Share this page

Dr. John English consultations
Canadian Historical Association response

The Canadian Historical Association [CHA] welcomes the opportunity to participate in the review of the National Archives of Canada [NA] and the National Library of Canada [NLC]. Indeed, it is not too exaggerated to suggest that the professional historical community has a fundamental interest in the vitality and integrity of the two national institutions. The NA and NLC fulfil practical and symbolic roles. On the one hand, they act as research laboratories for the professional historical community, heritage associations, and other groups, agencies, and individuals interested in Canada and its past. On the other, they serve as the repositories of the rights and privileges of citizenship, as the guarantor of long-term accountability and transparency in government, and as the foundation of our sense of national identity. Thus, whatever decisions are made regarding the future of the two institutions, they will not only affect historians and their research and scholarship, but more importantly, reflect how Canada values its history and its cultural heritage.

In preparing this brief, the CHA consulted its membership, held informal discussions with individuals familiar with either the NA or NLC, and reviewed past reports and other literature about the two institutions. The CHA has decided to restrict its comments to issues of particular importance and concern to the historical community; it has, however, tried to address most, if not all, of the review areas identified by Dr. English in his consultation document. And although this brief deals largely with the NA, the CHA has also tried to provide meaningful comment on the NLC and its mandate.
Invisible Institutions

Both the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada have existed in Ottawa for decades; the NA was established in 1872 as a branch of the Department of Agriculture, while the NLC was created in 1952 in direct response to the report of the Massey Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences in Canada. Yet despite the fundamental importance of both institutions in the cultural history of the country and despite many excellent, dedicated employees, the NA and NLC are largely invisible. Their importance is underrated in both Canadian cultural life and federal administration. In fact, first-time researchers, let alone casual visitors, often wonder whether they are in the right building!

This "invisibility" is unfortunate given the prominent place occupied by the new National Gallery of Canada and new Canadian Museum of Civilization. It suggests that the federal government attaches a lower priority to the NA and NLC--even more so when the sorry situation in Ottawa is compared with the state-of-the-art facilities enjoyed by similar institutions in London, Paris, and Washington. The invisibility of the NA and NLC is also ironic, given recent national survey reports about how little Canadians, in particular students, know about their history. It is debatable whether many Canadians would know where to look for historical information and materials in Ottawa even if they were interested.

The CHA consequently urges the federal government to make a concerted commitment to restore and revitalize the NA and NLC so that they can take their rightful place alongside the National Museum and National Gallery. This commitment, however, should not be simply restricted to new and better facilities. Nor should it be driven by a desire to create new shrines for which Canadian political leaders can take credit. New buildings may make the NA and NLC more visible and in doing so, send a clear message about the place and role of the institutions in Canadian cultural life. But the continued success and vitality of the NA and NLC will largely be determined by how they are able to discharge their mandates--in other words, the quality of their leadership, the excellence of their staff, the richness of their collections, and their success in sharing these collections and their expertise with Canadians across the country.

The NA and NLC have sustained significant budget cutbacks in the 1990s, and it will be impossible for the institutions to meet the needs of the new millennium unless adequate funding is restored and new initiatives funded with new money. There also needs to be an investment in personnel. Over the next five years, there will be a significant turnover in professional staff at the NA and NLC and their departure will adversely affect the integrity of the institutions unless they are replaced by skilled and well-educated professionals. In particular, they need a new quality of senior manager--administrators who are able to inspire and lead the now deeply demoralized staff. Without these changes, the government cannot realistically expect the NA and NLC to promote and enhance Canadians' understanding of their history and its rich and diverse heritage.
One or Two Institutions

The timing of the review exercise--with an acting National Archivist and a National Librarian being urged to retire--has led to speculation that the federal government intends to amalgamate the two institutions under a single directorship with associate directors responsible for the NA and NLC respectively. Some have argued that the NA and NLC are already cooperating in several areas because of funding shortfalls and that it would make sense to bring the two institutions together under a single agency, particularly when they already co-exist in part under the same roof at 395 Wellington Street. The CHA is opposed to this union of convenience. Libraries and archives are not the same thing--they have different mandates, different purposes, different professional cultures, different traditions, and in several instances, different clientele. Given these differences, it is essential that their separate identities be maintained; this cannot be guaranteed by a single agency. Besides, any existing cooperation between the two institutions has been restricted to administrative areas. The NA and NLC still have their special mandates; if anything, these mandates should be clarified and confirmed, not blurred. The union of national libraries and national archives is not the pattern elsewhere, especially in Great Britain, France, Australia, and the United States--why should it be in Ottawa?


Both the NA and NLC require strong and effective leadership if the institutions are to deal successfully with the major challenges of the next few years, especially in the areas of electronic records and digitization. This is particularly true of the NA, whose vitality is being sapped by a profound morale crisis of several years standing. The NA will have had an acting National Archivist for almost two years by the time an appointment is anticipated in the spring of 1999 following the tabling and discussion of Dr. English's report. No institution can perform its mandate well without settled leadership for that length of time. The CHA consequently recommends that the position be filled as soon as possible rather than wait for the end of the consultation process and subsequent discussion of the results. A new National Archivist should be in place this fall in order to be ready to implement the findings of the English report on a priority basis. Tough issues will have to be brought to the table--sooner rather than later--and resolved.

The new National Archivist will face a number of major problems--in addressing the needs of both the institution and the research community. The NA must therefore be led by someone who is well-versed in intricate archival issues, is dedicated to the idea of "total archives", has experience dealing with an extremely broad client base, has managed a large cultural institution, and is deeply committed to advancing historical knowledge of Canada. It may be difficult to find someone with all of these qualifications. But what should be emphasized is that it is not the time for on-the-job training. Nor should the new National Archivist be a patronage appointee selected on the basis of political reward, not professional merit. Although the National Archivist needs to work closely with the minister on administrative and broad heritage concerns, there should also be an arm's length relationship between the NA and the federal government in terms of professional activities and the transparency of the archives as the government's own memory and conscience. Finally, given the importance of the position to the Canadian historical community, the CHA should directly participate in the selection and appointment of the new National Archivist.

The National Library of CanadaThe NLC is formally responsible for collecting and preserving Canadiana which has been published by a publisher. This role has become increasingly important over the past few years as other libraries across Canada have had to reduce or restrict their collecting program because of funding constraints. It has also been considerably expanded, thanks to the advent of electronic publishing. The NLC has done a good job under difficult circumstances in fulfilling its mandate. But a steady diet of reduced budgets has meant that the NLC has had to curtail some of its outreach and collecting activities (such as securing copies of foreign publications with Canadian content), while placing greater emphasis on electronic information delivery. Should the trend continue, the NLC will effectively be reduced to a warehouse for books acquired through legal deposit with limited public access, rather than Canada's foremost research library whose collection serves as our national published memory.

A New Council

If the NLC is to remain a research institution for the entire nation and at the same time play a major leadership role within the Canadian cultural community, it will require a significant increase in its operating budget. By improving the NLC's ability to collect and preserve materials, the federal government will also improve the NLC's ability to fulfil it cultural mandate. Money alone, though, is not enough. There needs to be more cooperation and coordination among federal cultural agencies. The CHA therefore recommends the creation of a new council to devise new strategies for increasing awareness of and interest in Canadian heritage. The proposed council would be composed of the National Librarian, the National Archivist, and the heads of the Museum of Civilization, War Museum, Science and Technology Museum, Natural History Museum, National Gallery, and Parks Canada. Among other things, the council would consider joint projects to bring their holdings closer to the public and beyond Ottawa; sponsor prizes, students internships, and an annual lecture series; seek to improve understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the various member institutions; and issue an annual report or audit on heritage activities (needs and achievements) and the role that the federal government should play to ensure development in this area. In effect, then, the council would facilitate the understanding, preservation, and appreciation of Canadian heritage in a way that the member agencies cannot do on their own.

The Centre for the Book in Canada

One possible way of increasing the public profile and scholarly significance of the NLC would be to establish a national Centre for the Book in Canada, along the lines of the British and American models. The Department of Canadian Heritage funded a national survey on the topic two years ago, but the findings have remained confidential. Perhaps, if he has not already done so, Dr. English might wish to consult the report and the individuals who conducted the survey. This new initiative could build on the success of the Canadian Institute of Historical Microreproductions project, which already has given the NLC and its collection a national profile in this area, as well as presence in many libraries across Canada and around the world.
The National Archives of Canada

For many Canadian historians, a research trip to the NA has been a fundamental part of their scholarly activity. Several generations of graduate students have spent weeks, if not months, in the NA reading room doing the primary research for their theses; many often return in subsequent years to consult material for books and articles which enhance our understanding of Canada and its past. This relationship between the historian and the NA is in jeopardy. Many established historians who have used the NA on a regular basis or graduate students making their first trip there have expressed frustration at their inability to find material or consult a knowledgeable archivist. They have also reported how they have wasted valuable time on fruitless searches through incomplete electronic finding aids. They have also complained about the ridiculously long delays in securing photocopies of material and how these delays have discouraged them from using the NA. And they have remarked about the anti-intellectual climate that seems to have taken hold of the institution and how the scholarly interests and needs of historians have been neglected in favour of providing low-level "equitable" service for all patrons. There seems to be no recognition of what until recent years was the central operational motif of the NA: that historians exploit NA resources not just for themselves, but to create works which help interpret and explain Canada's historical heritage and therein inform other groups and individuals and influence other activities. This gulf between historians and the archives is exceedingly troubling. And it will take more than increased funding to improve the situation. Several fundamental changes should be considered.

Since 1987, there has been a complete restructuring of Reference Services at the NA; in particular, there has been a massive movement to "descriptive standards" for finding aids, inventories, and web listings, and the virtual removal of specialist archivists from contact with researchers. Most of these changes were undertaken by the NA without any effective consultation with the people who use the archives. The situation can only be described as bizarre. The tools and means by which the NA devises to share its rich holdings with researchers have been developed without ascertaining the needs or wishes of those very researchers. This problem extends to other public service areas, such as reading room hours, photocopying, or photograph reproduction--all contentious issues which regularly draw negative comment from the historical community and all determined without public input.

In its defence, the NA might point to the Researchers' Forum, a group composed of public and professional association representatives, which has been meeting on an irregular basis since the early 1990s; its predecessor was the National Archives Advisory Board, which was established by legislation in 1987 but later abolished. Neither one of these two bodies has exercised any genuine input into NA activities--they can best be described as "talk-fests" of too many presentations of recent NA accomplishments, followed by a free lunch and a tour. The CHA consequently recommends the immediate creation of a new advisory body, composed of active, experienced researchers (representing various stakeholder groups such as the CHA, and on-site users), who can provide meaningful comment on current problems and critical feedback on NA policies and initiatives. This advisory board would serve as a valuable liaison between the NA and its users and provide support in several critical areas. The NA, for example, is currently embroiled in a standoff with the Chief Statistician and the Privacy Commissioner over the now scheduled release of 1906 census records and census records generally. The new advisory board could provide much needed lobbying support in this and other areas of public policy so that Canada's collective memory does not suffer.

One of most persistent complaints of historians who use the NA is the new policy of "self-service and researcher autonomy." This policy, according to the NA's newsletter The Archivist (n. 113, 1997, p. 44) is designed to promote "a research environment in which clients can obtain the information they need with minimum intervention from staff." What this means, though, is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to consult archivists who specialize in a particular area of history or recording medium. Instead, researchers must deal with minimally trained reference staff, who, despite good intentions, must by definition have limited understanding of the nuances of the records. Or, they are directed to an electronic catalogue of dubious completeness and reliability. This can be a discouraging experience, especially for those researchers who travel from outside the Ontario/Quebec region at considerable expense and can stay only for a limited period because of the costs involved.

The situation will get only worse as archivists who have spent a lifetime acquiring expertise will soon be retiring. The CHA therefore recommends that the NA replace retiring archivists with well qualified individuals capable of being specialist archivists. The ideal preparation for these new archivists would be the M.A. degree in History and another M.A. in archival studies. This specialized training is necessary so that the archivist can conduct scholarly research into the records, the various media and recording technology in which the records have been created and preserved, and the general historical context in which the records were situated. This knowledge, in turn, drives the appraisal of the records and the richness and completeness of the descriptions; the research can also be used in exhibit preparation and effective digitization in meaningful context. Finally, it is absolutely essential that the archivist interact with the researcher so that the specialized knowledge of the records can be shared and utilized. In fact, early contact with an archivist can greatly facilitate a researcher's success in finding the "right" records. At present, the invaluable expertise of some 100 specialty archivists who have been trained at considerable public expense over their twenty-to-thirty-year career is not being accessed by Canadians. And as long as the knowledge of specialty archivists is not being utilized, the rich holdings of the NA remain under-exploited.

West Memorial Building

The NA is currently proposing a major multi-million-dollar renovation of the West Memorial Building so that administrative staff, reference services, reading room facilities, and archivists can be brought together under the same roof. These renovations will be a definite improvement on the sorry conditions at 395 Wellington and are wholeheartedly endorsed by the CHA. The project should be fully funded and commenced as soon as possible. Further delays should not be tolerated. Once the renovations are underway, the NA must rethink fundamentally the relationship between researchers, archivists, records, and finding aids in a split headquarters situation and adjust accordingly to promote and enhance the four-way relationship.

The situation is different for media-specific archivists, who work with maps, architectural plans, photographs, and other media-based records. To do their job effectively, they need to be in close contact with not only researchers, but with the records themselves; otherwise, their knowledge of the material becomes mediocre and their skills begin to disintegrate. Instead of being housed in the renovated West Memorial Building, then, the CHA recommends that these specialty media archivists be located in the new Gatineau facilities where they can be in daily contact with the collections. Regular shuttle service should also be provided to the Gatineau facilities from downtown Ottawa for these archivists and for researchers needing to see them or the collections with them at Gatineau.

"Total Archives"

Since the end of World War Two, the NA has been committed to acquiring and preserving archival records in every medium from the private and public sectors of Canadian life--what is commonly described as "total archives." This commitment should be re-affirmed by the NA and through its leadership, by the larger Canadian archival community. Funding cutbacks have forced the NA to pursue a narrow interpretation of its collection mandate, while archival institutions across the country have increasingly declined to accept materials. Thus, unless the NA adopts a more pro-active acquisition policy for private sector archives that complements and supplements its non-discriminatory collection of government archives, valuable historical records may be lost forever. In trying to understand how social policy gets made, for example, the rigid distinction between private and public records often breaks down; both kinds of records need to be consulted to develop a meaningful understanding and appreciation of policy in this area. This renewed commitment to systematic and comprehensive collecting, however, will require additional funding and personnel.

One of the most vexing problems facing the NA is records management in the federal government. According to the 1997-98 report of the federal Information Commissioner, documents have been destroyed without authorization by government officials, other documents have been tampered with, and some agencies are simply refusing to keep proper records at a senior and policy level. Without effective record-keeping in government, there can be no accountability and transparency of public administration, which are the essential foundations of democracy. There can be no protection of the rights of citizens to access records about themselves and those who govern them. And there can be no reliable archives, and thus no sound history of the nation. How can these problems be addressed? The CHA believes that there needs to be a more focused and coordinated effort by those agencies which are most concerned about records and information issues. Indeed, the increasing importance of well managed evidence and information, especially as computerization increases the complexities of such management, add to the urgency of dealing with these matters effectively. The CHA recommends the creation of a new commission or council on which sit the National Archivist (permanent secretary and host), chief clerk of the Privy Council Office (chair), the Information Commissioner, the Auditor General, the National Librarian, the Deputy Minister of Justice, and two high-ranking Treasury Board of Canada officials accountable for cross-government information technology and information/records management policy. Each of these agencies has a perspective on the problem and is concerned about other aspects of it, but none can deal with the broad problem alone. The proposed commission could report annually to Parliament, much like the Auditor General, on such things as the state of records management, archiving federal records, access and privacy, and publications management and library issues. By a closer, more formal alliance with these other entities, the archival goal of changing the culture of records keeping in the federal government might be advanced. At the same time, the commission would focus more public and official attention on information and records management issues and make their interrelatedness better understood. Finally, this interaction with other agencies might help shape and influence future government policies in the area.

Electronic Records

The NA has been rightly praised for its leadership in dealing with electronic records. But the work in this area has been limited to a few pilot projects based on whatever databases and office automation systems had become available. The NA is now in the process of developing a long-term policy, strategy, and implementation plan for integrating and rejuvenating its electronic records program. This implementation strategy should address such questions as: what criteria should be used for the appraisal and acquisition of databases and office systems so that the NA has a good, balanced collection?; how should the important information contained in databases be extracted or separated from the trivial?; and how can the information be kept readable even after the technology has been eclipsed? This policy, moreover, should not be developed in isolation; there should be public consultation and input, especially with the historical community.

The digitization of NA records will bring the institution in line with other national archives and provide more universal and affordable access. In fact, the NA should seriously consider abandoning its outdated system of decentralized access sites (Halifax, Montreal, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and Vancouver) in favour of using the funds for more scanning so that additional material can be placed on the world wide web. In essence, the NA should move from physical to virtual decentralization. The CHA supports the digitization program, but has several concerns. First, the historical community should be consulted about the kinds of materials to be placed on the internet. The project should also be adequately funded, but not at the expense of other equally important NA activities; special funding must be made available for digitization. Finally, it should be made clear that the material made available by the NA on the WWW is often one part of a bigger file, and that file part of a bigger series or system of record-keeping, and that system or series part of a broader and often complex context of record creation and contemporary use. Here, the specialized knowledge of the archivists must illuminate the richness of the context surrounding the records or else the WWW archives site will be like searching for a needle in a haystack: millions of disconnected, de-contextualized documents without meaning. While this context must be apparent by hypertext linkages on the computer screen, specialized users should still be encouraged to travel to Ottawa to consult the records first-hand and meet with specialty archivists.


In 1982, the Trudeau government passed the Access to Information Act, providing for the first time citizen access to confidential government records. Over the past sixteen years, implementation of the act has come under severe criticism, especially from the historical community. There have been objections to the large number of ministerial exemptions, the extent and nature of deleted material, and the chronic delays in getting material reviewed. The NA, for its part, has been rigidly adhering to the letter of the access legislation in an attempt to reduce to the barest minimum the archives' legal responsibility instead of exercising its leadership in promoting research in all government archival records, except for a narrowly defined band of exempted records.

There is room for significant improvement. Because the thirty-year rule was abolished with the proclamation of the access act, non-sensitive records at the NA are now more restricted than under the old access regime. All government records created since 1953 are now closed and unavailable for consultation until they have first been screened by the NA access section; if, on the other hand, the old thirty-year rule still applied, everything would now be open to 1968, except for security and other narrow exemptions. The NA should be directed to conduct general retrospective declassification reviews and open all such non-exempt blocks of government records. Why, for example, should national park records about bears in Banff in the late 1960s be closed? Funds for this exactly kind of exercise were received by the NA in the late 1980s, but were diverted into other operations. The NA must also abandon its "risk management" approach to access and resume its past role as honest broker between the bureaucracy and the researcher. In particular, access officers should be required to use their discretionary judgment, based on informed knowledge and training, to determine what historians need to know to pursue their research. There must also be timely access to records. If the access section cannot handle the number of requests, then more access officers must be hired. The excessive delays are inexcusable. Finally the new council or commission (discussed above) could help lobby for new researcher-friendly access-to-information legislation on behalf of the NA, which must itself often remain neutral within government. There needs to be a reconciliation of the right to privacy and the right to know, instead of the present paralysed standoff. This might be accomplished by means of a major public forum, where pro-privacy and pro-research people could try to devise a workable policy that could lead to new legislation.

The problem of access will be compounded by the new federal draft policy to protect privacy in the private sector. Jointly sponsored by Industry Canada and the Department of Justice, the document seeks to limit access to and disclosure of personal information collected by the private sector, especially in the growing area of electronic commerce. If this draft document forms the basis of future legislation, it will cause irreparable damage to historical research. Private archival materials, such a manuscript collections, currently held by the NA and freely used by historians and other researchers on a regular basis will be subject to access restrictions which could severely curtail, if not prevent, scholarship in certain areas. The CHA is opposed to this blanket censorship of private materials and believes that a workable compromise can be achieved through meaningful consultation with the user community; in particular, professional historians already abide by a number of codes of ethics. A toughened privacy act for private sector records must also recognize the importance of our collective memory and scholarly work on Canada's past.

Regional Records and Regional Archives

In the 1950s and 1960s, the NA created Federal Records Centres in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Halifax to store dormant records on behalf of the federal government; regional records for Ontario and Quebec were logically handled by Ottawa directly. The purpose of these centres was expanded in the 1980s to include the collection of regional federal records of archival value.

In establishing these new archival activities in the regional records centres, Canada was following the example of other large federal states, such as the United States, Australia, and South Africa, who had been operating regional archives outside of Washington, Canberra, and Pretoria for decades. This promising regional initiative, however, has been allowed to languish: the existence of the records and their regional homes is largely unknown; the regional programs are starved for resources; the few researchers who can find the centres (located in suburban industrial parks) enjoy minimal public archival service; and there is no clear strategic plan for the future of these regional archival centres or for dealing with the sheer volume of federal archival records created and stored outside central Canada. In fact, the effectiveness of the NA's control of federal records in the regions is questionable, given the limited presence and visibility of the Federal Records Centres.

The CHA consequently recommends the establishment of a network of NA regional archival offices based in the Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Halifax Federal Record Centres (each to be staffed by at least three archivists and one support/administrative person, in addition to the general support of the federal records centre personnel). This proposed network would serve several purposes. First, in a country as big and as varied as Canada, local and regional federal records are not simply duplicates of those held in Ottawa, but often provide a different and equally valuable perspective on the functions and activities of government. But if the potential value of these records are to be realized, they must be identified and appraised as archival, their existence must be advertised, and they must be easily and effectively accessed. Only well-funded federal archival centres can perform this important role in the regions. Secondly, in keeping with the concept of "total archives", the regional archives could also acquire private materials, on the understanding that this collecting activity did not compete with provincial and local archives. These other archives, regrettably, are doing less in this area, and those who create manuscript materials are often reluctant to see them leave the region for Ottawa--why not deposit them in one of the proposed regional archives of the NA? Finally, a network of federal archival centres would enable the NA to bring its services more directly to researchers and the public in the pacific, prairie, and atlantic regions. In the process, the NA would be more visible and Canadians would have a better appreciation of their history and archival heritage.


These recommendations not only respond to the general interests and concerns of the Canadian historical community, but more importantly, will serve to revitalize the NA and NLC so that they can play the central cultural role that had been envisaged for them during the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s. Without the kind of fundamental and meaningful change recommended in this brief, the two institutions will remain largely invisible in the Ottawa landscape and therefore of little relevance to Canadian cultural life and our national memory. Their current state is a sad commentary on the place of Canadian heritage in our lives and reflects poorly on us as a people. The NA and NLC must be given the means and ability to fulfil their mandates if this embarrassing situation is to be reversed. All Canadians stand to benefit.

Gregory S. Kealey
Canadian Historical Association

Bill Waiser
Chair, Archives Committee

September 1998

Ottawa Web Design