Doors Close on Canada’s History

Valerie Knowles takes on the closure of federal libraries and archives in this August 2012 article for

On June 19, 2012, Liberal MP David McGuinty rose in Question Period to ask which federal departments or agencies have closed or will be closing their libraries and what is the rationale for such closures. In posing these questions, the Member for Ottawa South spotlighted a development that has been quietly under way for months and that will seriously impede research – some of which should play a vital role in the formulation of evidence-based government policy – and undermine our understanding of Canada’s history.

To date, the Immigration and Refugee Board, Transport Canada, Public Works and Government Services Canada, Public Service Commission, National Capital Commission and Canadian International Development Agency libraries have been closed. Other libraries, such as those at Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada are scheduled for imminent closure. In still others, staffs are being drastically cut.

Even when forward-looking library managers take into account the reality of digital publishing and act accordingly, they and their staff, to say nothing of outside researchers, cannot but deplore the consignment of valuable books, documents and photos to basements, where they will be out of reach of researchers and in danger of being lost forever.

An example of a unique document destined for oblivion is cited by Michael Molloy, President of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society. This University of Ottawa Senior Fellow is researching the development of Canada’s refugee policy in the critical period between 1969, when Canada signed the UN Refugee Convention, and 1978, when a revised Immigration Act was implemented.

According to Molloy, developments in refugee policy at the Cabinet level can be tracked online, but the critical decisions made by the Cabinet were communicated to immigration officials in an “Operations Memorandum” inserted in an immigration officer’s instructions manual. “These instructions,” reports Molloy, “governed how Canada resettled refugees from Chile, Uganda, Eastern Europe and the early phase of the Indochinese refugee movement and had a profound impact on Canadian refugee procedures down to this day. So far as we know, only one copy of the Ops Memorandum still exists: in the Immigration department’s library, which will close in September.” At this writing, it is unclear what is to become of historical material of this sort when this — and other libraries — close.

Other irreplaceable documentation slated for oblivion deals with Canada’s labour history, not a small part of any country’s heritage. These documents are held by the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada library, destined to close on March 31, 2013.

These closures and service reductions are ostensibly part of the Government’s budget control measures. Unfortunately, the Government and federal policy makers often don’t consider the implications of the wanton dismissal of print material. They don’t seem to realize that a huge body of literature does not exist on the Internet. This includes older documents and the pay-per-use literature of academia.

Nor do these federal decision-makers register that librarians are still the best search engines. Many people don’t know how to search the Internet expeditiously or even where to begin a search. With the loss of government librarians, civil servants seeking reports and other background material or researching their own reports will have to rely solely on their own research skills. This will result in less informed reports with the regrettable implications this has for policy formulation.

In short, no matter what type of format is consulted, skilled and knowledgeable librarians have provided quick and efficient research access to the information federal government policy analysts and researchers need. And this should continue to be the case so that their advice to ministers on matters affecting Canadians every day is well-founded.

It should also be noted that these librarians have also been an invaluable resource to outside researchers interested, like Michael Molloy, in bringing to light the background to public policy.

Claiming the need to cut costs, the government has also been slowly and stealthily wrecking Library and Archives Canada (LAC), the flagship of Canada’s heritage keepers. At LAC, over thirty archivists’ and librarians’ positions are being axed, which in turn is leading to a reduction in programs, one involving the acquisition of new archival holdings.

Already dozens of documents, photos and artifacts so essential to the preservation of Canada’s history are not being acquired. Moreover, Daniel Caron, who was appointed Librarian and Archivist of Canada on April 24, 2009, has gutted the private acquisitions program (the papers of politicians, other individuals, arts groups, organizations, etc.) in order to focus on the government’s agenda: record keeping improvements in government institutions.

Thanks to the cutting in April of a federal government grant program, part of $9.6 million in reductions to LAC, efforts to preserve Canadian history in small historical archives and museums in dozens of communities across the country are threatened. According to Braden Cannon, special projects archivist at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, many jobs will be lost and projects shelved. Previously the program helped to support First Nations, religious and historical archives.

Archives are about a nation’s memory. They help to illuminate our history and to make governments accountable.

Both government records and the records of private institutions have played an important role in the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has been listening to the testimony of residential school victims. Archival material has also figured in Japanese Canadian redress and the tainted blood scandal inquiry.

Budget slashing is also making Library and Archives of Canada’s holdings less accessible to researchers of all stripes, including genealogists researching family history, journalists, historians, novelists and playwrights.

Since interlibrary loans will be completely eliminated by February 2013, readers wishing to consult books found only on LAC shelves will have to consult them on site at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa. And those who can go to Library and Archives Canada will find that hours and services have been drastically cut.

The government claims the cuts won’t affect service to Canadians as LAC is putting as much of its collection online as possible. What the Government fails to mention is that only a minuscule percentage of the LAC collection is online and that LAC documents online can be incomplete and of little use to a researcher. One can therefore question whether digitization is all that it is held out to be. In any event, with all the staff cuts digitization’s progress at LAC will be severely hampered.

To date, the federal Tory government has demonstrated an aversion to evidence-based policy and a dislike of public access to information. So we have to wonder if its treatment of its own libraries and archives is a reflection of this. Whether or not this is the case, we can only hope that library closures will soon stop and that policies in effect at Library and Archives Canada will be altered to protect Canada’s knowledge base and heritage.