Tuesday, September 29, 2015

THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF CANADA IN THE 80s AND 90s: THE REALITIY OF NEOLIBERAL REFORM

By the time Guy Sylvestre retired at the end of 1983 many ideas crafted in the Future of the National Library (published in 1979) were no longer achievable. In the early 1980s, Canadian political and social life was in a state of flux. The election of a Conservative government in 1984 was a harbinger of change. In western countries the welfare state, often associated with Keynesian economics, had reached its apogee. The era of neoliberal economic reforms, also embraced often by neoconservatives such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, had arrived. For the majority of people, including librarians, this critical change in political decision making was at first slowly perceived. But, by the time Bill Clinton's campaign slogan "It's the economy, stupid!" helped him win the American 1992 Presidential election, everyone began to realize that market issues trumped social and cultural issues in the North America. The success of the Reform Party of Canada in the 1993 election was another indication of new national policy priorities.

The concept of reduced government services--government as an enabler not a provider--and the primacy of economic market-based policies became evident in the 1980s and 90s with the privatization of crown corporations such as Air Canada, Canadian National Railway, and Petro-Canada. Politicians and public servants alike expressed less enthusiasm for the qualitative nature of the 'public good' and more interest in furthering the success of federal institutions in a market economy and the rhetoric of 'free trade.' For a service organization like the National Library (NLC), government restructuring required some different thinking about core services and a reassessment of its activities. When a national study, Report of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee (the Applebaum-Hébert Report) appeared in 1982, it had little to recommend about the NLC except that a more suitable building should be provided. Obviously, the new National Librarian, Marianne Scott, faced many challenges after her appointment in 1984. A new building was just one.

On the surface, the budget situation for the NLC did not seem too precarious at the outset of the 1980s. Total funding for fiscal 1981/82 was just over $21 million. By 1991 it was almost $41 million; but, adjustments for a decade of rapid inflation consumed 3/4 of new funding. The 1990s were to prove even more difficult: by 1999 the total budget had been reduced to $38 million. In real terms, over two decades, there had been no revenue growth. As a result, the NLC applied the logic of neoliberal management and businesslike trimming: it streamlined operations, reduced collection building, and approached new developments, such as internet services and new digital initiatives, with caution. The rhetoric of "'Doing more with less!'; 'Empowerment!'; 'Partnerships!'; and 'Right-sizing!" were the order of the day.

The NLC's situation was not unique, all libraries and federal organizations encountered problems, but effectively national leadership was slipping away from the NLC. Although a variety of national and regional reports still emanated from Ottawa, an internal report, Orientations: a Planning Framework for the 1990s, which appeared in 1989, focused on NLC's own core activities: the development of a decentralized Canadian library and information network; resource sharing; preservation; and a commitment to Canadian studies. This short report was very different from The Future of the National Library. It was not a surprise when The Friends of the National Library of Canada was founded in 1991 to raise awareness and encourage public support of the Library. It was a necessity.

A second study--Canadian Information Resource Sharing Strategy, released in 1994--was more consultative and client oriented. It outlined a framework for Canadian libraries to develop coordinated resource sharing systems that would allow Canadians access to information. The NLC was retiring the DOBIS system and replacing it with AMICUS for its collections and union catalogue. However, the report arrived at the very time that the "Information Highway" exploded on the library community and the world. People began to envisage different ways to get rapid, convenient access to information required for research, business or leisure purposes without libraries. Nevertheless, the NLC was one of the first Canadian libraries to establish a website in June 1995. It was 'keeping up with the times' but unable to leverage government support for new identified roles, especially in the digital environment where Industry Canada was playing an important role.

Shortly before Marianne Scott prepared to set down after fifteen years, in April 1997 the NLC submitted a brief, The Role of the National Library of Canada in Support of Culture in Canada, to a committee of the Department of Canadian Heritage, to which it now reported. Scott emphasized the NLC had a vital role to play in the nation's cultural information and communications environment. The preservation of materials in the current building was threatened by water damage in collections areas. Canadiana acquisitions were much reduced. Canadian Heritage, under the minister Sheila Copps, was reviewing its own general role and, of course, applying neoliberal standards to its activities. Ironically, the processes the NLC had assiduously applied to its own internal operations and administration would be applied to the portfolio of cultural agencies in Canadian Heritage.

On 12 March 1998, Sheila Copps announced the launch of consultations on the "future role and structure" of the National Archives of Canada and the NLC. Some people in the cultural field understood the coded language that this entailed: amalgamation. However, the subsequent report, by John English, The Role of the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada, completed in 1999, looked to the future, especially in digital terms, and explicitly rejected the idea of unification. The report had many good ideas, but was obscured--sidelined in political parlance--by the prior announcement of a new appointment. Roch Carrier, an award winning author with minimal library expertise, stepped into the position of National Librarian in July 1999.

"We have to build a vision, but I'm not ready to talk about it yet," Carrier first advised the press. Then he went on a two-week cross-Canada tour to discover ideas and opinions about libraries and the NLC. "My role will be to help them [NLC staff] build the future" he wrote in the National Library Bulletin in November 1999. His 'Bridge to the 21st Century' would prove to be a short span to a barren shore.

Further Reading

The English Report recommendations are available on the web at the University of Alberta.
Read news about the National Library in the late 1990s archived on the web.