January–February 2011

Re: “National Archives Blues,” by Susan Crean

If only the National Archives were being digitized to death!

I would like to disagree, and agree, with Susan Crean’s recent essay on the malaise that has settled over Library and Archives Canada.

The cardinal rule of research tools is Something Is Better Than Nothing. That is, an imperfect index, a poorly-compiled catalogue, or an incomplete database is always preferable to none at all. This is something that researchers everywhere understand intuitively, but it eludes the powers that be at Library and Archives Canada.

The digital research tools that have allowed me to use LAC’s collections more effectively, as the digital era has rolled on, are almost never those few that LAC itself has been involved in creating. Commercial and non-profit newspaper digitization projects around the world provide access to historical newspapers from Canada, or, in the days before copyright maximalism, news liberally reproduced abroad from Canadian sources.

Such research “hits” have given me much-needed leads to find the microfilmed or original records and newspapers in LAC’s collections. Australian and American digital newspaper collections are surely a very poor mirror to the Canadian past, but in the absence of many (or any) good Canadian analogues, these are the sorts of tricks Canadian researchers must resort to.

When I first set foot in the building in 1992, there were already a number of promising starts on the technological front. CD-ROM indexes of Prime Ministerial correspondence (up to Mackenzie King) and the Archives des Colonies were time- and sanity-savers. The digital version of the main-entry catalogue allowed at least a high-level scan of archival collections that might hold records in your area of interest.

But for the better part of a decade, those products represented the culmination of LAC’s digitization efforts, as the institution retreated ever further into technophobia. It was in the rear guard of institutions of similar size and mandate in acquiring digital microfilm equipment and allowing self-service digital photography. The constant outages, planned and otherwise, of LAC’s internet infrastructure are a continuing source of frustration. And LAC has shown absolutely zero interest in partnering with researchers on digitization efforts.

I would gladly share the thousands of digital images I have taken of open-access records, and make them available, across geography and time, to researchers who might share my interest. There are other researchers of the same inclination. But no one has ever asked us.

Overall, however, I would agree with the picture Ms. Crean paints of an institution that has lost its way.

I have seen LAC foolishly go along with a failed attempt to restore copyright restrictions on unpublished records which were about to come, properly and finally, into the public domain. There is no hint that policy-timid LAC is willing to challenge Canada’s nonsensical statutory provisions on Crown copyright, which “protect” unpublished public records forever, including British colonial-era documents that are already public domain in the UK. I have battled LAC’s original, bizarrely bureaucratic rules concerning self-service photography, rules which essentially told me how I was to take my own notes.

But most of all, a visit to LAC used to be, and feel like, a visit to a cultural and intellectual institution. Now, it is a visit to just another government office (or, at the circulation desk, a bank).

I used to know all the faces, and many of the names, of the reference and circulation staff who helped me in my travels. They knew mine. That era is long gone.

In the fall of 2007, LAC, tone-deaf towards the needs of its own core clientele, proposed a massive reduction in its public hours. The ensuing outcry forced a clear-the-air session, which I attended, and which I only learned about because a genealogical blogger had the good sense to publicize the meeting. (LAC itself didn’t post a notice on its website and scheduled the session in the middle of a weekday afternoon; the place still ended up being standing-room only.)

Even something as picayune as your client number reveals something of the change. On the old, pre-amalgamation archives side, your number stayed with you, even after annual renewal. I can still remember mine: 33358.

I have no such attachment to my post-amalgamation barcode.

(By contrast, imagine my surprise, three years ago, visiting the Provincial Archives in St. John’s, to find I not only still had my research number from 15 years before, but that one of the staff remembered me from 15 years before. That, and the photocopies I ordered were ready before I left the building that same afternoon.)

LAC’s efforts to join the rest of the world in the 21st century are timid and tentative at best. It has lost the trust of many researchers and shows little concern for our needs, let alone our wants. Its current collection policies mean that the contemporary period will not only be a digital dark age for future generations of researchers, but a paper dark age as well.

To be fair, the archival malaise isn’t restricted to LAC. I still shudder at the Hudson Bay Company Archives’s decision to retire the venerable and delightfully antiquated title of “Keeper”; if an archival institution can discard its own history, what else is it capable of doing? But the slow, sad decline of LAC is a particularly troubling case.

What would Arthur Doughty do?

Wallace J. McLean

Re: “Back to the Garden,” by Geoff Pevere

Geoff Pevere, the reviewer of Random Acts of Culture: Reclaiming Art and Community in the 21st Century, is entitled to his opinion, but he needs to get his facts straight. I feel compelled to correct some of his serious misrepresentations of the book’s arguments. Let’s start with the title of the review: “Back to the Garden.” He tells us that the book makes the case that we need to go back to a more “authentic” cultural Eden before the modern age. While I strongly believe that history can provide important lessons for the present—much of the book is a detailed analysis of the past—I make it quite clear from the beginning that it is the future I’m interested in: “It is absurd to think that it might be possible to go back to a simpler time, before modernity, in order to escape from the sins of the Western world … Even if a return to the past were imaginable, I for one would advise against it. We have gained much wisdom from the experiment of modernity. As I see it, there is neither progress nor regress, just change.” The examples of contemporary vernacular culture I provide come from urban settings. No one is going “back to the forest and drumming up a storm,” as Pevere would have us believe. I also never use the word “authentic.”

Another beef Pevere has with the book is that I downplay the revolutionary potential for cultural participation afforded by digital technologies. This in particular is where he stretches my credulity. His characterization of “the tidal onslaught of user-generated culture” as making possible “a degree of feedback, participation and creative interactivity unprecedented in the history of electronic media” sounds utopian to say the least. In the chapter “The Retribalization of the World?” (which Pevere quotes but omits the question mark), I provide a detailed critique of precisely these ideas and demonstrate their limitations. In short, I view the “digital revolution” with the same kind of skepticism Pevere applies to CBC Radio Ideas programs and cultural activities that are “high-fibre, good-for-you, planet-saving … and only in the most generous sense much fun.” I like junk food and junk culture just like everyone else, but with time I’ve learned that a sustained diet of both is bad for my physical and mental health.

Clarke Mackey
Kingston, Ontario

Re: “Split Personality,” by Leslie Campbell

I hope Les Campbell isn’t proposing some kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to gay rights when it comes to Canada’s foreign policy. His comments about my book’s approach to this issue as being “[Thomas] Paine on steroids” could certainly lend themselves to such an interpretation.

What could Canada do? What does “engagement” mean? It means being who we are in the world without being afraid to tell it like it is. Countries that incarcerate, torture and kill gay people or encourage continuing discrimination should be named, criticized and embarrassed. If the argument goes that this challenges established thinking in a number of places, our entire experience tells us that this kind of thinking changes. And I predict that it will change more quickly in the face of savvy and consistent leadership than through an approach that cowers in the corners for fear of offending a patriarchal clerisy.

We should do the same about the rights of women, religious and ethnic minorities, and the disabled, which doesn’t imply our own perfection, but rather expresses a deep willingness to share and compare our own experiences. An annual report that documented systematically the barriers and discrimination that people face in the world, including Canada, with a Canadian coat of arms on the front, would be a good first step. Other countries already do it. Consistent leadership at the United Nations, working with like-minded countries—these are all aspects of our diplomacy that need to be stronger and more explicit.

WikiLeaks should have taught us the clear lesson that saying out loud what we say in private is actually a good idea.

It doesn’t mean, except in certain circumstances such as Iran and Burma, that we stop trading, tourism and other important exchanges. We walk and chew gum at the same time. A little of Paine, a little of Burke. And all of Canada.

Les Campbell says that a “better edited book” could have been a more comprehensive guide to Canadian foreign policy. I’ll let my editors at McClelland and Stewart defend themselves, but the book Campbell appears to want written is not the book I wanted to write—which is about how human rights, the rule of law and democracy are constantly evolving, and some lessons I have come to draw from my own experiences. Did I leave some things out? Of course, but that only means more books in the future.

Bob Rae, MP
Toronto, Ontario

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