Published by The Ottawa Citizen on June 16, 2013.
OTTAWA — It is much harder and more expensive to digitize a national archive than those undertaking the task usually realize, a consultant warned Library and Archives Canada earlier this year.
Éric Méchoulan of the Université de Montréal, hired on a $15,000 contract to advise LAC on issues involving digitization of its collection, produced a report in January outlining the three main challenges it faces:
• Digital images of historic documents aren’t static; they can be “retouched and transformed,” raising new problems of authenticity.
• Keeping pace with “inflation” of archives in an era when computers let data breed like rabbits. It’s now possible to produce in a matter of days as much information as humanity produced in all history up to 2003.
• Changing technology threatens to make digital archives obsolete. In fact, he says, this happens all the time.
Storing a document in digital form “offers no guarantee of its continuity: computers and software quickly become obsolete and hyperlinks to websites that are not regularly updated are often broken and unusable,” Méchoulan writes.
The Citizen broke the news last week that LAC secretly negotiated a deal to let Canadiana.org make digital copies of millions of documents and photos and then charge for access to these images for 10 years. Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin obtained Méchoulan’s analysis through an access to information request.
When the archives of the Stasi — the former East German secret police — came to light 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, no one could read them because both hardware and software had changed so much, Méchoulan writes.
Web pages last an average of 44 days, he notes. Someone looking for pages from the mid-1990s today would have trouble finding most of them.
This raises a problem. As old technologies go the way of VHS tapes, someone has to update again and again the way in which digital archives are preserved, so that digitizing becomes a task that never ends.
And each time technology changes, updating the images may alter them subtly. Each one becomes a copy of a copy of a copy.
The cost may become prohibitive. Méchoulan quotes the British Library as warning that “institutions should not count on the falling cost of storage, as a growing number of items due to migration can easily offset these gains, while the operational costs of some preservation strategies may actually exceed the perceived value of a collection.”
As well, digital archives sometimes disappear: A technician reformatting a hard drive wiped out 800,000 images from Alaska’s state collection. There was a backup, but he reformatted that too.
Meanwhile, LAC’s long-term digitization strategy — also obtained by Rubin — shows different issues.
For instance, some cabinet documents would only be available after an access to information review, and only with approval from the Privy Council Office.
The archives contain an immense amount of material, including 32 million items from the First World War alone, 68 million images now stored on microfilm, 200,000 historic maps, and “possibly millions” of newspaper pages.
“In recent years, LAC has not made any real progress toward mass content digitization,” a summary of the strategy says.
It still needs to resolve issues of “sustainable funding, digital storage, accessibility of images, rights, and resources discovery.”
The strategy says the priority for the first year would be images of the First World War collection, the Canada Gazette, the microfilm collection, orders in council and cabinet conclusions.
Published by The Ottawa Citizen on June 13, 2013:
OTTAWA — Canada’s former chief librarian and archivist is harshly critical of the deal to have a private company digitize our public documents and photos.
Ian Wilson says it smack of “desperation” by the federal government.
Further, he says the contents of our archives are “a public good” like historic sites and national parks, and shouldn’t be sold back to us.
Library and Archives Canada is already “superb” at preserving documents, he said.
“The key issue is now digitization, and how to get, in a modern era, this material out to Canadians from coast to coast to coast” at all times.
The issue blew up Tuesday, when the Citizen revealed a secret deal in which LAC will provide millions of documents to Canadiana.org. The non-profit company will make digital images and can sell them for 10 years to cover its costs. Originals remain public property.
“My own interpretation of this is it’s a very clear sign of desperation,” Wilson said. “In effect we’re downloading the cost of digitization to the universities,” because Canadiana.org is formed by university libraries across Canada.
“Other countries see this as a national responsibility. England (and) the United States are putting huge amounts of money into digitizing their documentary heritage.”
“We shouldn’t ask our university libraries to fund it. It’s our memory, our recorded memory. It is an online museum. When you go through the record, you get the authentic voice of those who made this country. You get the letters and the diaries … you get the cabinet minutes. You get records that show in their own voice what they were trying to do, and their hopes and achievements. It’s all there.”
The mass of material includes “documents and photographs and documentary art and portraits and film.” He calls it “a source of national pride.”
“We have not been able to secure that kind of funding in Canada.”
“We still don’t have online the papers of all our prime ministers,” he said.
“We’ve got John A. Macdonald’s papers online but no Laurier papers, and the Borden and the Bennett (papers) — where are those? Those should be online.”
There should also be personal papers of ordinary people online, Wilson said.
“All of that belongs to the people of Canada. It’s all ours, we are paying to store it, we are paying to preserve it properly.”
“And there’s real demand out there.”
“The key is to have a systematic national program to digitize the key records. Not everything; we couldn’t do it all.”
There are 1.2 million maps in the collection. “Why aren’t those maps available? I think the earliest is (from) 1508. Why isn’t that available online? Other countries are doing it but for some reason we haven’t been able to get the attention and drive for it.”
“Let’s do it once, do it well. It’s the knowledge economy version of a capital project. It’s our intellectual capital and it’s worth getting up there.”
In 2011, the Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage recommended digitizing archival documents and putting them online.
“What Canadiana is proposing is, I think, a very generous way and I think a very creative way” to do what the government is not doing, Wilson said.
But the Canadian Library Association is all for the deal.
“We think it’s fantastic,” said president Pilar Martinez.
She says the government shouldn’t be “downloading” the cost of digitizing onto the libraries. But she also said it’s sometimes necessary for the public to pay for access to things it owns — for instance, to enter a national park.
She said Canadiana.org has been making archival materials available for many years and can be trusted because it’s a non-profit agency.
It’s essential to make these national collections available more widely because “this is part of who we are,” she said.
At the University of Toronto, Wendy Duff also says the Canadiana.org deal may be the best practical way to get the information to anyone who lives outside Ottawa.
“I’m a huge believer in making material available,” said Duff, who’s in the faculty of information.
“I think this will make material available” that isn’t today, she said. “I am of course concerned about a pay wall. I would hope there would be a way that the public libraries could license material.”
“Doctoral students will be able to use archival resources if they live in B.C. or Halifax or Newfoundland without having to go to Ottawa. As a person who has spent a lot of time in the Maritimes, that would be a good thing.”
“Twenty years ago I would have said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, we can’t go into business,” she said. “Canadiana is a non-profit. It is dedicated to making material available.”
But she said there has to be assurance that access will include the public, and not just university researchers.
“This … will only be realized if, whatever the pay schedule is, public libraries and schools are given an ability to get this without spending millions of dollars.”© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen
Submitted to and published by The Toronto Star, May 27 2013:
Re: Stephen Harper should appoint a pro to head Canada’s library and archives: Editorial, May 21
Stephen Harper should appoint a pro to head Canada’s library and archives: Editorial, May 21
Your editorial on the replacement of Daniel Caron as head of the Library and Archives Canada makes a significant point about having a professional in charge of the most important repository for our printed and archival history.
However, what the public will not be aware of is that since Caron’s appointment many professional associations in Canada have been attempting to inform the public of the damage that this man has inflicted on our heritage.
For some time, many professional associations concerned with matters relating to Canada’s history have been trying to raise awareness of Caron’s policies and nobody seemed to care or even notice. The Canadian Library Association, the Canadian Archivists Association, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the Bibliographical Society of Canada, the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Canada and other interested groups have all been lobbying the government and attempting to arouse public indignation.
All of these professional associations have thick files documenting their protests over the last few years about the steps taken by Caron to completely stop acquisitions and accessions, restrict and stop access to materials, end interlibrary loans, lay off a huge percentage of accredited/qualified staff (librarians and archivists), and implement a draconian “code of conduct” for LAC staff which, in effect, restricts free speech. It is apparent Caron’s policies at LAC are part of government policy to throw away our heritage.
It seems the government means to dismantle and disperse our printed heritage, the equivalent of destroying the Library of Congress or the British Library. If these groups of concerned professionals are able to catch the attention of the public, it could be stopped before it destroys our past.
Caron will be replaced, maybe even by a professional archivist or librarian, but it seems that this government thinks its mandate is to replace the real artifacts with more digital retrieval services (whatever they are), and that the purpose of an institution like LAC is to merely provide access to information, not to be the custodian of the actual artifacts of our history.
Perhaps if the public voiced its dismay, something could be done. Otherwise in 20 or 50 years when the inevitable scandal is revealed, it will be too late.
David Mason, David Mason Books, Toronto