Sunday, October 28, 2007

Digitize First, Cutback Later

Over the last couple of months, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has received plenty of criticism over their decision to reduce their hours. Frustration and dissatisfaction has been mounting towards LAC who repeatedly defends the cutbacks based on the claim that many of the archives resources are now available online. This decision was explained on their website on August 9, 2007, stating:

...we are adjusting our hours of operation, in keeping with the anticipated needs of clients and evolving information technologies. We are steadily adding documentary heritage material to our website, thereby increasing access to the collection for Canadians both in the National Capital Region and across the country.[i]

Clearly, it makes sense for LAC to encourage the public to access their expanding online collection. By digitizing their archives they are engaging in an increasingly popular conservation strategy, while simultaneously making their resources more accessible to a wider range of users. I can imagine for historians who live half-way across our very large country (or even for Ontarians such as myself who still live a solid six hour drive away from Ottawa) that it would be very convenient if researchers could gain access to the National Archives from their own homes. Furthermore, as much as LAC is currently being criticized, they do seem to be making significant improvements to the usability of their digitized collection.

LAC has stabilized their website and has improved its ability to handle the increased demand. Also, the website has replaced the outdated ArchivaNet: Online Research Tool, with the more comprehensive and thorough Archives Search, which allows users to search within archives, library, ancestors, and the website, or specify if they would like to search within one in particular. In addition, Archives Search allows for the user to make very precise searches of LAC’s holdings; researchers can specify the type of materials, the hierarchical level (such as fonds/collection, series, file, etc.), or the specific dates of the resources they seek. Finally, the search also lets the user know whether the document they want is available online or offline.

This is where things get tricky. As the Globe and Mail reported on September 29, 2007, it is currently estimated that only 1% of LAC’s holdings are currently digitized.[ii] In this way, the cutbacks on the hours of operation were not only pre-mature, but worthy of the Canadian public’s indignation. It is admirable to work towards improving the ability to search and use online collections, but until a much larger holding has been created, it is unfair to restrict the publics’ access to their national archives.

*Picture is of the sculpture “The Secret Bench of Knowledge” by Lea Vivot, which is found in front of LAC

[i] “New Hours of Operation” in What’s New, 9 August 2007 (28 October 2007)

[ii] Val Ross, “ Service Cuts at Ottawa’s Archives rile Researchers” in The Globe and Mail, Print Edition 29/09/07 Page R6

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