The Smokescreen of ‘Modernization’ at Library and Archives Canada

Is this the new normal? Let's hope not.

By Ian Milligan

The government claims that Library and Archives Canada needs to be modernized so all Canadians can access archival services. Yet the state of Canada’s online collections are small and sorely lacking when compared to their expansive on-site collections. LAC does need to modernize, and the goal of expanding access beyond just Ottawa is actually a laudable one. But what they’re doing here, under the guise of ‘modernization’, is simply cutting services and diminishing our access to Canada’s past. In this post, I want to show you how small and insignificant LAC’s online collections are, why they haven’t taken them seriously, and that if we’re fighting for better on-site access, we might as well fight for better online access too! They are, after all, despite the rhetoric of LAC and the government, not incompatible in the slightest.

What has been happening? Canada’s archives are under attack. Announcements made on May 1st confirmed that Library and Archives Canada will lose 20% of their workforce, that appointments will be needed to access the reference desk, and the shuttering of the National Archival Development Program. LAC is spinning this as a “new approach to service delivery” and makes the following point by way of justification:

LAC’s service statistics provide a vivid illustration of this digital revolution. Our website now gets close to half a million visits per month. In contrast, LAC’s in-person service hub located at 395 Wellington Street, receives about 2,000 visits per month. These two service points are also trending in opposite directions, with online consultations increasing rapidly, and in-person visits declining slowly but steadily.

Despite rhetoric of modernization and looking forward to the digital era, LAC has been comparatively slow in aggressively preparing for the next generation. It has been pointed out by several people that it will be even slower now that 50% of its digitization staff will be cut!

We need to contextualize LAC’s digital collections. Let’s quickly see what the Library of Congress (LOC) in the United States has been up to on this front. Their print collection is already dwarfed by their newest collection of archived born-digital sources. If each and every one of their 26 million books was scanned and digitized at 8MB per book, the collection would be about 200TB (a figure that you can now conceivably store at home). Just from websites alone, the LOC now has 254TB of data, adding 5TB a month. They’re taking the internet seriously. Library and Archives Canada, on the other hand, only collects a “representative sample of Canadian websites,” notably the government, and has about 7TB of data. While some recent pronouncements suggest that LAC is taking born-digital sources seriously are encouraging and should be celebrated, it is a pin compared to a much larger haystack of archival information.

Firstly, there simply isn’t that much there that has been digitized. LAC has an incredible on-site collection for Canadian historians: be it political history, social history, cultural history, military history, etc. If we go to their “about the collection” page, we see that they have: 71,000 films, 2.5 million architectural drawings, millions of books, 21.3 photographs, not to mention the thousands upon thousands of boxes. In that list I provide, they also note that as of 2007 they had “3.18 million megabytes of information in electronic formats.” Sounds, impressive eh? That’s only a bit over 3TB of data. Presumably that doesn’t include their web archive, which dwarfs that, but it starts to give you a sense of the mismatch in size between conventional and digitized historical sources.

They also don’t take many steps to make their online collections (what they have there) fully accessible to researchers. provides an Application Programming Interface (a way for a computer program to talk directly to another computer, and speed up research – and let you do new, cool things with the data). Library and Archives Canada does not.

If LAC was really serious about modernization, if they put more of their collection online in a comprehensive manner, if they were open to new forms of research, and if they didn’t do this at the expense of their on-site collections, this would be a good thing.

But, given the state of their online collections, I don’t see any reason to be happy here.

So, as we begin our fight to Save Library and Archives Canada, taking action by sending letters to the Minister of Canadian Heritage as well as the Librarian and Archivist of Canada, why don’t we also call out for better online services. There’s a kernel of truth to some government pronouncements: all Canadians, not just those who can come in person to Ottawa, deserve access to their national archive. But instead of using that chip as a talking point to justify cuts, let’s actually mean it. All Canadians deserve robust archives, be it on-site or online.

Ian Milligan is co-editor of and is also a postdoctoral fellow with Western University’s Department of History.

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8 thoughts on “The Smokescreen of ‘Modernization’ at Library and Archives Canada

  1. Tina Loo

    Nice post Ian. I’d also add that the cuts to LAC’s budget include a 50% reduction in its digitization staff. While I agree that we should call them out on digitization, I am also concerned that there are many many records that will never be digitized. The papers that get digitized first are those for which there is a demand and those deemed to raise the profile of the institution (like the Prime Ministers’ papers), which can be used to leverage good publicity – and more funds. The stuff lots of us look at has no such cachet. For instance, I’ve looked at lots of correspondence from minor functionaries about caribou populations and engineering reports about soils and geology which has been important for my work but which I doubt will ever be digitized given the priorities of and pressures on the institution. And I, personally, am fine with that – as long as the institution continues to have an adequate budget to fulfil its mandate; a budget that includes money for collection, for Inter Library Loan (which has been cut), and for on-site reference services, etc. It does not, and that concerns me. Digitization is great, but Interlibrary Loan was also an effective way of getting materials to people who don’t happen to live in central Canada, materials that are unique and can’t be accessed from other institutions (like historical newspapers, collections of archival documents, small press books and journals, etc). The loss of that service alone is a loss of basic research infrastructure that will affect graduate students, undergraduates, and faculty.

  2. A. Roy-Desjardins

    Thank you for this piece, Ian. It sparks a thought of my own:

    LAC’s spokespersons have been repeating the statement that online consultations are consistently increasing and that in-person visits are “declining slowly but steadily”. I wish they would elaborate on this. While I don’t doubt that online visits are increasingly numerous, I can’t help but suspect that the decline that is being observed in in-person visits has a lot to do *WITH THE FACT THAT LAC HAS BEEN CUTTING BACK ITS SERVICE HOURS, AND THAT IT HAS STOPPED EXHIBITING MATERIAL ON ITS GROUND FLOOR*.

    The logic, then, is rather circular: we cut on-site offerings, so people don’t come, so we cut on-site offerings. Are LAC policymakers and spokespeople being sloppy, or are they being disingenuous?


  3. Ian Milligan Post author

    Thanks for your comments, Tina and A.R.D! I do note really briefly above about the 50% digitization staff cut, but should have strongly stressed that this just means an already anemic digitization approach will be even slower. Yet another reason that we can’t use ‘digitization’ as cover for what’s going on at Library and Archives Canada. Thanks for highlighting that important point.

    The loss of inter-library loans is a tragedy, and would have had a dramatic impact on my own doctoral research. The ability to ILL obscure microfilm reels from LAC meant that I could use my on-site time in Ottawa to look at fragile paper copies alone.

    As for whether LAC is being sloppy or disingenuous, I suspect that they know – as Tom Peace pointed out to me – that they’re comparing the apples of online access to the oranges of on-site visits. They’re not equivalent metrics, and as you point out, this is especially true as on-site resources decline.

    Again, thanks for both your comments – it’s good to see this critically important issue pull people together.

  4. Ian Milligan Post author

    While working up some slides tonight, I thought I would graph the 200TB of the Library of Congress against the 3PB of the Internet Archive (3,072TB) and the 7TB of the Library and Archives Canada web archive.

    It’s available here: [click to download]

    Needless to say, you need to watch out for eye strain if you want to see the narrow band representing Library and Archives Canada.

  5. Sean Kheraj

    Brilliant post, Ian. It is about time someone pointed out the completely absurd and laughable LAC digitization program. The rhetoric from the Heritage Minister about digitization of the archives can be quite hilarious, if not downright sad. The federal government speaks about digital archives as though this were something new and as though LAC weren’t light years behind other archival institutions. Most records aren’t even on CD-ROM for goodness sakes. That we still pull spools of microfilm and microfiche on a summer afternoon in Ottawa is testimony to the utter lie of the “modernization” program.

    And as you point out in your comment, Internet Archive is not only the most substantial archival collection in the world, it is the largest archive in human history. In comparison, LAC is virtually non-existent. I would wager that the digital archival record on Internet Archive for Canadian content is many thousands of times larger than the LAC digital collection.

    Every year, I have my students do digital online archival research and the LAC online collection is more or less useless for many of the reasons you list above., Peel’s Prairie Provinces, Internet Archive, and so many other sources appear far more often in citations than LAC in my students’ work.

    I’m afraid your characterization of the LAC digitization program as anemic is an understatement. When considered over the entirety of the history of this program and the history of the Internet, and when compared to other digitization initiatives, it has been a near total failure.

  6. H. Laird

    Great post!

    To the casual reader “500,000 online visits vs. 2000 on-site visits” may sound persusive but of course these statistics don’t tell the whole story.

    How many of those half million hits to the web site represent satisfied visitors? How many of them land on the site to search for a specific resource, only to find it is not available online? They then have to order it via interlibrary loan (soon to be gone) or plan a trip to LAC to access the resource, or just not bother at all. Given the paucity of digitized LAC material, I would think that researchers who actually accessed their material (whether on-site or via ILL) were much more satisfied than those who left the web site empty-handed. Half a million online visitors entering your site are not the same thing as half a million online visitors finding what they came for. I’m willing to bet that a far higher percentage of those 2000 on-site visitors were happy campers compared to those online visitors.

    And, as the posters here noted, if you *are* going to use that online statistic to justify your plans, then why oh why would you cut your digitization program??

    But then, maybe that doesn’t matter if you’re not acquiring any new material and getting rid of the old stuff…

  7. Andrew Rodger

    Thanks for this, Ian.

    Unstated is the origin of the digitized archival materials. Comparatively few photographs (of an estimated 30+ million, not 21 odd million as stated on the archives website) have been copied because they require individual scans, which are time-consuming. While it is possible to get an estimate of the number of photographs scanned and available on the website, that number should be somewhat diminished because many of the images have both English and French captions and exist as separate urls.
    Likewise, few films have been digitized because digitization is time consuming.
    An idea of the time taken to scan individual documents can be seen in the WWI attestation papers. The scanning of these enlistment records — essentially the front and back of the top sheet of every soldier’s file — started as a student summer project in 1996. The attestation papers were chosen because the finding aid to the original paper files was available in digital form, thus greatly speeding retrieval of the paper files for users who wanted to follow up on individual soldiers. The scanning continued as staff, equipment, and time became available, and was completed only in the beginning of this century. This is for a total of approximately 1.3 million pages. Scanning all the files of all the soldiers for WW I would entail scanning of tens of millions of pages. How many kilometers of shelving are there for all the archival documents held by LAC?
    What appears primarily on the LAC site are textual materials. The scans for much of this are, however, sourced from microfilm copies — which can be digitized much more rapidly and cheaply than can original documents. In effect much of the material now available on-line and therefore at a distance was already available at a distance via inter-library loan. When all the microfilm of LAC-owned documents is scanned (if, indeed, that ever were to happen), the most-easily digitized materials will have been scanned and the speed with which scanned documents can be made available will slow down considerably.
    Relatively few books have been copied. At one time it was suggested internally that certain discard copies, available through the Canadian Book Exchange, have their bindings sliced so that they could be sent through high speed digitization machines. However, when the Book Exchange was axed several years ago this possibility disappeared. Further, LAC does not wish to duplicate what is being done elsewhere at, for example, or at newspaper sites such as Paper of Record. It is also evidently afraid of possible copyright violations. These are all legitimate, but nonetheless leave the door open to copying and making available a huge panapoly of printed materials. For example the pamphlets collection, once owned by the National Archives and then transferred to the National Library, would be a wonderful boon to researchers were it to be digitized.
    It is possible that LAC could start allowing access to born-digital materials, and that this would quickly increase what is available on the Collectionscanada website. But considering that LAC does not appear to have yet determined how to deal with archiving born-digital records and given the government’s general attitude to making information available, this quite probably will be some distance down the priority list.

    The latest LAC organization chart does not use the words “archives”, “archivists”, “library”, “librarians”. It appears that library and archival acquisition and appraisal are now to be handled under Documentary Heritage Relevance Assessment. The website is probably under the Director General Communications, as Web, Social Media and Creative Services. Counting the Deputy Minister (who currently is the “Deputy Head and Librarian and Archivist of Canada and Chair, Heads of Federal Agencies”) and an Assistant Deputy Minister, there are 26 senior executives in the organization, which is being downsized by 20%.

  8. Terry Eastwood

    Ian Milligan mentions the elimination of the National Archival Development Program (NADP). Since the mid-1980s, the federal government through the budget of its national archival institution has provided assistance to archival repositories across the country to improve their holdings and services through the work of the Canadian Council of Archives (CCA). In its day, the CCA was a marvel of effectiveness. Archivists all across the country did the work of determining its programs and deciding what got funded. No Ottawa bureaucracy, real local determination of needs, and much done to lift small institutions into the mainstream, into a position where they now might be able to cooperate with LAC to preserve Canadian archival documentary heritage. Alas, in the shell game being played by LAC, provincial and local institutions are to pick up the slack from cuts in Ottawa while an important facet of their wherewithal has disappeared. The do-more- with-less rhetoric coming out of LAC is a sham and a lame attempt to put a good face on the government’s austerity. A succession of dominion and national archivists since 1872 showed leadership in preserving our archival heritage and in assisting fellow institutions as much as they could. Despite its mandated function to assist the archival community (it’s in its enabling legislation), LAC has chosen to turn its back on a 140 year-old tradition — I’m betting it decided to cut the NADP, not the minister. Shame on it.

    Terry Eastwood
    Professor Emeritus (Archival Studies)

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