Toronto Consultations

On Thursday afternoon, January 16, nine members of the panel engaged in a wide-ranging conversation with librarians from the Toronto Public Library system, the University of Toronto, University of Guelph, Ryerson University, and York University, archivists from the City of Toronto and the University of Toronto, faculty and students from the iSchool, IT specialists, consultants, and teacher-librarians. A major topic in our conversation was the need for greater cooperation and collaboration between libraries and archives, possibly taking a cue from the successful harmonization of the distinct yet related disciplines evidenced at Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. It was stressed, however, that this closer relationship does not necessarily mean that merging libraries and archives is an answer in all or even most circumstances. However, a repeated theme, echoed in all of our consultations, involved the assessment of LAC-BAC. Participants expressed dismay and outrage that the institution’s 2004 mandate was not being followed, that communications were not effective, that holdings appear to be being dispersed without consultation, and that a very minimal portion of the holdings (less than 1%) have been digitized. The differences between the statements, “we will collect” and “we will choose” mean that some decisions already taken have resulted in irreparable, irreversible damage. Leadership, as participants noted, is ceded and not taken; moreover, it must be based on trust. Different models of national leadership, with the possibility of LAC coordinating already existing networks, were entertained. As a consortial initiative, the Scholars Portal was cited as an efficient, replicable pattern. A forcefully reiterated warning on the matter of access was that digitization does not mean getting rid of an original. The digitized copy can, it was pointed out, act as a device for making a larger audience aware of a document’s existence, while the original is protected. Several metaphors circulated about libraries, archives, and their professional staffs.

Libraries are conduits rather than gatekeepers, with the TPL crowd sourcing project on Yonge Street in which people upload their stories as one example; archives are evidence holders, contributing to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the settlement of cases of wrongful conviction, as with Steven Truscott. Librarians and archivists were hailed as physiotherapists of the mind. We were reminded of the complex service proposition in communicating the value of these institutions, where creativity, culture, learning, research, economic impacts, and service need to be meshed in an appropriately inclusive concept. As we heard at these sessions and at others, librarians and archivists are not always comfortable with the need to promote their own worth.

The panel is deeply grateful to colleagues at the iSchool, Dean Seamus Ross and Wendy Duff, and U of T archivist Loryl MacDonald for securing a room at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education for our consultation and for publicizing the event with such encouraging results.

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From Thursday, January 29, until Saturday, February 1, Ken Roberts and I talked to delegates at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference and met with representatives of many organizations. First of all we want to express our appreciation to Shelagh Paterson, OLA Executive Director, for arranging these meetings and securing an appropriate venue for us at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

As well as circulating through the large poster area, we held conversations with the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries, the Ontario Health Libraries Association, the Ontario Association of Library Technicians, the Toronto Public Library, the Hamilton Public Library, Southern Ontario Library Services, the Ontario Library Association, and the Council of Urban Libraries of Canada. We also convened an open, drop-in session for any delegates on Saturday.

We heard of many positive developments in public libraries: the library as a digital innovation hub, the growth of maker spaces, of ESL conversation circles, of multiple literacies, of reading clubs, and the presence of a social worker within the library. We were reminded of the power of the collective or consortium to encourage joint buying, integrate services to the curriculum with demonstrable increases in outcomes measurement, and accommodate regional storage.

Amid the reports of cradle-to-grave learning, idea boxes, and aging-in-place concepts, and such slogans as from transaction to transformation, we also heard strong pleas not to forget the primary message that libraries have space, staff, and stuff. We were challenged to unpack the notion of the public good and to see libraries and archives in a wraparound agreement.

Areas where intervention is needed include school libraries, the library technician programs, the closure of libraries in sub-acute care hospitals, the demise of the Depository Service Program, and the sheer proliferation of organizations sometimes with mixed and therefore unfulfilled mandates. The closure of libraries in hospitals seemed to echo a theme heard repeatedly. When funding is tight, administrators often choose to believe that anything can be found by doctors or other professionals on their own, with resources or assistance. At OLA we heard similar stories from those responsible for Math and Map libraries.

The lack of scholarship on school libraries, the fact that no one at the Ministry of Education has responsibility for school libraries and that there are no mandatory standards for school libraries undermine the strong connection between early and sustained professional library guidance and academic success. The education programs for library technicians also exist without overarching provincial standards. The closure of hospital libraries means that patient outcomes directly related to library professionals are being jeopardized. The demise of the DSP means that the Canadian public is less informed of government business. The number of “advocacy” organizations trying to address both programs and services as well as issues and awareness is a sobering lesson of slicing, shaving, and lessening impact.

We roamed the vendor booths at OLA and sought comments from private sector vendors who supply products to libraries. A representative from one catalogue supplier commented that traditional cataloguing practices are killing libraries since most of the records are not picked up by search engines that have become the primary way for people to locate the information they need. Libraries, in contrast, carry too many “dark records” that are not visible to most searchers. We also heard that archives have not learned from the success of Facebook, that archives and libraries will never have enough resources to digitize all of their records but that much could be gained by developing systems that encourage people to load, onto archival servers. photos and documents that they personally own. This vendor stressed that one key to better public acceptance and awareness is public participation.

Publisher Jim Lorimer stated that even publishers fight for attention, that the subject codes they use are all slanted toward American topics. He stressed that local bookstores were as much social enterprises as businesses, never making much money even in their best years and that we are now left only with Chains, making book distribution in Canada extremely problematic. Publishers are desperately search for ways to reach their audience.

We heard from one librarian, Wendy Newman, who participated in the 2012 “Today on the Hill” event where librarians met with politicians from all parties in Ottawa. Wendy came away from that experience with what she described as “the eye-opening” impression that politicians of all parties believed that everything they needed was available on the web and that LAC had digitized most of its collection.

Consultant Rebecca Jones expressed concern about the “slicing and dicing” of the library/archive community, with so many organizations and voices. She stated “everyone has to give a little to get a lot.” She added, why are so many organizations trying to be advocates? “With so many voices, we are part of the problem.”

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