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.

The Circumlocution Office

Happy Spring! Although I don’t post so often to my LIS site at the moment since I’ve recently drawn some of my time to creative writing pursuits, I do have some news to share, and this space is as good as any.

This past February, I took on a new limited term position as Government Information Librarian at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario. As well as being the liaison librarian and subject selector for Political Science, I’m responsible for maintaining and promoting the Government Publications collection, as well as handling requests for socio-economic data from organizations such as Statistics Canada and ICPSR.  When the position was posted in the fall, I jumped at the opportunity to take on the role: even as far away as Halifax, Laurier had a name for itself in terms of GovDocs, thanks to the efforts of their people at the helm. I expect this year to be a great experience for me to really get behind the wheel with government documents and help drive the role they can play in the academic library. Electronic publishing and permanent URLs have radically altered our understanding of a government documents “collection,” which is why I believe that it’s as imperative today as it was X, Y, or Z years ago to have a government documents librarian maintaining the file. Selection has in many ways been simplified over the years, but the acquisition of government publications (fugitive or otherwise) is a less exact and more murkier science today than it was in the past.

Homard the Lobster

So, if ever you’re in Waterloo (e.g., at CAIS during Congress this summer), stop in and say hello. My office is on the 3rd floor of the library, and it’s hard to miss since I brought along a lobster from the east coast to keep me company.  Homard is a good guy: since he’s a bobble-head, he tends to agree with everything I say.

And finally, in case you’re wondering, “The Circumlocution Office” is a reference to Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit.  It was Dickens’ satiric jab at the stifling bureaucracy that was the 19th century British public service. Dickens was no fan of government paperwork and disorganized public departments; he may have appreciated a good GovDocs librarian..

Welcome to the Circumlocution Office