RSC report makes compelling case for why libraries and archives are essential, but vulnerable

November 18, 2014
Matthew McKean, Policy Analyst, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Last week, the Royal Society of Canada released its report on the status and future of Canada’s libraries and archives, entitled “The Future Now: Canada’s Libraries, Archives, and Public Memory.” The RSC’s defense of libraries and archives and its call for collective action is vital, reflecting the core values of the humanities and social science research community.

The 225 page report, assembled by an international, interdisciplinary expert panel, derives from extensive consultations and includes a list of recommendations directed at multiple institutions and organizations. The recommendations are far reaching, encouraging each institution, from Library and Archives Canada, Library and Archival Associations, and Library Consortia through to federal, academic, public, and school libraries, as well as accredited programs and information resources providers and regulators, to take action at a number of levels.

These include: i) building long-term plans, including sustainable storage plans; ii) collaborating with one another, building partnerships, pooling resources, establishing task forces or panels of experts, and raising national awareness; iii) understanding shared values, setting common standards, and developing common tools; iv) embracing and expanding new and emerging digital technologies, including open educational resources, and fully adapting to the digital environment; v) developing funding programs or financial aid to allow communities to begin preserving their archives and making them available; vi) developing programs, including an introductory program of Indigenous Archival Studies to be offered in communities and reserves, geared towards community development and preparing graduates with competencies to manage libraries and learning commons; and vii) revising licensing practices for electronic resources to ensure user’s rights of fair dealing while ensuring that the creators and cultural producers are fairly compensated.

The RSC’s consultations revealed widespread anxiety about the permanence and sustainability of Canada’s libraries and archives and the report does an able job of reflecting those concerns as well as situating the problem in some of the most relevant and recent social science and humanities literature. The report also includes a wonderful collection of images of libraries, new and old, from across Canada. All told, the report makes a compelling case for why libraries and archives are essential, irreplaceable, but also vulnerable. Library closures and archival cutbacks have already begun and the report rightly points out that this has only exacerbated the sense of unease and the urgency with which the situation must be addressed. 

The report goes on to point out that it’s a civic duty to collect, preserve, and catalogue the printed and digital materials of Canada’s national heritage. Libraries help to implement and preserve public values, such as literacy, accessibility, and are crucial welcoming spaces for new Canadians. In short, the report highlights that libraries can be core transformative institutions in communities, especially under-serviced communities, by offering programs and services.  The report concludes that the establishment of local libraries and national institutions was and remains a sign of “Canada’s cultural emergence and maturity,” while their “diminished or precarious stature is a source of great concern.” 

The past, present, and future of knowledge institutions and knowledge production depend on libraries and archives. The Federation welcomes this timely report to help remind us all of the urgency of improved stewardship of these precious resources. 

An opinion piece by Matthew McKean discussing the bleak outlook for cities and nations in the wake of library closures appeared in the Toronto Star in 2011.