Friday, May 22, 2015

Review—The Future of the National Library of Canada in the Nineteen Eighties (1979)

National Library of Canada, The future of the National Library of Canada = L'avenir de la Bibliothèque nationale du Canada. Ottawa, 1979; ix, 88, 93, ix p.

At the end of the 1970s the most thoughtful statement about the goals and services of Canada's National Library (NLC) appeared in a short bilingual ninety-page publication, The Future of the National Library of Canada. The culmination of three years of consultation and review, The Future contained various recommendations, eleven in all, about where the NLC might head in the 1980s. Throughout the report's pages, it is clear that the National Librarian, Guy Sylvestre, believed that strengthened programs, better financing, further organizational growth, and cooperative work with Canadian libraries would benefit the country's informational needs on a collective basis. The study recognized that Canadian library resource sharing was taking place in a decentralized national framework with distributed leadership but it sought to strengthen the NLC's role.

The Canadian equivalent of a national library, born in 1953, had been a latecomer on the stage of national development. The NLC had grown slowly and focused on bibliographic work, collections in the humanities-arts-social sciences, and issues such as legal deposit. It was one principal library in the midst of other major research libraries, regional library developments, changing library technology, and shifting priorities. In Ottawa itself, there were other federal libraries--the Library of Parliament, CISTI, the Agriculture Library, and library of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics--with 'national' roles. The growth of university research collections from the mid-1960s had been dramatic and rivaled the NLC's ability to collect and distribute information resources. While the NLC's consultation and review process, 1976-79, was lengthy, the list of contributions was short--just 33 briefs submitted in total (12 from individuals). For some, the report was about the Library reviewing itself.

The Future recommendations outlined new directions, organization, and objectives. Some were extensions of current activities, others pointed to fresh courses of action. The principal thrusts moved in two directions: networking of resources and bibliographic networking. There was to be an expansion of legal deposit to cover maps and microforms; improved research collections; more emphasis on support for Canadian studies; and improved interloan of NLC holdings across Canada. The report proposed a restructuring of the NLC's duties viz a viz its partner, the Public Archives of Canada: it recommended that musical papers should be transferred to the NLC's Music Division; that the Archive's national map collection should become a new section of the NLC; and that literary manuscripts would become the preserve of the NLC. The study called upon the Secretary of State initiate a review to rationalize the functions and responsibilities of the Archives and the Library.

The Future recommendations for bibliographic networking were less developed. It proposed to build a decentralized bibliographic network in conjunction with other computerized centres. The NLC would fund research for development studies and pilot projects and strengthen its own online information retrieval services with new databases. The NLC would be prepared to establish network management and governance groups in a collaborative fashion. It recognized the NLC was underdeveloped in computerized services compared to the National Research Council's CISTI Library and some universities, e.g. Toronto, but was willing to be an important centre in this type of activity.  To this end, it was suggested that the National Research Council Act be amended to allow the incorporation of CISTI into the National Library structure and that its funding be transferred to the NLC. Needless to say, this proposal was contentious and likely doomed to failure from the outset from institutional and client perspectives.

A final section of the report came as no surprise: a separate building for the Public Archives (or equivalent existing spaces) was put forward. The Archives had already drawn up a similar proposal for government scrutiny. Personnel in the two institutions currently were residing in several buildings.

The Future stirred up opposition and unease. The Association of Canadian Archivists criticized some proposals based on archival practice and the threat of removing conservation work to the library. The Public Archives itself opposed recommendations that sought to clarify roles based on faulty distinctions between library and archival work. The reception in the library community was less adversarial but nevertheless skeptical. For example, NLC's selection and testing of the DOBIS system (Dortmunder/Bibliothekssystem), a mainframe computerized library information and management system originally designed by IBM, was thought by some to be less 'user friendly' than alternative North American systems even though the federal government version was designed for Canadian use. The hierarchy of national and regional nodes, linked to individual libraries, remained an elusive, unwelcome goal. Regional groups, such as the Ontario Council of University Libraries, had their own problems: UNICAT/TELICAT, a co-operative cataloguing service enabling shared access to catalogue records across all OCUL members, was dissolved in 1980 after disappointing participation. There were many options on the networking table and connectivity with American research libraries was on the horizon with the development of the Ohio College Library Center after 1978. Nonetheless, NLC recommendations on expanding inter-lending and financing projects were welcomed by library groups and associations, such as the Canadian Library Association.

Although the more controversial recommendations were never implemented, the NLC was able to build upon others. DOBIS proved to be a reliable system and continued in use by federal libraries into the 1990s. Interloan eventually expanded. But development was less a matter of establishing policies and priorities than it was of budgetary considerations. It was clear that federal funding for NLC was ebbing in the early 1980s. An average annual inflation rate of 6% continued to erode increases as the government grappled with rising prices between 1981-90. Guy Sylvestre's national vision for enhanced NLC resources and programs was not to be, partly due to financing and the 'autonomy' that most major Canadian libraries desired.  The bold strokes in The Future of the National Library of Canada were rapidly fading by time Sylvestre's term of office was ending in 1983--things were going to be different. The wisdom of more pragmatic measures would soon surface in NLC reports and policy directions.

Thursday, May 14, 2015


Canada's centennial, 1967, was not just a time to reflect on the country's past but a time to look forward as well. After the $13 million Public Archives and National Library Building on Wellington Street opened in June, both archivists and librarians had better facilities and more staff to provide their services. The National Library had grown to more than 200 workers. When Dr. W.K. Lamb, the Dominion Archivist and National Librarian, retired in 1968, a decision was made to appoint separate directors for the two institutions. The new National Librarian was Guy Sylvestre, an author, civil servant, and Associate Director of the Library of Parliament from 1956-68. Dr. Sylvestre had worked in Ottawa for a quarter of a century and possessed a good knowledge of library activity across Canada. Now he was in a position to exploit his contacts in the nation's capital and develop ideas about the National Library (NLC) that would make it more relevant in the expanding Canadian information environment.

The first major development on Dr. Sylvestre's watch was a revised National Library Act, which came into force in September 1969. The National Librarian was charged with coordinating the library services of departments, branches, and agencies of the Government and authorized to enter into agreements with libraries, associations, and institutions "in and outside Canada." One positive result from this was the eventual exchange of MARC (MAchine Readable Cataloging) magnetic tape records with the Library of Congress and other national libraries. Automation projects and standards became essential building blocks for library progress after 1970. 'Systems' became a library catchword, spawning many acronyms and a Research and Planning Branch at the NLC staffed by programmers and analysts. Standards were also a priority; thus, the CAN/MARC format was developed for English and French language records and international cataloging activities coordinated by a new Office of Library Standards established in 1973.

 While the NLC explored and developed computerized systems and standards, it also began a fundamental reorganization of its collections and introduced new services for Canadian libraries, the federal government, and the public. Some notable highlights were:
  •  creation of a Music Division in 1970 under the leadership of Dr. Helmut Kallmann, who built an impressive collection of Canadian manuscripts, printed materials, and audio recordings. When he retired in 1987, the NLC's music collection was internationally recognized. Kallmann received the Order of Canada in 1986.
  • establishment of a Library Documentation Centre to capture information on library development for use of Canadian librarians and libraries. The Centre began publishing an annual Directory of Library Associations in Canada in 1974.
  • formation of Canadian Book Exchange Centre (1973) to acquire and distribute government publications to Canada a few foreign countries. By 1975, the Centre was handling a million items annually.
  • beginning of historical bibliographic work on pre-1900 Canadiana emanating from a new Retrospective National Bibliography Division.
  • establishment of a Division for the Visually and Physically Handicapped, which initially attempted to provide reference services and cooperate with libraries and organizations on various projects.
  • start of work by the Federal Libraries Liaison Office (est. 1970) to improve the coordination of Government of Canada library services. After an extensive survey of almost 200 federal libraries, this office recommended formation of a Council of Federal Libraries which came into being in 1976. The Office and Council were key elements in allowing the NLC to coordinate federal library activities and in offering its constituent government members to work on problems on a cooperative basis.
  •  forming of a Rare Books and Manuscripts Division with a reading room in 1973 to organize rare materials, offer reference, develop polices on acquisitions, and preserve collections.
  • initiating a Children's Literature Service to coordinate national activities. It began issuing supplements to Sheila Egoff and Alvine BĂ©lisle's  Notable Canadian Children's Books in 1977.
  • inauguration of a Multilingual Biblioservice in 1973: this multicultural project acquired, cataloged, and loaned books in languages other than French and English to Canadian libraries (mostly public) for two decades.
  • commencement in 1973 of Selective Dissemination of Information (SDI) services concentrating on the humanities and social sciences. SDI was designed to offer timely information through the use of burgeoning computerized data bases, e.g. Psychological Abstracts and ERIC.
  • establishment of a Collections Development Branch with responsibility to systematize selections for the NLC, collect information on policies of major libraries, and offer assistance in resource development of Canadian libraries.
  • implementation of Canadian Cataloguing in Publication (CIP) a cooperative project which provided publishers with basic cataloging information and reduced original cataloging costs.
  • assignment of standard numbers for serials and books -- ISSN and ISBN -- to register and identify Canadian publications in an international publishing environment.
  •  expansion of its own interlending activities and locational service for libraries
It was a busy an exciting period at the NLC. Legal deposit was expanded, important exhibitions held, international conferences hosted, and many studies published, such as Roll Back the Years, a history of Canadian recorded sound. Staffing expanded dramatically, from about 200 in 1967 to more than 450 by the mid-1970s. Likewise, the operating budget rose from just less than $1.5 million to almost $10 million. However, there were challenges on the horizon. The main building was no longer adequate to house collections and staff. The Public Archives was similarly faced with space problems. Automation of the Union Catalogue was only just beginning. The NLC continued to share its Canadian mandate with the newly formed Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information, a creation of the National Research Council, which opened its own building in 1974 for more than a million items and a staff of more than 100. Federal government initiatives were now more explicit about the need for long-range plans and multi-year financing; as a  result incremental change was becoming more difficult to implement in budget requests.

Consequently, Dr. Sylvestre launched a comprehensive review of the NLC's mandate and activities in 1976. He was hoping to develop a consensus about the future of the NLC with broad-based input from the Canadian library community and to provide an appropriate plan of action for the 1980s. Regional initiatives by other library agencies, like UNICAT/TELECAT, a bilingual automated cataloguing system used by libraries in Quebec and Ontario, were in development. The NLC had grown dramatically, but could it sustain its services and continue to expand? A certain amount of skepticism had arisen in the early 1970s about cooperative library projects--these efforts often did not deliver the same benefits to all participants and could engender divisive debates.

In the developing funding climate of governments and public administrators at all levels 'financial restrain' was becoming a byword and 'cutback management' would soon enter the administrative lexicon. Annual inflation rates of 7-11% rapidly eroded revenue increases. Dr. Sylvestre was known on occasion (e.g., at the Canadian Library Association's Edmonton conference in 1978) to lament that NLC funding was inadequate to the many tasks at hand. Was the NLC's glass to be "half full or half empty;" would there be a "silver lining" in the clouds? Much was riding on the results of its consultative assessment and resultant report, The Future of the National Library of Canada.