationship between StatCan and academic libraries here. This paper by Wendy Watkins and Ernie Boyko should be required reading at library schools in Canada). I’ve long wanted to practice in this field, and I saw this posting as my opportunity to work regularly with the data skills I’ve developed through the years, and to learn even more from a whole new group of data librarians. Nearly all my favourite interactions with faculty, students, and other stakeholders in 2012 are data-related, from helping students acquire data on migration to the far north, to meeting with community members and legislators to explore nation-wide open data initiatives. These are the moments where I see my skills and expertise in librarianship put to action, and the positive contribution I make on campus puts a spring in my step. Data librarianship is an essential part of the academic enterprise; I’ve given a lot of effort in this area, worked and learned from the right people, and made gains for the library and the university. So, I’m willing to smile and say “yeah, I did that, but with the help of my friends, too.”
When it comes to adjustments, I have to say that the thing that took the longest to get used to was the new jurisdiction. I say this to all librarians, young and old, green and experienced: you will never really know how important your consortium is to your daily work until you join a new one. When I moved from Nova Scotia to Ontario, I left the Council of Atlantic University Libraries, ASIN, and NovaNet, and I joined forces with the Ontario Council of University Libraries, Scholars Portal, and TUG. Now, my online resources are different. The OPAC is different. ILL is different. Committees are different. Organizational cultures and funding are different. Conferences and workshops are different. Support channels are different. Let me be clear: everything changes when your work takes you to a new consortium. Libraries really do things better when they work together. We’re stronger this way. But it’s not until you shift to a new jurisdiction that you’ll be reminded several times daily just how much effort colleagues at your library and at other institutions have put into making things work better, faster, and cheaper for everyone. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
The best example I can give to demonstrate this is <odesi>. Built and managed by Scholars Portal, ODESI is an essential part of socio-economic data discovery at Ontario universities. It is a repository of StatCan DLI-restricted surveys, and it also houses extensive polling data that stretches back decades in some cases. Using the Nesstar data dissemination platform, it helps novice and experience users find information from these surveys and polls, right down to the variable, and it also helps new users perform some statistical functions they may not otherwise have the knowledge to do. ODESI is a vital part of my work and I use it to access survey data almost daily during the school term. But prior to taking this position last winter, I had no access to it since most university libraries in Nova Scotia rely on the Equinox data delivery system out of Western Libraries. Moving to a new jurisdiction meant that not only did my committees and consortial colleagues change, but so too did my tools and resources, and I had to learn how to use new ones – fast. Today, I don’t know how I ever got on without ODESI. But last winter, ODESI was completely new to me because I hadn’t ever worked at an OCUL university. I have great colleagues at Laurier, and they gave me time to get to know this vital tool, but until I moved to Ontario and joined a new consortium, this was a foreign resource.
(For what it’s worth, ODESI, and the people behind it at Scholars Portal have done so much heavy lifting for students and faculty at Ontario university libraries, and I’m grateful I can use this resource and learn on their expertise. I’m also grateful that I can lean on province-wide and regional data committees for help and advice. This is a big shout-out and thanks to some great people out there – you know who you are.)
This is where the post peters out into vague resolutions and outlooks for the new year. How will 2013 differ from 2012? Well, I hope to not fly so much (the lustre wears off quickly), and I hope to get involved in more professional activities again. I also plan on finding new ways to up my game at work. This will involve taking some courses and hopefully using more streaming communications tools to meet with students and faculty. We’ll see where it goes. Happy 2013!.
Link Sharing: This page links to a newspaper article on the potential impact of offsite storage for items with low circulation numbers in a province-wide academic library consortium. Check it out and contribute to the discussion!
One of the things I’m constantly doing as a government documents librarian is giving lessons on Statistics Canada geographic areas. Census geographies can be downright confusing to the new user (and to sometimes to the seasoned expert!). The names are riddled with acronyms and jargon, and their relationships to other areas and spaces can be complicated. One legally incorporated township may be considered a census subdivision while another may be classified as only a census agglomeration. Another city may be classified as a census subdivision, and also be part of a census metropolitan area of a similar name, e.g., Toronto CSD and Toronto CMA. Or, a city may be classified as a census subdivision and exist not only in a CMA with a similar name, but also a census division (I’m looking at you, City of Waterloo CSD, Waterloo Region CD, and Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo CMA). And if you dare introduce census tracts the first time through, your short introduction to the “Russian dolls” nature of census geographies runs the risk of turning your lesson into an information dump about privacy and data validity when all that your first-year economics student wanted to know was why it’s so hard to get comparable income and migration numbers for Kitchener, Ontario, and The Pas in northern Manitoba.
Confusion abounds. One of the problems we encounter are the tools we use to explain these geographies, which should be easily understood but are often abstract – we may live in towns and cities, but we refer to them as census agglomerations or CMAs. What can you use to show how spaces relate to one another, or how certain concepts can be measured and expressed spatially? The answer is a map, of course. God lov’em, those maps. Maps help us express numbers – quantities, amounts, rations, proportions – with colours and shapes, and in the regions we live in and travel through each day. Face it, “big data” wouldn’t be as big as it is today if we didn’t have “big maps” to help use make sense of the numbers. However, StatCan’s digitized maps are large, layered PDFs that aren’t always user-friendly. The Standard Geographical Classification (SGC) PDFs are great reference items, but they aren’t very accessible. And this creates a learning gap for so many of our users.
To overcome this gap, I’m constantly pulling out the old SGC print maps, and I’m also cutting and pasting and hacking together magnified screenshots of the PDFs into my slide deck. Typically, if you need census help and you’ve found me in person, then there stands a good chance that I’m going to crack open the SGC and unfold a map somewhere in the office (I even keep the southern Ontario CD-CSD map posted to a wall). I started doing this last Spring after I moved to Waterloo and had to learn the region’s geography and confirm its census divisions, subdivisions, and CMAs for myself, and I realized this was a simple and effective tool that should be used more often, especially with new StatCan users.
Typically, I bring students to a nearby conference room and unfold the map on a large table. I find that being able to “walk around” the entire map and point to the places where the lines that signify the different geographies merge, separate, and then merge again, helps students understand some of the logic behind the regions (at least in terms of distance and population). They may not always be able to recall all the differences between a census division, subdivision and metropolitan area after a session, but they at least remember that there are differences, and these differences are important enough to affect their research.
The classroom is a different story, though. When working with only one person or a small group, there is a persuasive element at work that captures everyone’s attention. Carefully unfolding and presenting a map to a small group of people is like opening a box that holds a surprise. (Let’s call this surprise “knowledge” and we’ll call ourselves awesome for charming our audience so handily into learning something). But if we take that same map into the classroom or lecture hall, it risks becoming an awkward, cumbersome prop. It can become a distraction or even a failed means to demonstrate your expertise in such a short time to such a large group of people.
Maps that unfold to become wider and taller than you put the room’s attention onto your map-wrangling skills (however good or poor they might be) instead of on the knowledge you have share, so I avoid them. You’ve never caught me walking to a classroom with a print map, and I doubt many other librarians do that today.
Instead, I give the class what they want and what they expect, and that means I work that map into my PowerPoint deck. Any time I’m introducing StatCan resources and geographies to a class, I insert three images of the same PDF map, each one magnified more than the last. This helps people “zoom in” with their eyes and see the many relationships and regions that are defined in one place alone. The length of time I spend on these slides depends on the classroom’s needs: sometimes, I spend only a few moments on these slides, and other times, I’ll spend five or ten minutes. What matters is that after I’ve finished up and am headed back to the office, I know that the instructor can pass around a slide deck that always refers to all these different areas.
I know I’m not presenting anything new in this post: maps have long been a tremendous tool within government documents librarianship. Perhaps the takeaway lies more in information literacy than it does anywhere else. Is your digital resource, as presented to you, the best way to help the user understand the resource? You may want to turn to the print resource or manipulate the digital resource, as I do with StatCan maps, to improve learning and synthesis. It’s just one more tool (or two, in this case) in our IL toolbox.
For years now, academic librarians have been stressing that we must improve our research services and also show our colleagues outside the library that librarians are not analogous to the collection; we do far more work than collecting itself. This fact alone should be enough to remind ourselves that government documents librarianship is not situated merely in the government documents collection. If academic librarianship is focused today on the use of a library’s resources instead of the mere collecting of resources, then our government documents librarian’s work must necessarily be focused as much on our patrons’ discovery, access, and use of government publications just as our history librarian’s work is focused on our patron’s discovery, access, and use of history resources. On a purely argumentative level, if X Subject Librarianship is focused on use, then so must Government Documents Librarianship be focused on use.
But let’s move beyond arguments and consider what the government documents librarian brings to the library. Ask yourself what specialized knowledge the government documents librarian at your library has developed after years working in this niche. On the one hand, the subject areas in which a government documents librarian works, e.g., health, economics, culture, etc., could be parceled out to a university library’s subject librarians since they often understand the general scope and breadth of government publications related to their field. What is often missing, however, is an understanding of the mechanics of government and law, of the relationships between departments and Parliament, of the role of the judiciary, of the history of administrations, and of the history of government publishing. Knowledge and work in these areas is what develops an understanding of the organization of government information, and this is what a government documents librarian can offer his or her peers and patrons. When you have a librarian tasked to work in government information, you have a librarian who knows how to navigate the mountains of pamphlets, papers, reports, and publications that governments produce annually.
Let’s use a real-world example to show how the government documents librarian’s knowledge benefits the library and library patrons. For the past week, I’ve been helping a graduate student track the course of multiculturalism policy, budgets, and actual spending since the early 1970s. In that time, “multiculturalism” grew from a statement made in Parliament into a policy, and then a programme. Multiculturalism policy and programming lived in many different places, starting in the Department of State (yes, Canada did once have a Department of State), moving to its own Department, then to Heritage, and then finally into Citizenship and Immigration. The volume of materials also changes throughout the years:
some Parliaments had standing committees on multiculturalism, and some didn’t
some of the Departments I mentioned offered substantial annuals reports, and some didn’t.
after the passage of the 1988 Multiculturalism Act, annual reports were submitted to Parliament, but many are only executive summaries
for a time in the late 2000s, CIC worked real hard to not use the term “Multiculturalism” in its documents
What’s more, through the 1980s and 1990s, the Canadian Government’s annual Estimates (i.e., documents that forecast departmental expenditures for the pending fiscal year) changed drastically. They expanded in size by offering more detail, but were also separated into dozens of issues and volumes per year (sometimes based on department and sometimes based on departmental programme), and the name of their issuing agency changed several times, as well. Library patrons unfamiliar with what RPPs, DPRs, and the other parts in the annual Estimates are good for, let alone who the issuing agency is, may not know what document to use or even where to look for them online or in the catalogue.
All of this meant that the graduate student had a devil of a time tracking the information she required through this time period. On more than once occasion did the student say to me that it feels like the government was deliberately making it difficult for people to access this public information. While the government may rightly be accused of such a thing from time to time, on this issue it is actually a matter of knowing where to look, and this is where the Government Documents Librarian comes into play. Having a librarian focused on the organization and access to government information means that your patrons will have a better chance of understanding how to access and use that information. What the Government Documents Librarian brings to the library is an understanding of governance and of the entire government publishing apparatus. The question, “Whither Print Gov Docs?” should not be construed at all as “Whither the Gov Docs Librarian?” Regardless of publication format, your government documents librarian has a specialized knowledge and skill set that increases your organization’s value to its users.
The question, “Whither Print GovDocs?” should not be construed at all as “Whither the GovDocs Librarian?”
But let’s get back to those government announcements I was talking about at the beginning of this post. You may disagree with me and I could be wrong, and maybe the world doesn’t need government documents librarians anymore. But I still don’t see it that way. I have one more point that supports my argument that government documents librarians will remain a vital part of the academic library: open data and open government. If ever anyone has complained to you (and they have) that a government documents collection is difficult to browse, imagine how bothered that person will be when there is no print collection, when everything exists in the cloud with no organizing principles, and when more and more publications are being uploaded everyday because a ministry has committed itself to promoting open government initiatives but not to funding the management of these collections. The torrent of government publications that has caused many libraries to question the value of cataloguing electronic records is only going to become stronger, and this makes the government documents librarian’s job even more essential to the library’s mission to improve resource discovery, access, and use.
What it comes down to is this: we are venturing into new territory with government documents, people. When you don’t have a map that gives the lie of the land, you turn to a guide. And that’s your government documents librarian.
A few years ago, I designed a few rudimentary Google maps of Halifax from StatCan data. This was before I really knew anything about stats and data (n.b. I still don’t think I know much more than “some things” about stats and data), licenses, and how to properly interpret them. One map that I created showed Halifax’s population change, tract by tract, from 2001 to 2006. I’m giving myself embarrassment cringes by linking to it, but all the same: view it here.
Of note: the suburbs clearly rule the roost when it comes to Halifax’s population changes from 2006 to 2011. The only tract on the peninsula showing a significant increase (i.e., over 11.9%) is Tract 2050019.00, in the middle of the peninsula. The increase in this tract is due, I’m certain, to the Gladstone redevelopment, the first major phases of which were completed – if memory serves me correct – in 2007 or 2008.
For what it’s worth, I’m not sure if I’m going to build a google map from 2011 census tract data. The work is time-consuming and there are other people in my field who have the expertise and software to do a much better job than I can. (And besides, my own hobby at the moment has more to do with plotting historic maps with Google Earth!) My work finding socio-economic data, making the odd remark here and there, and helping others make sense of it, is enough work – and fun – for one person. 🙂
Finally, here are a few outbound links to keep you interested:
This is the last release of longitudinal data from the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics. Effective with next year’s release of 2011 data, only cross-sectional estimates will be available. [source] [PDF]
There has been a flurry of comments in various corners of the Internet about this cancellation. Some people see this as an outright cost-cutting measure, while others consider it in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, e.g., where should StatCan put its limited resources, staff, and funds? I have my opinions – it’s not good a idea to let this whither on the vine – but I’ll leave it up to you to decide how to to consider this action.
I will, however, draw your attention to two posts by Canadian academics who know a thing or two about socio-economic data and the mechanics of longitudinal surveys:
Miles Corak writes a nice eulogy for the SLID, but his main point lies in the constraints that StatCan‘s longitudinal surveys face. long-term funding of such surveys are not always clear since they are administered by a creature of government:
At Statistics Canada funding is annual, subject to the trade-offs in managing a whole portfolio of statistical products. It is also dependent upon financial support and direction from particular government departments whose interests and priorities ebb and flow, and are tied to broader government objectives.
. . .
In a recent interview the current Chief Statistician of Australia, Brian Pink, made a revealing and important comment: “Neither the Treasurer nor Prime Minister can tell me how to go about my business. They can tell me what information to collect, but they can’t tell me how to do it, when to do it or how often to do it.”
But it is telling that the Australian longitudinal labour market survey—The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey—which was started in 2001 and has guaranteed funding for 12 years, is not being run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics but rather by an institute at the University of Melbourne.
The current Chief Statistician of Canada is in a more challenging position. He also has the responsibility to manage surveys that form no part of Mr. Pink’s mandate, surveys whose value is in the long-term, much longer than a fiscal year, and even longer than an electoral cycle.
As Canadians embark on another experiment in longitudinal survey taking they should have confidence that Statistics Canada will design and manage the technical details in an efficient, effective, and indeed innovative way; but past experience, both here and abroad, may also make them wonder if the managerial structure and financial responsibility is designed to match the long-term horizon these data require. [source]
Corak, I think, is asking us to consider if it’s time for other agencies to administer longitudinal surveys in Canada (at the very least, he’s making the observation that things are done differently in other countries). Blayne Haggart puts it in very plain terms:
[Corak] argues that the real problem may be that, as a government agency with a one-year budget horizon subject to political whims, Statistics Canada isn’t the best placed agency to handle projects with time horizons that stretch beyond electoral cycles into decades. This means that even throwing the bums out wouldn’t solve the underlying problem. New boss, meet old boss and all that. [source]
As for me, it’s too early to decide. I’m not sure what yet to think. I definitely have dogs in this race, but I’m not yet in a position to agree or disagree worth Corak and Haggart. My preference is to have well-funded government statistical agencies who collect and disseminate socio-economic data, and to have well-funded government knowledge centres (e.g., LAC) that can improve the preservation of and access to government information. But on the question of longitudinal studies, perhaps Corak and Haggart’s opinions have enough merit for us to have a discussion on whether Canadian not-for-profits and university research centres should make a big step forward and take a decisive lead in the future.
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:
April 13, 2012 – Publishing and Depository Services (i.e., Publications Canada, DSP) announces that beginning in 2014, it will no longer publish government information in print format, which ostensibly “aligns with the Government of Canada’s greening government initiatives” [PDF] but in practice jeopardizes access to government information in public and academic libraries from coast to coast.
April 13, 2012 – Statistics Canada announces that it will formally close E-STAT in 2013 [PDF]. This is acceptable in most quarters since CANSIM statistics are now free for public use on StatCan’s website, but many librarians are appropriately wondering what the decline of this relatively easy-to-use socio-economic database and its simplified outputting functions for charts and tables means for teachers, students, and first-time users of statistics.
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.