Landing : Athabascau University

"Libraries and Archives Under Attack. What do we do? Act Up, Fight Back!!"

I've swiped the title for this post from the first line of an email I received this morning about the Library and Archives Canada cuts. The cuts are serious business, but there's still not enough Fuck Yeah in the world to cover waking up to a critical response that draws on the histories of labour and HIV activism to make its point. Simple pleasures. 

The email directed me to the statement of the "Archivists' On to Ottawa Trek," an action based on the historic "On to Ottawa Trek" that protested government financial mismanagement during the Depression. The 2012 Trek protests the elimination, by Library and Archives Canada, of the National Archive Development Program (NADP), which transferred funding through a series of different bodies to local and community archive projects. (None of my research, as far as I know, will be affected by this cut: the secondary archives for my study are SSHRC-funded, and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives is supported by small community donations. It already receives no government funding, and so also cannot be axed by regressive governments. Good planning, there, considering the problems Toronto Pride has already had under the Ford administration and the many, many problems we are all going to have throughout Harper's majority government.)

According to the Trek statement, the effects of the cut is "absolutely devastating" -- "a merciless attack upon the archives community and those who depend on access to archives for their work and study":

The elimination of the NADP will result in the collapse of 11 of the 13 provincial and territorial archives councils, councils that support the day-to-day functioning of archives across the country. Many of these councils were forced to suspend operations immediately. Archival institutions that invested precious resources into the preparation of NADP funding applications were forced to suspend projects that had already been approved by the CCA. Countless jobs will now go unfilled. Consequently, archives’ mandate to make government transparent, to make information available to citizens, and to preserve records of Canadian culture and society will be greatly diminished.

In addition, the federal government has sent more than 500 surplus notices to Library and Archives Canada, which will ultimately have its staff reduced by 20%. LAC has also cancelled its Inter-Library Loan program; cut reference staff; imposed a “new service model” that requires the public to make an appointment for reference requests; cut library cataloguers by a third; and cut private archivists and media specialists by 35%, which means not only that significant Canadian heritage will not be acquired, but that researchers will not be able to talk to experts who knew their fields as these experts simply won’t exist any more. At the same time, the government unilaterally shut down libraries in the Transport, Immigration, and Public Works departments.


So why is this happening? One of the premises of this project, and more or less accepted knowledge of archival practice, is that collecting and documenting history is a way of making history. My questions about the collection of pornography and sex work advocacy documents revolve around how they're collected, who has access to them, who owns them, how putting apples with apples and oranges with oranges helps to decide what is an apple and what is not... but preceding any of that is the question of what gets collected, or documented, or studied, or mentioned anywhere at all. 

The Trekking archivists point out that cuts to community archives come alongside the Conservative government's systematic targeting of "organizations and institutions that collect, preserve, analyze, and make available information for Canadian citizens." I keep seeing a lot of 'Science vs. Humanities, Useful vs. Useless" media reports (mostly from an anti-intellectual standpoint), but it looks like history-less historians and "muzzled" environmental scientists are two sides of the same coin. Library and Archives Canada has been under pressure from a "modernization" program for awhile -- CAUT has been hosting a "Save Library & Archives Canada" site that addresses the larger funding and structural issues, of which the NADP cut is only one small part. 

An article that Raphael Foshay bookmarked on The Landing earlier today provides further analysis. "History is never written in stone," writes Jeffrey Simpson:

it’s always being checked and rechecked, written and rewritten. Arguments about the past never cease, and it’s intellectually worthwhile for such arguments to be made by those who learn history and/or write it, often with the support of the very institutions the government’s now cutting.

When governments take up the pen, fill it with the ink of public money, and start rewriting the past, political agendas chase the search for historical understanding.

Simpson argues that by preventing the collection and dissemination of some histories, while rewriting and promoting others, the Canadian government is remaking history. What happened is less important than what gets collected, how it's categorized, and who gets to know about it. In this case, the history under construction (I might, in the very near future, want to call this "historical world-making") is one that legitimates the Conservatives' claims to power -- it probably would have happened no matter what, but it shouldn't be lost on anyone that this comes at the same time as evidence that this claim is illegitimate becomes increasingly undeniable

I'm not up to speed on any of this (working on it, I swear), but a statement from someone at AU, quoted on Mark's Twitter feed today reminded me of why I should be. In addition to the elimination of archive content through funding cuts, restructuring changes the nature of archival work. The statement quoted is: "digitization is as much about replacing labour with capital as it's about solving the problem of disseminating archives."

As it was with the "modernization" of Canada Post, these changes to the structure of Library and Archives Canada are a part of a campaign against public sector workers (this is also demonstrated by the loss of 1/5 of archival jobs, as noted above). There's so much going on here that it's a bit overwhelming to try to take on in one blog post (especially without reading nearly enough of the background information from places like CAUT and the Canadian Council of Archives), but what I think I'm trying to trace here is a few manifestations of a broad, widespread attack on, well, the public. All of it (or us?). The idea of it. 

That the public is under attack isn't new information for any of us, but I'm struggling a bit to absorb the enormous economic and structural issues that came up in today's research. Much of it is outside the scope of my own research, and much of it seems to require a bit more nuance that a discussion of public sexuality, which is kind of just always contested and always disruptive. (Or maybe not -- as I write the word "always" here, I cringe at the thought of suggesting it is naturally so.)

Going back to the quotation that began my research today and this blog post, I might add that Steven Maynard, Canadian Committee on the History of Sexuality co-chair and caretaker of the listserv the emailed call-to-action appeared on, suggested his use of the slogan might "date" him. He was referring, I think, to the supposed "end" of queer activism, and especially the queer HIV activism of organizations like ACT Up, in the late 1990s. Of course, queer activism never really ended, but it has definitely been met with a lot of resistance and outright denial from more regressive schools of "gay and lesbian" thought. (Bleagh.) But on the other hand, I was chanting this same slogan with my housemate on his union's picket line just a few weeks ago -- he's also a public sector worker. I would love to see both queer and labour militancy resurface in response to the Conservatives' systematic elimination and rewriting of Canadian history and the neoliberal attack on the public.



  • Mark A. McCutcheon May 4, 2012 - 11:52pm

     My initial reaction: wow, it's already an exhausting four years under this regime, only one year in. Robocalls, copyright, prisons, surveillance, and now this overtly Orwellian move towards a neocon Ministry of Truth (btw they also just cut funding to international Canadian studies programs, as I've just learned from one of my former Bonn students, now in Vancouver to study under an ICCS scholarship that may suddenly not exist).

    My next reaction is to this part of your post:

    "the Conservative government's systematic targeting of 'organizations and institutions that collect, preserve, analyze, and make available information for Canadian citizens'." 

    And then I think: well, there's something perhaps of oppositional opportunity in the naked obviousness with which the regime is pursuing its heavyhanded redefining of public information: that is, it's so blatant (sorta like the robocalls are shaping up), surely el publico will not stand for such aggression.

    But then it occurs to me they're going about all this so obviously because they clearly see the public as no threat. Why might that be? It's not the stereotypical passivity of the Canadian public, I don't buy that old colonial line. Rather, I'm thinking of the fighter planes, the new laws designed for mass criminalization, and the prisons. The regime must be pretty sure of its armory. The reason we don't see the invisible hand is because it's eclipsed by that big gun it's pointing. (Am I right, Vic?)

    The silver lining, which I'm ready to upgrade to gold given the larger situation: your work, at least, isn't immediately affected by this grim campaign.

  • sarah beth May 6, 2012 - 6:11pm

    I'm glad you brought up criminalization. The archives I'm studying are themselves packed with the histories of people who have been criminalized at different times and in different ways -- prostitutes, queers, people with HIV, undocumented migrants whose queer marriages aren't recognized or who are fleeing even worse persecution somewhere else, pornographers, book stores. 

    In addition to squashing the public sector and generally criminalizing public dissent, one of the really frightening things about this government has been how migrants, people with HIV, and sex workers have been specifically targeted for intensified criminalization. I don't have time to dig through my bookmarks right now, but I might want to later -- I'm glad I've been filing away things like the anti-migrant snitch line, the super-prisons, omnibus crime bill, redefinition of collective brothels as organized crime.

    That's pretty broad as far as context for this project goes. I don't know if or how I'll be able to set my paper and presentation in context, without it becoming a bit unfocused. But I feel like it's important for me to know, events that help define my relationship to the content of the archives. 

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