Letter to Stephen Harper on the cuts to the LAC

This letter circulated on the ARCAN-L listserv on the weekend. ARCAN-L is Canada’s national archival community discussion board.


6 September 2012

Dear Prime Minister:

I write as a proud Canadian, a proud Albertan, and a sometime supporter of your government, but a distressed one. I write also as a scholar who has spent years researching and publishing about pre-twentieth-century British expeditions of exploration for a northwest passage. Canadians know this to be a public and private interest of yours and your government’s.

My distress issues out of your government’s gradual, imperilling withdrawal of funding needed for the efficient operation of Library and Archives Canada. The resultant restructuring has been so drastic as to render this flagship institution of Canadian culture almost unrecognizable.

Staff have been cut. Service hours have been reduced. The purchase of materials has been brutally curtailed. Loan policies have been cancelled outright. Scholars from other countries coming to Ottawa to conduct research have had their inquiries go unanswered and their trips to Ottawa end in complete failure to access any records because of the dearth of staff available either to reply to correspondence or to fill standard requests to see records. The organization is in utter disarray. The dismal consensus is that, in a space of a half-dozen years, the library has so deteriorated as to be failing to fulfill its legislated mandate.

As you and/or your office staff doubtless know, the national library was founded in 1953, and its most recent charter, the Library and Archives Canada Act (2004), states that one of its chief purposes is to acquire and preserve “the documentary heritage” of Canada. Books and unpublished manuscripts like letters and other documents are the materials through which we discover who we are. They are the eyes through which we see what our country is. Contrary to popular belief, they do not collect and organize themselves. The cuts to LAC’s budget have been so deep and capricious as to suggest that those doing the cutting have no understanding of what the library and archives should be, and the result will be the devastation of what Canada is, not only as a concept and an idea but also as the very real place in which we are leading our lives and raising our families. To dismantle a nation’s library and archives is to shoot a bullet through its temple.

Permit me to provide you with a personal example of the value of LAC to those Canadians who, like you, take an interest in this month’s  search for the Erebus and Terror off King William Island. Earlier in my career, I was involved in locating two books of watercolour sketches made by George Back, then a midshipman serving under John Franklin during the first of his overland expeditions to the Arctic. These sketchbooks, which I found in a house in Gloucestershire, England, contain the first known pictures of any part of Alberta (the lower Athabasca River and Fort Chipewyan. In case of your interest, I’ll note that some of these were published in a book entitled Arctic Artist [1994]). Although private collectors wished to obtain them, I discussed with their owners the possibility of opening negotiations with Library and Archives Canada so that it could bid to obtain both sketchbooks in advance of a public auction and probable  disappearance into a private collection. The diligent staff at LAC succeeded in effecting the purchase. Thank goodness. These priceless documents and works of art now reside in Ottawa, where they belong. Because of permanent ill health, caused by his four expeditions in the Canadian Arctic (one of which subsequently caused the Great Fish River to be renamed Back River, one of the premier waterways of the mainland Barrens of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut), Back was not considered for appointment when Franklin was selected to command the ill-fated expedition of 1845. Subsequently, he was a paramount advisor to the Admiralty during the search operations of the the 1850s, and he numbered among the members of the council that the Admiralty convened to direct the search. With William Edward Parry, he remains a towering figure of nineteenth-century explorations of what now forms the Canadian Arctic.

Intentionally or unintentionally, sir, during your tenure as prime minister, the Government of Canada is conducting what amounts to a search and destroy campaign against LAC and thus against the cultural memory of Canadian people, memory that includes such gems as these sketchbooks. Think of the government’s action personally as brain surgery performed on you, sir, to deprive you of your memory. That would amount to a shocking withdrawal of your ability to function.

If not in the shortest of short terms, this is an issue of deep importance to all Canadians. I urge you to read the letter that the Bibliographical Society of Canada sent to all members of Parliament (if your copy has gone astray, please find it at http://www.bsc-sbc.ca/ and click on either “President’s Letter about Library and Archives Canada” or “Lettre du Présidente au sujet de Bibliothèque et Archives Canada”) and take measures to reverse the murderous withdrawal of the levels of funding needed to keep the LAC from becoming a disgrace in the eyes of Canadians and in the eyes of foreigners wishing to research Canadian subjects. Surely, you are too proud a Canadian to let this happen; surely, you will not want Canadian History to remember you for perpetrating this atrocity.



Ian MacLaren

Professor of History and Classics

University of Alberta


What the heck is going on at Harvard?

Last week you might have heard rumblings in the academic library / librarian blog circles that there was a great librarian massacre at Harvard. Thanks to the Jersey Exile blog for this clever reference to Robert Darnton’s collection of essays on cultural history of 18th century France, the Great Cat Massacre. By the way, the essay of the same name describes an antagonistic relationship of social class in France, where underpaid labourers and artisans would torture and even murder the cats of French aristocrats because the cats were better treated that the workers. While I don’t see any such uprising in UO librarians, the feelings of being undervalued never yield positive results. Darnton, I am sure was referenced, as he was Harvard’s Chief Librarian until last year.

Here is a breakdown of what shook down at Harvard’s town hall meetings on January 19th (copied and pasted from the above-mentioned blog):

I was in attendance and livetweeting at the first of the three meetings, but I can confirm through other colleagues who Tweeted from the second and third showings that even though we have not been fired or laid off, that the following things were announced:

1. Pending approval of the Implementation Plan by Harvard’s President, an overall reduction in library staff is guaranteed- of the jobs that remain, “There will certainly be new roles, requiring new skills” (direct quote)

2. Next month library staff will be informed by local library directors or HR whether or not their jobs as considered to be “local” or part of “shared services”

3. The final disposition of local library staff is a matter for the deans and their respective school budgets

4. Library staff falling into the category of Shared Services will either be assigned to new positions or required to apply for them anew in some informal or formal capacity, with preference going to existing Harvard Library staff

5. The Harvard Library will be offering some kind of voluntary retirementstaff reduction incentive,but has not ruled out as well as involuntaryretirement staff reductions to meet its strategic goals (edited x2)

6. All library staff have been encouraged but not required to create and submit an Employee Profile, which is meant to highlight one’s individual strengths and accomplishments and “inject oneself into the process” (direct quote)


So, what does this mean for academic librarians more broadly? There is a sense that “if it can happen at Harvard, it can happen anywhere.” But, I personally, don’t share that view. I do think that we as librarians have to look at these changes as the canary in the coal mine, to use one of the oldest union clichés. Reorganization of library services have been fairly constant in the last few years. That is not likely to change. At U of O we saw our own reorganization and staffing optimization plan in 2008 which was implemented over a couple of years. 13 support staff positions were eliminated or made redundant. Luckily, there were open positions so people did not have to lose their jobs.Luckily, some staff were close to retirement and “chose” to leave the university. Our town hall meetings are scheduled for Feb. 8th. We’re already a skeleton staff, so there is not a great deal of trimming of the fat, as my least favourite public servant, Rob Ford, likes to say. But besides staffing, there are changes afoot. Let’s be responsible and learn from what we hear next week.