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The CHA writes to the Acting Librarian and Archivist of Canada on WoSA

December 12, 2013

Mr. Hervé Déry
Acting Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Library and Archives Canada
Office of the Librarian and Archivist of Canada
550 de la Cité Blvd
Gatineau, Quebec  K1A 0N4

 

Dear Mr. Déry,

We would first like to tell you how pleased we were to have had yet another opportunity to meet with members of your management team as we renew our exchanges over LAC’s ongoing process of modernization.  This time, as you may know, we met on November 22 with Elizabeth Mongrain, Mireille Miniggio, Isabelle Ringuet, Hilary Morgan, Chantal Marin-Comeau and Fabio Onesi to discuss LAC’s Whole of Society Approach model of acquisitions.  We were keen to find out if it was being implemented and grateful to be given the chance to ask some of the specific questions we had sent Dr Caron in one of our letters a year ago (December 2012) and to which we had received no reply.  We feel that this meeting has been informative, giving us a better sense of the progress made. It certainly confirmed for us the advantages to be gained from a sustained dialogue between the CHA and LAC.  

We thought we would provide you with a brief overview of our understanding of the initiatives you have taken so far and plans for the future. We would like to ensure that we accurately report back to our members the ways in which the modernization process is unfolding as we respond to their inquiries concerning developments at LAC and how these are likely to affect their work.

At this stage, we understand that you have moved beyond working with the Whole of Society Approach (WoSA) model as it has been translated into an Evaluation and Acquisition policy.  Decisions on evaluation and acquisition will now be based on 5 criteria including society, significance, sustainability, suitability and sufficiency. We learned furthermore that an internal evaluation had been done on how to apply the new policy to existing fonds. We look forward to learning more about the outcome of this evaluation as, for the moment and from an outside user’s perspective, this newly applied policy of Evaluation and Acquisition remains to us as theoretical and in need of elaboration as the WoSA model. However, we were encouraged to learn from members of your management team that in elaborating this policy, they had taken into account the CHA’s feedback along with that of other stakeholders in the wider archival community. Such good news bodes well for the future. We were certainly pleased to learn that LAC has every intention of working to preserve both government and private collections. There had been too many contradictory messages sent from several quarters over this question. We look forward to reassuring our members that this will be the case.

However, following our exchanges, we still have several questions that remain to be answered and which we hope you could clear up for us. For one, we were informed that there are no longer any plans to set up the four expert committees corresponding to the four WoSA domains of economic, social, international and governmental affairs.   This came to us as a surprise since you had invited us in December 2012 to forward names of potential CHA representatives to these panels. Based on what we heard from your colleagues, decision-makers at LAC now thinks that there are enough in-house specialists on that question and that there is  no need to call upon ‘outsiders’. This, in turn, suggests to us that a relatively recent decision has been made not to develop fixed mechanisms of consultation with non-LAC experts. If this is indeed the case, from our perspective, it stands as a very significant shift in policy, and more to the point, a most unfortunate one since it appears to contradict LAC’s recent overtures to further develop its relations with outside stakeholders including historians. The point here is not to question the quality of expertise of LAC archivists or managers - many of whom are very well respected historians in their own right. But, as is the case in so many contexts, the best way to optimize quality outcomes is to tap into as wide a range of expertise as possible. By abandoning the idea of consulting non-LAC experts, presumably including historians, during the evaluation and acquisition process, we believe that a mutually beneficial collaboration is being rejected. This being said, a brief mention was made at the meeting that there were a number of pilot projects in the works - notably one on Women’s history planned for January 2014 – which would involve calling upon outside experts, some of whom would be historians  although details on this initiative were not provided at our meeting.  It would be good to know that LAC intends to generalize this model of consultation.

All told then, some of what we did learn at the meeting has left us wondering about LAC’s plans and approaches when it comes to tapping into outside advice. We think that the newly established evaluation and acquisitions policy has yet to be fully articulated.

As we pointed out to the members of your management team, our recent experience with the Museum of Civilization, soon to be called the Museum of Canadian History, offers a concrete example of a fully articulated and explicit consultation mechanism. Early this year, the curatorial team under the leadership of Dr David Morrison, struck 7 advisory committees of experts bringing together historians specializing in various research fields to advise the Museum as it revamps Canada Hall. Five were organized chronologically while two others are respectively advising the curatorial team on women’s and aboriginal history. This consultative approach has proved to be very fruitful for all parties concerned. This summer, five committees were sent a preliminary draft of plans for the new Hall. Each one sent the Museum back a detailed report with comments and suggestions. Historians have now been invited to go over the revised proposal and the committees will all meet in January in Ottawa with the curatorial team to discuss the new version in an open forum. Of course, this consultative process cannot be held up as a model per se for archival document evaluation and acquisition. However, the point is that while the Museum of Civilization has world renowned ‘in house’ experts of its own, it has chosen to tap into a wider community of experts to further develop its exhibits. We believe that LAC could establish similar consultation mechanisms for its major decisions, albeit tailored for its own particular needs, to bring together its own experts and others drawn from a wider pool.

Such arrangements would require ongoing exchanges between the CHA and LAC. Not so long ago, LAC had instituted forums later replaced by the Pan-Canadian Documentary Heritage Network which brought together a wide range of stakeholders including archivists, librarians and  historians from across Canada. We thought these offered an effective way to keep abreast of LAC modernization plans, learn how they were being implemented and why. These could offer the decision-makers at LAC an efficient method to obtain feedback from users and other concerned professionals at large. However, these meetings occurred infrequently, and were subject to cancellation with no fixed budgets. And now it would seem that LAC has simply abandoned the idea of maintaining the Pan-Canadian Documentary Heritage Network. In the spirit of keeping the doors of communication between LAC and the CHA opened more widely as you have clearly endeavored to do since your appointment as interim LAC Director, we would recommend that the Pan-Canadian Documentary Heritage Forums be reinstated. More specifically, that these become permanent and regular consultation forums, planned well in advance with fixed timelines and milestones.   In these times of budgetary restraints, we understand that there is a need to think creatively about focussed, and flexible and online ways to recreate these exchanges, and we would be glad to advise you as to how these could be held in the most productive way.

In sum, it is important for the CHA to learn more about LAC’s new evaluation and acquisition policy. We would also like to know if LAC has any plans to develop a clearly articulated process of consultation with non-LAC specialists and finally find out how lac intends to revive the PCDHN.

We look forward to hearing from you in the near future.

Sincerely,

Dominique Marshall
President
Canadian Historical Association

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