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The (unofficial) blog of the BCLA Information Policy Committee
One would think that the publication of old census data would be a great thing for information professionals. Since our federal government has decided to scrap the long-form census in our current days, at least there’s the old data for people to examine and play with. Including cool stuff like the complete 1921 Canadian Census which Library and Archives Canada have now made available for all Canadians, since that’s their job, right?
Instead, as per their August 9 press release Library and Archives Canada instead have gotten a company known as Ancestry to provide tiered access to the data, though they are selling it as more like “You, Canadian citizen, are now spoiled for choice!”
Before we get into the choices let’s just mention that everything involved here is stuff Canadians have already paid for. This is a small part of what taxes are for: Collecting information important to Canadians and making it accessible to them. That’s the service here. But LAC has sold this to a private company.
So now, you will have access to the data through LAC or other libraries that pay Ancestry for the privilege of accessing the search tools. In most libraries you need to be on-site for the privilege of searching through information that is supposed to be every Canadian’s. LAC is so happy to tell you that you “only” have to pay to search the information if you want to do it at home. And don’t forget you aren’t paying LAC for this, but Ancestry, a private company.
In a perfect world far from this vale of tears, the information in the census would be indexed and searchable and remixable and free for all. If this was being done as a government service maybe it could be. They would need more librarians and other experts because this kind of thing doesn’t cost nothing, but rather than creating something for Canadians, Library and Archives Canada hands it over to a private company to make money off of.
A national library is supposed to be a leader, but shrinking the institutional vision down to merely adding to private companies’ revenue streams is not leadership behaviour. Policies that work towards actual Open Access that helps develop culture instead of commodifying it is what we want.
At this point (as with the Heritage project we’ve discussed here before) there’s no transparency as to what kind of exclusivity Ancestry gets in regards to this data or who is actually creating the metadata or any of the details.
What is to be done about this? I don’t know. When I’ve talked with librarians about issues with LAC in the past they’ve said things like “Well, they don’t have any money.” We need to reframe this debate. We’re librarians and our job (if I may be preachy and idealistic for a moment) is not to generate revenue but to disseminate information within our communities. If we’re forced to do both, one of them is getting short-changed. At the very least we should be pointing out the lies about “free access” when it is actually paid for by libraries. And we’re paying twice.
We haven’t been talking about the Library Archives Canada/Canadiana digitization project here on the IPC blog these past few weeks for a couple of reasons. The first is mostly because a lot of the discussion has been taking place on mailing lists I’m not actually on, so whenever I sit down to write I feel a bit like I’m missing some crucial context. But the bigger reason is that other people have been writing very clearly on the matter and I haven’t had anything to add.
I’d suggest that the very best piece of commentary I’ve read has been Mita Williams’ The Heritage Heritage Minute and The Digital Library of Canada We Lost. She goes through the chronology of the situation and provides a very even-handed analysis of why people have concerns about the project. Her essay is peppered with links, including to Kevin Read’s We Ask for Transparency, Heather Morrison’s explanation of why the misuse of Open Access in the leaked documents was problematic, and of course Bibliocracy (I’ll just link to Myron’s most recent post which came after Williams’ was published.
In the face of all that there’s not a lot that I would be adding. But I want to make a comment tying this together with the other big information news of the last month. The American Library Association just had one of their annual conferences and at it they passed a resolution about the NSA spying scandal saying:
that the American Library Association recognize Edward Snowden as a whistleblower who, in releasing information that documents government attacks on privacy, free speech, and freedom of association, has performed a valuable service in launching a national dialogue about transparency, domestic surveillance, and overclassification.
Interestingly, the next day that resolution was “replaced” by this resolution in which Snowden’s name was removed and the language was changed to reflect a more general support for “privacy, open government, government transparency and accountability.” In a letter to the Social Responsibilities Round Table Al Kagan said:
As progressive councilors have discussed for the past two years, it is all fine and good to support the results of whistleblowing, but this does not happen without the brave action of individuals. Whistleblowers put their jobs, their careers,their freedom, and sometimes their lives in danger by taking bold measures to bring abuse of the public trust to the media. Nothing happens without the individuals, and they need all the support that they can get.
He also called for librarians to be braver and lead discussion, rather than simply accepting backroom deals.
Libraries in general could benefit from a more open discussion of how our organizations work, especially when some members have issues with the results. Being quiet and unquestioning doesn’t help anyone improve.
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