Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore summed it up: “I really didn’t realize the librarians were, you know, such a dangerous group. They are subversive. You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn’t mess with them. You know, they’ve had their budgets cut.” He adds: “The libraries are just like the ass end of everything, right?”
It feels like that this month, as cuts to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) take effect. In May, the federal government announced cuts to that central of Canadian institutions, including affected notices to 450 staff members, with elimination of 215 of those positions. Also announced was the closure of the interlibrary loans unit.
Now, I grew up in Ottawa, so I remember that centre-of-the-universe attitude that sometimes pervaded things to the exclusion of the rest of the country (Saska-what?). But now, with the closure of the interlibrary loan service, researchers must travel to Our Nation’s Capitol — by plane or train, horse or dogsled — in order to access that which really belongs to all of us. The book on interlibrary loans from LAC slams shut December 11.
Library and Archives Canada was formed in 2001 when the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada merged — a move that made sense. The mandate of this new hybrid was to acquire and preserve Canada’s documentary heritage — and to facilitate public access to that heritage.
Now, in addition to decreased access, LAC has also cut acquisitions, leaving holes in what was once a comprehensive collection. So even if you hitch up the huskies and make the trek to Ottawa for that keystone document to your life’s research, it might not be there.
Here’s a sampling of the not-so-easily-accessible holdings of LAC: Canadian books, records of those who have contributed to Canada’s development, aboriginal historical information, plans and maps dating back to the 16th century, photographs from the 1850s, video and sound recordings, works of art, genealogical portraits, postal archives, all kinds of newspapers, periodicals, microfilms, manuscripts and theses, and documents from Canada’s diverse socio-economic groups. Library and Archives Canada holds the comprehensive portrait of who we are.
Changes to holdings and accessibility may not affect the average public library user, but they do affect all Canadians. That’s because researchers, authors, documentarians, historians, librarians and others rely on LAC for source material to create the books and music and films you do enjoy. Cutting LAC erodes the very bones of who we are as Canadians.
We’re fortunate in Canada to have enjoyed, for the most part, political and economic stability. In many parts of the world wars or political unrest have compromised antiquities, libraries, and museums as buildings are bombed, information suppressed, books burned. Once gone, they don’t come back.
But in Canada, threats to our heritage have been more subtle. Even when, in 1916, Canada’s parliamentary library went up in flames, the cause was accidental, enemy sabotage ruled out in the Royal Commission inquiry. The likely cause? Careless smoking in the House of Commons Reading Room. Hmmm.
We can’t let our heritage go up in smoke. The Canadian Association of University Teachers is asking Canadians to get involved, get informed, and speak out. Information and addresses to write to are available at savelac.ca.
If you care, write. It’s not so subversive, and it’s hardly revolutionary; it’s speaking up as Canadians today for the right of future generations to access our history.
Anne DeGrace’s column is featured every second Friday in the Star