On Monday afternoon, as a Friend of the Library and Archives of Canada, I attended a lecture by Caroline Brazier, head of the British Library, speaking about the value of national libraries. She's an engaging speaker and made some excellent points. Her central thesis was that there have been changes over the years in HOW they do things, but not so much in WHAT they do. She also referred to some research done by John Holden on attributes of public value, which I may look up later.

She began her talk by outlining three major functions of a national library: custodianship, research and business. Of these, she considers custodianship (encompassing things like collection, preservation and ongoing care and maintenance) to be at the heart of everything else they do. Well, right there I was hooked! A lot of the problems of modern librarianship, in my opinion, stem from the wanton disregard of the physical form of the documentary entity. A recent Librarian and Archivist of Canada (who fortunately has now moved on) spoke blithely about freeing information from the constraints of its "containers" as if the physical format were but an accident of fate and an inconsequential vessel! Well, I guess if you're responsible for safeguarding 800-year-old original copies of the Magna Carta, maybe you view things a little differently?

In Canada over the past ten or fifteen years, we have seen the disbanding of the Canadian Book Exchange Centre, the closure of numerous federal government libraries, the gutting of the interlibrary loans network, and... well, I won't go on because it's just too depressing. Still, the (fairly) new Librarian & Archivist has shown more promise with, for example, the Sylvestre-Wallot lecture series (of which Brazier's lecture was one) and the offer of collaboration with Ottawa Public Libraries opening up the possibility of a "Grande Bibliotheque" for Ottawa akin to the one in Montreal.

But I digress. Getting back to Holden's research on the attributes of public value, Brazier said that national libraries have an intrinsic value, an instrumental value and an institutional value (the 3 i's?). She then mentioned more specific values, which I suspect could be grouped under the three general categories, maybe with a certain amount of overlap. Service value. Cultural value (she referred to some of their exhibitions, for example). Social value (for example, she said she was quite proud of the fact that a number of visitors said they offered the best cup of coffee in the area!)

Of course, libraries are constantly looking for stable sources of funding and that can involve quantifying the touchy-feely remarks about how and why people love their libraries in general, and the British Library in particular. In one study, visitors to the British Library were polled about the primary purpose of their visit. The results were interesting:

cultural: 32%
academic research: 30%
"personal escape": 21%
individual research: 10%
work: 7%

I don't know if visitors were presented with these categories at the time of their visit or if the responses were totally free-form and grouped into categories later. Still, I found it fascinating that one in five people apparently views the library first and foremost as a means of personal escape. I wonder what people would say about the Library and Archives of Canada. Has a similar study ever been done here?

One thing Caroline Brazier stressed very clearly was the danger of measuring the wrong things. As she felt is often done in, for example, the health care system. A case of lies, damned lies and statistics?

I'll have more to say on that one in a forthcoming blog entry about my frustrations with this year's Census.
Although I've been back since last Monday, I still haven't fully acclimatized to the 6-hour time difference between here and France. But beyond that, there were very few real down-sides to my week-long trip that was part business, part pleasure. France, somewhat to my surprise, welcomed me with open arms!

The reason for going to France this year was to attend the annual meeting of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), held this year in Lyon (next year it will be in Capetown, South Africa; I don't plan to go). After my experience being scrunched up on an Air Transat flight from Toronto to Glasgow a couple of years ago, I decided with this Air Canada flight (Montreal to Paris) to treat myself to something called "Premium Economy" class. You're still in an economy class cabin, but near the front. You get priority boarding along with the Business Class folks, more leg room and space generally, 2 free checked bags (though I managed with just one carry-on), free newspapers, a slightly nicer meal (including free wine), and a little takeaway care package including earphones, toothbrush and toothpaste and a couple of other goodies I can't recall). The trip back home was even nicer. I had checked in from my hotel room and although they preassigned me a seat for the very short Montreal to Ottawa leg of my trip, they indicated that my seat for Paris to Montreal would be assigned at the gate. When I arrived, they said I would be paged before boarding to get my seat assignment, but that never happened. So when priority boarding time rolled around, I presented my boarding pass at the gate, the nice flight attendant took it to her desk, returning seconds later with a new one, complete with seat assignment - in Business Class.

It was quite the experience. Tons of room. Sparkling wine prior to takeoff and plenty of food and drink throughout the flight. An upgraded care package including a very nice pair of socks. Very attentive service. I could get used to this!

But back to when I arrived in France, on the morning of August 19. I was amazed at how easy it was to get into the country. When I've visited the U.K. or the U.S., the border guards usually ask the purpose of my visit, how long I plan to stay, whether I packed my own luggage, whether I'm bringing certain things into the country ... well, you get the idea. All of which can make for long lineups and long waits. But with France, there was none of that. The "border police" took a cursory look at my passport photo, a cursory look at me, then stamped my passport and I was on my way. To the airport's train station where I was able to get a train directly to Lyon's Part Dieu railway station. Unfortunately, I had not pre-booked a ticket so the economy or second-class was full. So I splurged on a first-class ticket for the two-hour journey to Lyon.

That's actually one area where I think Via Rail Canada in many ways has the edge over French trains. Admittedly, the French train was modern and spacious and had a nice smooth ride. But they don't have service to your seat, they don't give you a free meal even in first class, and... well, I guess it was just different. I did the return journey from Lyon to central Paris via regular coach class and concluded it's not really worthwhile getting a first-class ticket if you have the choice.

On arrival in Lyon, I didn't have to go far before seeing huge posters welcoming IFLA delegates to Lyon in all five official conference languages and informing us of exactly which buses would take us directly to the convention centre. Without luggage it probably would have been quite walkable, but since we got free transit passes as part of our conference package, and since I was still very jet-lagged from having been awake all night, the short bus trip and chance to see Lyon at street-level was welcome. Our conference materials were packaged in classy navy-blue laptop bags - something I can definitely reuse, unlike a lot of the bags I've brought home from similar conferences.

It was around 2 PM by this time. I was glad to be staying at Residence Temporim, a kind of self-contained apartment-with-maid-service, just steps away from where the conference sessions were being held. Only problem was that there weren't too many places nearby stocking basic groceries to bring up to my home-away-from-home. Plenty of restaurants but nothing like a corner-store or supermarket. But I did manage to take out some supplies from a coffee-shop/deli type of place in the vicinity.

That first day, I managed just one session, from 4:00 to 6:00, on library services to LGBT (etc.) populations called "Addressing the Silence", a panel with a variety of interesting speakers from diverse countries with diverse cultures and degrees of diversity-friendliness - Sweden, Hungary, Bible-belt USA, Brazil, U.K., Canada... Some important issues came up and I wish I'd been a little more awake and alert for it! Afterwards, I went back to my digs, had a light supper and slept for over 11 gloriously unbroken hours!

What with attending conference sessions on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I didn't really see as much of Lyon as I would have liked. We were, for example, practically on the doorstep of the huge, beautiful and tranquil Tete d'Or Park and I could easily have spent a day just exploring that! I did get to see a very interesting exhibit of Treasures from the Lyon Public Library.

Friday was the day we got to do full-day tours of out-of-town libraries and I had opted for the Bibliotheque national de la France (two of its larger branches), in Paris. I had also decided to extend my stay there and spend the entire weekend in Paris before flying home on Monday.

Ah, Paris! My hotel was on rue Jacob in the 6e arrondissement, the St-Germain des Pres area, where you can't walk two steps without stumbling upon history and the spirits of famous people who have called Paris home. Hemingway. Gertrude Stein. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Richard Wagner. I was steps away from the Cafe aux Deux Magots and the Cafe Flore. When I got up to my room, via the minuscule elevator, there was a 375 ml (or 37.5 cl, come disent les Francais) bottle of Mouton Cadet awaiting me, with a note from the hotel management urging me to enjoy my stay. On my final day there, they left me a plate of macarons, those wonderful sandwich biscuits that are native to the area.

Since my time there was fairly limited, I generally avoided very touristy places like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre (though we did walk through the grounds and gardens en route to the Richelieu site of the national library) which can be a bit overwhelming. On the Saturday, I made use of my 3-day Metro pass to visit Pere Lachaise Cemetery, while Sunday was devoted to exploring on foot the area around my hotel. This included visits to the Eugene Delacroix Museum which has a wonderful garden and at the moment a special exhibit called "Eugene Delacroix, le plus legitime des fils de Shakespeare", and the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. In addition to letters of famous figures in French literature, this museum also included: a letter from John Lennon to someone called Christine, an impassioned plea to end world hunger; and a storyboard for the Orson Welles film The Trial (based on Kafka's famous novel) which, coincidentally, I had just recently watched on the Turner Classic Movies channel.

There were some surprises. The first related to language: the number of people who spoke English and the number of signs in English, as well as the country's hospitable-ness to people speaking other languages: for instance, you could buy a Metro-Pass or withdraw money from a machine in any of five or six different languages at the touch of a button. After being used to Quebec with its language laws that was a welcome surprise. The second related to the hours kept by French shops and other businesses. I suppose I had thought Paris was too far north to be in a siesta-oriented locale but in fact, many places did close between about 1 and 3 or 4 PM and then remain open till at least 7 PM. Moreover, if I had the choice, I would not visit France in August again, simply because that's when the French take THEIR holidays. Of course, the touristy places were open, but the smaller (and often more distinctive and interesting-looking) places were often closed for the entire month, or at least the middle two weeks of August. The notable exception was the Bibliotheque national, which apparently has its BUSIEST time in August, as many French folk apparently consider the library an ideal place to spend their vacation!

The third surprise related to rituals associated with food and drink. Of course, I had to experience sidewalk cafe culture. But at most of these establishments, the chairs (two or three rows of them) were turned OUTWARDS towards the sidewalk, the clear message being that you're not looking at your dining companion, you're looking at the people walking past! Smoking is still very much in evidence there too, at least at the outdoor tables. And the coffee itself? Well, if you order a coffee in France, you shouldn't automatically assume you'll be brought milk or cream with it. You'll get plenty of sugar and often a biscuit too, but in terms of coffee, you'll probably get a tiny cup of espresso and your cup will not automatically be refilled, either. To my surprise as well, a "cafe au lait" request does not typically yield one of those large white bols like you get here but merely coffee with milk on the side. I learned to request "cafe creme" to get it to my taste.
Seated out on the patio enjoying "le brunch" at Cafe Bonaparte on Sunday, I watched the flaneurs of Paris flane by - the man on his bike flogging Sunday papers, the organ-grinder with a little dog instead of a monkey... it was wonderful!

Still on the theme of food and drink, you shouldn't assume when they bring bread to your table that they will also bring butter. Or, for that matter, margarine or oil or any of the other things they might serve here. Now, one thing I DID discover while browsing the Marche St-Germain on Sunday was "pineau", a mixture of cognac and red grape juice. Quite tasty!

I wonder when (or if) I'll have an excuse to go back?
Since October is Canadian Library Month and October 20-26 was Ontario Public Library Week, I thought I'd post this entry in the occasional What is Blogcutter Reading category.

Unquestionably it is PUBLIC libraries that have the most relevance to me since my retirement, even though virtually my entire career was spent in libraries of federal government departments. So first, how I use my public library.

If there's a book I've heard of or seen reviewed somewhere, but I'm not sure I want to buy it (often because I'm pretty sure I won't read it more than once), I go online and put my name on a waiting list for that book. When it's ready, I get an e-mail asking me to come in and pick it up.

As for other online activities, I sometimes browse through their online "new acquisitions" or "on order" items, especially in the mystery or crime fiction genre. I haven't used the online research sources (the ones compiled by companies like Ebsco, usually hidden behind a paywall but accessible to library-cardholders via their barcode number) nearly as much as I had expected or planned to after retirement (once I had all that - ha ha - free time!) although I do use them occasionally. And I do search the library catalogue itself, although I find that task increasingly frustrating as catalogue software packages increasingly gear their user interfaces to the ADHD-Google-generation (see my earlier blog entry on the opacity of modern search engines).

When I visit the library in person, I often don't get past the front section where they have their new arrivals, recently-returned items, recommended reads and Express Reads; when I do, it's usually to browse the Mystery and the General Fiction shelves or occasionally to seek out a specific item. So when I borrow non-fiction, it tends to be items I've found in the aforementioned front section.

Here's what I currently have out from the library (all were found from that famous front area of the library):

1) Murder in Memoriam, by Didier Daedinickx - a murder mystery, fiction but based on actual events - the arrest, beating and killing of Algerians in Paris who were peacefully protesting a curfew, in October of 1961. Involves a "bent copper", Andre Veillut, based on the actual historical police chief and later politician and industrial leader Maurice Papon. The book was published in France in 1984, 14 years before Papon's conviction, and is widely believed to have played a part in bringing Papon to justice.

2) Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of our Fellow Creatures, by Virginia Morell. An exploration of recent research in the areas of animal cognition, emotion and use of language. Chapters on ants, fish, birds (especially parrots), rats, elephants, dolphins, chimps, dogs and wolves. A fascinating read so far (I'm about half-way through it).

3) Une femme surveillee by Charlotte Link - Actually I haven't started reading this one yet. But I read and thoroughly enjoyed Charlotte Link's only book to have been translated into English (from German) so far, The Other Child. That one takes place in Scarborough, England, in modern times and concerns a murder linked to events much earlier, the evacuation of children to Scarborough during WWII. Link is apparently one of Europe's bestselling crimewriters but for whatever reason, more of her books have been translated into French than English (there were ten others listed in the front of this one). This book is a translation of Der Beobachter. I found the prospect of reading 550 pages in French a little less daunting than the idea of reading them in the original German but if I get through this book, I might even be inspired to read her in the original. On the other hand, by that time there may be more of her books available in English!

When I look at my "Recently Returned" library books online, I get another list of three books: How Literature Saved My Life, by David Shields; Everybody Matters, by Mary Robinson; and The Red House Mystery, by A.A. Milne (I had no idea until I stumbled across it in the library that Milne had written a murder mystery).

In terms of books I own, I've recently read The Bookman's Tale, by Charlie Lovett; Dancing in the Dark, by Joan Barfoot; and I'm still reading The Secret Life of Bletchly Park, by Sinclair McKay. But any discussion of those will have to wait for another time.
Last week, I had an Ex Libris board meeting in Toronto. Travel is always a bit iffy at this time of year but I do like to attend the January board meeting as it's held just before the Ontario Library Association (OLA) annual conference, making my journey more worthwhile.

There were some excellent speakers at the conference, my favourites being the authors (Louise Penny, Linwood Barclay, Miriam Toews...) but one high-profile speaker left me a little underwhelmed: Thomas Frey, "Senior Futurist" and Executive Director of the DaVinci Institute, as well as being Google's top-rated futurist speaker (according to the OLA programme book). It left me wondering what a "junior futurist" would do - maybe they can't see quite as FAR into the future? Or the images they have of the future are blurrier?

He began his talk by stating that we are a society very focused on the past and to a lesser extent on the present. So he gave us the image of a person walking backwards into the future. Hmmm. Is that why bookstores are focusing less and less on conventional paper books and more and more on e-books and gifty items that have little or no relevance to books, reading or literature at all? Is that why smaller independent bricks-and-mortar bookshops are having such a rough time of it these days? Is that why independent CD stores like Compact Music and Grigorien are downsizing and HMV is bankrupt or at least verging on it? I would suggest that Frey read an essay from a collection entitled "Of Root and Branch" by the late Sam Neill, professor of library science at the University of Western Ontario, in which he argued that a library's MAIN business was promoting books and reading, not "information". It was actually quite a risky thing for Neill to write, as Western's library school prided itself right from its inception in the late 1960s on being an early adopter of information technologies.

Frey also predicted that we would soon see PhDs independent of literacy (of course, some cynics would argue that we're already seeing that). His rationale? Reading is merely one means out of many to absorb and process knowledge. It's the UNDERSTANDING and LEARNING that is crucial, he argues, not the reading process - and that can be done by listening to an audio file, watching a screen, etc. Now, I guess I'm old-fashioned and backward-looking and all, but I always thought that as one's education progressed, it became less about memorizing facts and more about learning HOW to LEARN. And surely even nowadays, reading is one vital tool in your toolkit of ways of learning. What about learning another language, as many postgraduate programmes used to require? A language is to a great extent a tool, but there also seems to be some persuasive evidence that bilingual and multilingual people may be capable of more complex THOUGHT and PERCEPTION as well.

One of Frey's predictions had to do with "teacherless education", a practical solution to a worldwide shortage of teachers, especially in the world's more troubled, war-torn or poverty-stricken regions. He went on to suggest a system of "microcredits", with perhaps 100 microcredits being equivalent to one regular postsecondary credit. Now, I'm very much in favour of helping people to help themselves, of imparting practical knowledge, and even of using nontraditional means to impart that knowledge. Not everything we want or need to know is going to be part of a degree programme or a professional designation. But when you DO want some sort of degree or diploma or professional or occupational credential, you can't just pick a smidgen from here and a smidgen from there and hope that there will be a proper integrity to the whole! I'm reminded of that Monty Python sketch where a joke was so funny that people died laughing so that when it was translated, they had to parcel out one word to each translator. Or what about sharing a great work of art with the world by divvying it up into millions of spatters of paint and putting one spatter in each art gallery worldwide? Ever heard of symbiosis, the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts?

He spent quite a bit of time of the new 3-D printers, predicting that one day in the very near future, we'd be printing off artworks, buildings and tonight's dinner. Tonight's dinner? Isn't there the little matter of ingredients? The geeks are fond of saying "Garbage in, garbage out" and in this case I guess it would be cardboard in, cardboard out! Of course, a number of his suggestions were probably tongue-in-cheek, which is certainly where I would stash my cardboard dinner until I had the opportunity to spit it out somewhere.

In terms of libraries themselves, Frey feels that it's more important for them to lend generators than lend books. And if he's set foot in a library lately, he would certainly be aware that they already do lend out much more than just books. They lend things like family passes to museums and pedometers and toys. To that extent, the future really is here.

Perhaps I'm being a little unfair. It makes sense that if you're going to talk about the future of libraries, you would ask people outside the library community about what they want their library to be. Otherwise it's just one big librarians' love-in where we pat ourselves on the back and say how great we are while the rest of the world ignores us. And futurism, I would guess, is to some extent about making wild and wacky predictions that are just so wacky they might come true. Is truth stranger than fiction? More to the point, are there still people outside the library community who are ready to plead the case for the continuance as well as enrichment of some of the more traditional library roles?
When I was studying for my Masters of Library Science in the mid-1970s, there was a transition underway in libraries from "traditional" card catalogues to computerized ones that could be searched remotely from other computers or from "dumb" terminals. ISBD (International Standard Bibliographic Description) was in its infancy and the idea was that a specific combination of punctuation would pave the way for computers' "recognizing" the elements of bibliographic description so that even if you didn't understand the language of the work in question, you (and the computer) could identify the most important elements of the work - title, author, place of publication, publisher and date published (to list just the basics). I found the whole field quite fascinating.

In terms of subject access, we were in transition between (on the one hand) "controlled vocabulary" subject headings and (on the other hand) "descriptors", which were typically KWIC (keyword-in-context) or KWOC (keyword-out-of-context); those descriptors, I should add, could still be "controlled vocabulary" as many were drawn from some sort of thesaurus possessing its own infrastructure of broader, narrower and related terms.

Fast-forward to the Internet Age. Some people now believe that if you can't get to it through Google, then it doesn't exist. Even Google has been evolving. I used to always go to the "Advanced" settings and adjust the number of "hits" per page to the maximum of 100 (instead of 10). Now you're not even given that option. And the capacity to combine search terms through Boolean operators seems to me to have been been watered down as well. All that before you even begin to consider the oft-insidious matter of paid ads (both overt and covert) and kickbacks offered by private businesses for getting their sites regularly listed in the top 10 "hits", often with seemingly little relevance to the search terms entered.

The more they gear search engines to "natural" language, the more opaque those search engines become. Because "natural" language is notoriously vague and fuzzy. If you want a language that's relatively specific, you should look to a dead language like Latin or ancient Greek, or an artificial language like Esperanto or Eurolang.

This merits another blog in itself. Adult learners rely mainly on DEDUCTIVE reasoning in learning a second or subsequent non-native language - but more on that later (in this and probably future blog entries).

Fact is, you don't really know if a search engine is defaulting to the Boolean "AND" operator, the (inclusive) "OR" operator or something else. You don't know if it's including both British and American (not to mention Canadian) English spelling or not. And then there's the whole area of truncation and "wildcards".

It may seem that search interfaces are more "sophisticated" if you can interact with them in "natural" language. But "natural" (i.e. living, and real vs. artificial) languages are notoriously imprecise, as I already pointed out. So really, we need both "controlled vocabulary" and uncontrolled vocabulary (e.g. KWIC and KWOC indexes and synonyms and current lingo) in order to get the maximum utility from search interfaces.

I remember how whole scholarly articles used to be written about how to sidestep the dreaded $1 Dialog Print Fee. Librarians got very good at constructing detailed and highly specific search expressions to get optimal results for their clients, before resorting to actually printing anything (and in the 1970s, we would print out only a handful of references and then have the rest printed remotely in California and mailed to us via snail-mail). Once we were ready to print, we would get TWO copies printed and mailed to us - one to give to the client, the other to put in our files, with our own quick-and-dirty card-indexing system, in case another client wanted something similar. Nowadays, some folks would probably argue that that was a copyright violation. But back then, we reasoned that we had bought the information fair and square, with taxpayers' money, and if we could re-use it and fully recoup our investment, why not? Besides, it meant that the library became a sort of node for researchers - if other groups were working on a similar project, we could put them in touch with each other so that they didn't reinvent the wheel. We offered a similar type of service if clients needed scientific articles translated into English or French - we'd tap into CISTI's central file and if the article had already been translated, there was no need to get it translated again.

In those days, you got the librarian to do the search for you, sometimes while you looked on and offered helpful suggestions. You and the librarian were effectively research partners. Nowadays, we live in a self-service era. We have "site licences" for the major online database aggregators. So all the employees of a given organization have hot-and-cold-running Dialog, Lexis-Nexis, and so forth - and we think this is an improvement. But in the olden days, those same employees would have come to the library, had the search done FOR them, and the charges would have been per hour (making them LOOK misleadingly high), not per person served. And since it was only a handful of actual persons doing the searches (on behalf of a much larger group), and these were people who did this kind of searching every day, who prepared their strategies in advance and got into and out of the databases in record time (and whose salaries, in those pre-pay equity days, were quite a bit lower than those of most doctors and scientific researchers), the charges would have been considerably less.

Now I'll put in my plug for(second, third, etc.)language learning in adulthood. There's this odd notion that you don't learn languages as easily once you've passed adolescence. I beg to differ. Because babies and young children generally learn language through INDUCTIVE reasoning. They hear a bunch of utterances or examples of speech and then they unconsciously extrapolate from that to be able to form utterances they have never heard before. It all comes down to the Saussurean notion of "langue" (the SYSTEM or INFRASTRUCTURE of language) vs. "parole" (specific instances of speech or text), or in another linguist's (Chomsky? Bloomfield?) terms, "competence" vs. "performance". But for young children, learning language is at least a full-time (if not a 24/7) job! Even then, they typically take at least five or six years to become reasonably competent in speaking their native language. Adults do not have the luxury of devoting all their time to learning a second or additional language, so they use DEDUCTIVE reasoning (which means learning traditional prescriptive grammar and usage and then extrapolating from that). It's not completely that simple, of course. We actually use a variety of deductive and inductive processes when we learn another language. But to say that inductive is better than deductive, or that descriptive is better than prescriptive, is obviously nonsense and fails to capture the complex processes of the human mind.

I'd like to see the prescriptivists and the controlled-vocabulary advocates gain more traction in the modern world. But perhaps I'm fighting a losing battle.
Oh gosh. I need to go to a:

(a) librarian
(b) archivist
(c) genealogist
(d) website
(e) all of the above

Soon, your only option, if you want some assistance or advice with gathering information, performing research, or even selecting leisure-time reading, may be (d).
That's assuming you have internet at home. If you don't, or if it's not working, you'll have to go somewhere where there IS functional internet. Time was, you could rely on your friendly local public library for that. But now, Industry Canada in its wisdom, has cancelled its Community Access Program, which funded public access internet stations in public libraries across the country. To be sure, some public libraries will still offer the service but if they do, they'll have to review their already-strained budgets to find money that was previously earmarked for something else.

In the federal public service, we hear every day of yet another departmental library closing its doors and laying off its librarians. Librarians are trained to gather and organise information and provide research assistance that is invaluable in supporting informed policy- and decisionmaking. In the public as well as the private sector, that can save time and money, not to mention the reputations of high-powered officials. Then there's the Library and Archives Canada, whose mandate and reach extend far beyond the bounds of the public service. They are cancelling their interlibrary loan service, which will affect ALL kinds of libraries all across the country and to some extent internationally. It will disproportionately affect smaller libraries with more limited staffs and budgets. They have already eliminated the National Archival Development Program and pulled out of the Association of Research Libraries.

There almost seems to be a conspiracy of silence surrounding all the layoffs. On the other hand, if I were having to compete with a dozen former colleagues just to keep my own job, I readily admit that I would be hesitant to stick my neck out and risk offending my prospective managers and employer.

Libraries in schools and postsecondary institutions are feeling the pinch too. Many colleges and universities have converted all or portions of their libraries to a "learning commons" type of environment, consisting mainly of computers and chairs and roving student geeks to assist students and faculty in navigating the cybersphere. While I wouldn't want to turn back the clock to pretechnological days, I AM bothered when I hear that perhaps 75 to 80% of a library's collection (only a minuscule portion of which is available electronically) is stored offsite in relatively inaccessible locations.

This month, the Canadian Association of University Teachers will hold a Librarians Conference in Ottawa. The blurb describes librarianship as "threatened by Wal-Mart style corporate management that cuts costs by deskilling work, outsourcing professional responsibilities, misusing technology and reducing necessary services and positions." It goes on to ask,"How can our community push back against this destructive agenda?"

Well, I'm hoping to find out. I've registered for the conference, which takes place on October 26 and 27.
Thus far, I haven't really commented on the draconian cuts announced to the Library and Archives Canada, as well as numerous other federal government libraries. However, they have been very much on my mind as I've been going about my work with the Ex Libris Association (a group made up mainly of retired librarians, from all types of libraries and other organizations). At the Canadian Library Association's annual conference, which took place in Ottawa from May 30 to June 2, May 31 was a Day of Action to support federal libraries, and we were urged to wear a white shirt and/or black ribbon. There were at least two people I knew at the conference handing out these ribbons and cards with information on them about the cuts, but one of them somehow managed to get herself ejected (and no, she wasn't being obstreperous - she was just calmly standing there handing out the cards and ribbons and conversing in a normal voice with anyone who was interested in talking to her).

The opening keynote speaker was Daniel J. Caron, whose job title is Librarian and Archivist of Canada, though he doesn't actually have a library degree at all - he's very much a number-crunching businessman, though he managed to get a PhD in something. Disappointingly, he read his entire speech - in English only, strangely enough - and did not have a Q&A session immediately following it, though there WAS one after lunch, in a much smaller room - which I attended. So I guess he deserves a limited number of kudos for (a) showing up at all (rumour had it that he might bail); and (b)returning in the afternoon for the Q&A (which I had expected to be much better attended than it actually was).

In his address, Caron pointed out that the move from analog to digital did not mean leaving old formats behind: we do not stop speaking when we learn to write. Instead, he said information was moving from being something solid and fixed to being fluid and participatory. He said that people are reading and creating more texts than ever before. He said the library is no longer just a knowledge repository but a learning commons and a knowledge production centre. He spoke about information being "liberated from its containers". He pointed out that the milkman no longer delivers the milk, but people do still drink milk. And he cautioned about our cognitive bias, saying that a feeling of loss of what used to be could mask exciting new opportunities.

So when I got my chance to ask him a question, I picked up on some of his metaphors. Maybe we are indeed freeing information from its containers. But whatever happened to the idea that the medium is the message - or at least PART of the message? Poetry (usually) is meant to be heard but not seen; drama is usually meant to be heard and seen (but not, at least as the primary experience, to be read). You can smash your milk bottle and the milk still exists, but it is so contaminated by bits of glass and dirt that it's no longer stable or fit to drink - and so it is quite often in the case of the Internet: when it's no longer read-only, we're often not quite sure what was put there by the original author and to what extent the author's creation or intellectual output was either polluted or enriched by other contributors. Freshness and context are very important. Containers don't just restrain, they also preserve and give shape to their contents. So what, I asked Dr. Caron, does he see as being the role of the information "container" in this day and age. Is it still important?

I'd have to say that he did actually seem to be listening and thinking about my remarks and my question as if he was actually interested and he did answer in a thoughtful manner, without becoming unduly defensive. Needless to say, I still am not happy with the policy directions being taken, but I think perhaps I managed to reinforce the importance of, for example, preserving originals when it comes to our "documentary heritage". I'm all in favour of things like art galleries displaying works from their collections over the Internet, but the image on your screen does not have the richness of content, nor the artistic and emotional impact of the actual work of art.



October 2017



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