Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Archives: Politicians' "Ducks In A Barrel"?

Less than two weeks ago, I wrote about the draconian cuts to the National Archives and other cultural institutions in Canada.  The cuts were the result of the implementation of the Conservative Harper government’s 2012 budget.  Virtually overnight, the six-year old National Archival Development Program (NADP) was garroted and its tiny corpse tossed out on the trash heap of history.

As it died, the program took with it a lot of stuff genealogists use.

Of course, folks south of the border here in the US aren’t taking much notice of this.  After all, it’s Canada, not the good ol’ US of A, so what’s the big deal?  It’s not our problem, right?  We have bigger fish to fry, like the yahoos wanting to shut down public access to the SSDI because of their misplaced understanding of “identity theft.”  

Surely what happened in Canada can’t happen here.  Or could it?

Actually, it could. That’s why I keep saying that elections often have unintended consequences.

Let’s look at the Harper government’s response to criticism. In a Canadian Senate debate on May 10th, the question was raised by the Hon. Dr. Claudette Tardif (Liberal, Alberta and Deputy Leader of the Opposition) about the elimination of the NADP. 

She asked, “For the past 26 years, Library and Archives Canada has been supporting over 800 local Canadian archives working to preserve and make available unique archival documents pertaining to the history of Canada and its people. Since 2006, that financial support has been distributed through the National Archival Development Program, which was shut down by the government on April 30.  … Why did the government choose to cut the long-standing funding that our national archives need to continue the important work of preserving and sharing Canada's heritage?

The conservative government’s response from Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): 

Honourable senators, I am sure the honourable senator has noticed, as I have, much to my chagrin at times, that we have moved into a new age of technology, which some of us still find difficult, but are managing.

Library and Archives Canada is moving into the digital age, and more services will be available to Canadians online. The evidence thus far is that Canadians are utilizing and accessing information to a much higher degree than they ever did in the past.

This is very good for Canadians, who will be able to access historical content regardless of where they are located.

This is too cute for words.

In other words, the official Harper government response went something like this: hey, no big deal; we’ll be putting more and more archives stuff online soon.  Just you wait and see. Technology is complicated; we don’t really get it, and most of us don’t understand it, but the geeks we’ve hired tell us it will probably solve the problem. At least, that’s the party line. Besides, we never bothered to find out what the NADP actually did, but it looked too good not to cut. Money is tight.  “Job creators” need tax cuts. Get over it.  Move on.

Of course, this government response is predicated upon the belief that the general public, like the government, has absolutely no idea what the NADP program actually did and that saying something – anything – that suggests that the government is going high-tech and digitizing stuff with abandon will make folks think that the government is “cutting edge.”   

And high-tech “cutting edge” is good, right?

Therefore, this is a “good idea.”  Sadly they’re probably right about this (the “depth of public understanding” part, not the “good idea” part…).

In fact, the working rule in politics is that if you don’t understand a question or you don’t want to talk about it, change the subject and refer to the talking points you’ve been given by your handlers.  Keep saying the same stuff over and over again, and the problem will likely go away eventually.

With programs like the NADP, it isn’t so much WHO was funded but rather, what was actually DONE with the funding.  NADP funded the preservation and cataloguing of unique and important records at many small institutions. When word of its demise became public, one of the first institutions to speak out was the Jewish Public Library Archives of Montreal.  (Even if you’re Canadian, you probably never heard of it, right?) A few days after the cuts were announced, the blog on the Jewish Public Library Archives told THEIR story with regard to NADP.

It wasn’t about all about digitization.  It wasn’t all about technology.

It was about service. And professionalism.  And access to records.

Here’s what they wrote:

“The JPL-A was itself a recipient of two NADP grants, one in 2007 that supported the up-dating and professionalization of the archives, and another in 2010 that supported the appraisal, arrangement, description and initial digitization of the Young Men’s-Young Women’s Hebrew Association fonds.  Without a doubt, this large amount of work would have been impossible to achieve without the support of the NADP.  The first grant resulted in the cataloguing of over 10,000 images and the second one contributed to the  Y’s 100th anniversary celebrations as well as making preserving and making accessible the social history of this key cultural institution.”

Then, you can poke around on the rest of their website to see the good things they’ve been doing.

The Jewish Public Library Archives is just one of the hundreds of archival programs that have benefitted from the NADP grants.  The total size of the NADP budget was about $1.7 million dollars.  Canadian.  In the very same budget, the conservative Harper government set aside $11 million dollars for this year’s commemoration of the War of 1812.  Whoopee!

There’s a moral here.  It’s simple. 

Here’s the takeaway:  archives and history and document preservation are small potatoes in the big world of politics.  Governments look at those “blue-haired old lady” issues as sitting ducks in a barrel. They’re an easy enough kill, and the governments doing the killing can point to “savings”, “tax relief” and any number of canards that will lead the voting general public by the nose to their (the government’s) way of thinking.

And here’s the real bottom line: the entire budget of the National Archival Development Program in Canada was $1.7 million Canadian.  It wasn’t a whole lot of money in the big scheme of things. 

In fact, that’s  almost enough to pay Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, for about three and a half weeks of his very valuable time, despite the bank’s most recent $2 billion trading losses.

But as we’ve been told on both sides of the border:  times are tough, “job creators” need tax breaks and the money has to come from somewhere.

Archives are an easy mark. Let’s not let it happen here.


  1. Thank you for bringing this awful plight to your readers' attention.

  2. This is a sobering, well-thought out post. I've never had the illusion that it couldn't happen here -- it's happening already.