Saturday, June 15, 2013

New Disasters at Library and Archives Canada UPDATED -- see bottom of post

Are these guys the enablers?
Chris Cobb and the Ottawa Citizen (and some brave civil service whistle-blowers, probably) break news of another secret plan the government is working on to sell out and sell off the national's archival collection.
Library and Archives Canada has entered a hush-hush deal with a private high-tech consortium that would hand over exclusive rights to publicly owned books and artifacts for 10 years ....
LAC is partnering with in what is being billed as The Heritage Project — digitizing 40 million images from more than 800 collections of publicly-held LAC material, much bought by Library and Archives over the years with taxpayers’ money.  
Under the agreement, digital images will begin rolling back into the free public domain — known as “open access” — as the 10-year exclusive rights expire.
Worth noting: this plan to take most of the national archival heritage out of the public domain and make digital access available only to subscribers for ten years is being enabled and facilitated ... by the universities of Canada, which are the principal owners of  
Initial funders are promised “premium access” to the digitized material along with other benefits including a say in how future projects will be handled.But according to an internal email seen by the Citizen late Tuesday, 43 Canadian university libraries have committed a total of $1.71 million in startup funds, a fact Canadiana wanted to announce this week — along with correcting “misunderstandings” — but was prevented by the federal government from doing so
Once again, the academic community will be asked to sell out the public interest in support of institutional privilege -- and if history is any guide, the profs will rush to sell us out.  The librarians too, always on the wrong side of rights and access issues.
the Canadian Library Association is all for the deal. “We think it’s fantastic,” said president Pilar Martinez.
That last quotation is from a Citizen follow-up story, in which former Archivist Ian Wilson denounces the project
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. 
Any chance we will see any university president or academic spokesperson take this kind of principled stand? There are grounds for fearing our major history policy NGOs are way too deep in the government's pockets to be able to advise independently.

Update, June 26: Dr Bill Stewart of Ottawa comments:
I wanted to comment on the discussion of the LAC's digitization policy. Perhaps you can help me understand the outrage over the LAC's approach, as the Citizen article, like most newspaper articles, was frustratingly opaque on the really relevant issue with the proposal. The big issue in my mind is whether the organization that does the digitization retains the materials they digitize for ten years or do they retain just the digitized copies. If it is the latter case, I am not sure I understand the outrage.
 I heartily agree that the government should properly fund the archives digitization initiatives, but that is unlikely to eventuate until there is a change of government and I doubt that will have much effect. In the absence of public funding, what options does the LAC have to make these materials available to all Canadians in a digital format - someone has to pay for it? Assuming the original copies are still available for consultation, albeit only in Ottawa, I am not sure how the situation is worse than it is now. The choices are materials in Ottawa and no digital versions or under this scheme where the materials are still available and if you want a digital version you have to pay to access them for a period of ten years.
 There are ample grounds for complaint about how the LAC is run but this is an instance where if the protests are successful we will end up with a situation of digitization proceeding only at the pace direct funding allows.
Thanks for the contribution.

My understanding is that the materials -- the hard copy documents -- remain with the LAC.

The problems that arise are of two kinds. First, the LAC has been energetically, even proudly, reducing access to hard copy documents, shortening hours, limiting archival assistance, etc., on the grounds that digital access makes the traditional archival services obsolete and only blinkered minds continue to ask for them.  But now it appears that for a decade, there will be no digital access either, except for paid-up members.

Two, the LAC seems to be giving an NGO a ten year monopoly over digital access to public records.  A company like Ancestry also offers digital access to public documents for a fee, but it does not limit the source institutions' right to do the same if they wish.  Ancestry builds its business by adding extra services, like better search, chart building opportunities, social networking, etc. -- not by denying the originating archives the freedom to offer their records digitally.  So even if you accept the principle of privatizing access to the public record, this does not seem like a very good deal for the public.
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