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J.L. GranatsteinDeborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Library and Archives Canada is the country's national library and national archives, the location for the books, documents, photographs, and even art, that record the Canadian story from the earliest days to the present. And as the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, Daniel Caron, says, "LAC is today expanding services to meet the evolving expectations of Canadians, offering enhanced, modern access to its materials ..." despite the budget cuts that almost every government organization in Ottawa is experiencing. If only this were so.

In fact, hours and services for reference and research have been slashed or eliminated and 20 per cent of the staff of 1,065 are to be let go, a group that includes technicians, circulation and cataloguing staff and rare book experts in the National Library. Interlibrary loans are to be ended this coming February. Rare book purchases have been on hold for two years or more, and the Archives has been turning away manuscript collections that only a few years ago it would have rushed to acquire to make sure that future historians could get a (more or less) complete story of past events.

Lloyd Axworthy's papers? Not wanted. Jim Coutts' diaries? No, thanks. Mackenzie King family letters and papers? Oh, we have lots of those.

But, as Mr. Caron implies, the new technologies, and especially digitization, will mean that everyone with Internet access anywhere in Canada will be able to access LAC's holdings. Maybe in some halcyon future world, but not in this one. Estimates are that only 4 per cent of LAC's massive holdings are now digitized, and since half of the digitization staff are among those being let go, progress toward "enhanced, modern access" will surely be even slower.

The radical changes at LAC began – as things do these days in Ottawa – with "stakeholder" meetings in 2010. Those attending were told proudly of LAC's new state-of-the-art facility for rare books, a facility built without a reading room and unstaffed by librarians. It now takes longer for items to be retrieved than before the "improvements." Even new materials are to be acquired selectively, and perhaps LAC is planning to seek an end to its status as the nation's deposit library.

At one stakeholder meeting, one LAC official slipped and said his institution was "Ottawa-centric" and "elitist" and, to diffuse this perception, collections of books and manuscripts (or perhaps only parts of them) would be placed in "appropriate regional centres." In January, Mr. Caron told an interviewer that he had personally delivered a collection of Moravian dictionaries from the National Library to Memorial University in St. John's for researchers there. "Why," he asked, "have them travel to Ottawa?" That most regional libraries, archives and universities are themselves cash-strapped and in no shape to accept national treasures seems not to have occurred to anyone in Ottawa.

Moreover, Mr. Caron posed the wrong question. Why have a national library at all? Can one imagine the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, the Library of Congress in Washington or the British Library in London breaking up their collections for fear that they might be seen as elitist?

A national library is by definition national, the repository of the nation's past and its treasures. It makes available the record of triumphs and failures, of glories and disasters, the sources for literature and history now and forever. But in Canada, for fear that the government be seen as elitist and Ottawa-centric, LAC's priceless collection is to be broken up and dispersed.

This vandalism ranks with the ending of the compulsory national census as governmental idiocy of the highest order. At least, some future government could reinstate the census and, while the data series might have been interrupted, the records would be made more or less complete. But breaking up the national collection will be irreparable. Books and collections dispersed to the regions will never be returned – and likely will never be digitized because regional institutions have little or no funding for this.

The Harper government has genuinely seemed to be more concerned with honouring history than most of its predecessors. The emphasis given to the War of 1812 is only the most recent example, and the Prime Minister's own efforts at writing the history of hockey in Canada (during which he must have used LAC's collections and books) indicate his personal interest in the past. But the treatment of LAC will hurt research and scholarship now and forever. It shows nothing so much as contempt for the past and, regrettably, for the future as well.

J. L. Granatstein is the author of Who Killed Canadian History?

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