Wednesday, October 14, 2015

CELEBRATING A HALF-CENTURY: THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF CANADA, 1953-2003

As the National Library of Canada (NLC) moved inexorably to its golden anniversary in 2003, it was still a viable institution despite years of cutback management. In line with neoliberal philosophy, services had been reduced or eliminated (e.g. the popular Multilingual service) but many basic functions remained that made it a recognizable national entity. Although it was aging technology, AMICUS, Canada's national database, contained 25,000,000 records for more than 1,000 Canadian libraries. The NLC's Union Catalogue was a reliable source for bibliographic information and locations for books and periodicals that could be used by other libraries. The NLC's comprehensive Canadiana collection was largely due to Legal Deposit Provisions whereby Canadian publishers were required by law to send, as a general rule, two copies of all published works in various formats. The Library's Canadian Cataloging in Publication program was a collaborative effort with publishers and other libraries that permitted books to be catalogued pre-publication. The Canadian Theses service coordinated the microfiche reproduction and loan of theses on a timely basis. The NLC's Canadian Book Exchange Centre offered a utilitarian service to libraries for the distribution and exchange of surplus publications. These, and other services, aligned the NLC with other major Canadian libraries on a reciprocal basis. Together with the Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (CISTI), comprehensive national library services were available for Canadians and others working beyond Canadian borders from Ottawa.

For the public at large and researchers the old building on 395 Wellington Street shared with the National Archives remained a valuable service point. The second floor Reading Room allowed for consultation of 'closed-stack' resources from the general collection by retrievals submitted through an on-site AMICUS. The Music and Rare Book Divisions provided in-depth reference, referral, and consultative services to Canadian and foreign researchers, libraries and organizations. The Reference and Information Services Division provided reference in Canadiana and Canadian studies to researchers and libraries within Canada and abroad. Inter-library Loan filled requests for materials by lending a copy, providing a photocopy, or giving referrals to other libraries that might loan items.

The fourth National Librarian, Dr. Roch Carrier, sought various improvements. He encouraged expanding the reach of the NLC to Canadians through travelling exhibitions and the newly formed Digital Library of Canada, an effort to document Canadian heritage and culture and to provide access on the NLC website. Carrier also advocated for literacy and reading through improved school libraries. His effort to stem the leaks at 395 Wellington was more successful when the roof was repaired in 2002. Two years earlier, more than 2,500 publications had been damaged after a broken pipe allowed water to enter three floors. The NLC's administration was changing and its staffing attempting to accommodate changes, such as the Internet and the advent of digital publishing. Nevertheless, ominous clouds were gathering. It wasn't just the frequent newspaper stories of water damage that were endangering Canada's national collections at '395' or the atrophied budget NLC was struggling with that were cause for alarm. The NLC's parent body, the Department of Canadian Heritage, a neoliberal creature in search of prominence, continued to take a 'fresh look' at Canada's cultural institutions and heritage.

While some officials, such as Auditor-General Sheila Fraser, stated many federal heritage buildings (including the NLC) were in a poor condition and recommended the government 'do something' before cultural heritage resources might be lost to future generations, Canadian Heritage was developing new concepts. Sheila Copps, the Minister and MP for Hamilton East, preferred to ignore the problems inherent in merging the NLC with the National Archives, something the 1999 report by John English had emphasized along with his recommendations on updating mandates of the library and archives. In fact, on October 21st, 2002, minister provided a simplistic, inaccurate rationale for MPs when she rose to explain the proposed merger in the context of reduced funding for the Canadian Archival Information Network.

"Mr. Speaker, we are of course talking about two different issues when we refer to the National Archives and the National Library. Three years ago, it was decided that it would be a good thing to merge these two institutions to present to the general public everything is part of the wealth of historical information belonging to the National Archives and the National Library. This is what we will do."

During the Parliamentary debates on the merger (Bills C-36 and its successor C-8) a few MPs actually got beyond the political obfuscation and bombastic visionary goals of a long-term plan to combine administration, storage, and preservation work in an area around the former National Archives' preservation centre in Gatineau and to establish a Portrait Gallery of Canada. Critics addressed the most obvious and long-standing problems, lack of funding and intertwined mandates. Also, NLC was a weak player in national information policy development and infrastructure. The general perception that a new administrative entity, Library and Archives Canada, would get enhanced visibility, relevance and accessibility carried the day. A single agency would allow for improved and innovative changes on a collaborative basis for the humanities and social sciences. Alternative schemes, such as combining CISTI (the country's 'other' national library) and the NLC were not considered. "Toward a New Kind of Knowledge Institution" outlined typical promotional views for Canadian heritage operations in Ottawa. All would be well in time: there would be
  • synergy of collections, skills and constituencies;
  • easier access to integrated holdings, both for researchers and for millions of ordinary Canadians;
  • enhanced service delivery to Canadians; and
  • better use of scarce resources.
Later, in summer 2004, LAC released a discussion document, Creating a New Kind of Knowledge Institution, about key future directions and initiatives to be taken. A new era was beginning--Canada proposed to be a leader in new knowledge (or memory) institution implementation with information technology as a major driver. An older era, still viable in other countries and capable of harnessing technology in its own manner (even today in 2015), was out of favour in Canada's capital. Time--perhaps a decade or two?--would reveal the wisdom behind the merger and plans for the future that might be celebrated in their own right.

Further information on post-2004 developments

Library and Archives Canada at Wikipedia
Timeline: Library and Archives Canada Service Decline after 2004 at Ex Libris Association website
Slide History of CISTI, 1924-2009 available on Internet Archive