COVID-19 lockdowns limit access to national library and archive collections News Staff

OTTAWA — Researchers studying Canadian history have not been able to access Library and Archive Canada’s collections during COVID-19 lockdowns — a situation that forced some to put off their research or revise it to use only materials available online. 

Chad Gaffield, a history professor at the University of Ottawa, says the collections of Library and Archives Canada are the foundations of understanding Canada’s history and without them research in the field is impossible. 

Before the lockdown in Ontario, researchers could make appointments at Library and Archives Canada building in Ottawa to view documents in its reading room but the building doors have now been closed for weeks. 

“That’s going to, inevitably, have a have an impact on which projects can be done now and which projects are going to have to wait,” Gaffield said. 

Johanna Smith, Library and Archives Canada’s director general of public services, said decisions on public access to the collections have been aligned throughout the pandemic with public health advice that varies across the country. 

On-site services are now closed in Ottawa and Winnipeg, but they are available to the public in Vancouver with social distancing measures in place. In Halifax, Library and Archives Canada’s public service point at the Pier 21 Museum will be closed until April due to renovations. 

Greg Bak, a history professor at the University of Manitoba, said his students often have assignments that require them to use archives. 

“It’s been challenging,” he said.

Still, Bak said they have been able to make a transition to online teaching using video calls to conduct virtual archives tours for students. 

“The local archival community has been tremendously helpful and supportive,” he said.

Gaffield said some research projects require researchers to spend long days looking at archival materials at Library and Archives Canada.

“I did a project, some years ago, and we actually … were there physically every day for two years,” he said.

Library and Archives Canada is also dealing with a backlog of access to information requests.

“We had a long queue of requests before the pandemic started,” Smith said.

“Because staff were working from home, they couldn’t come in and contact the collections.”

She said other government departments can answer access to information requests because they’re mostly digital.

The backlog is a result of both the lack of human resources required to process the requests and the increasing interest in government records, Smith said. The requests are known as “ATIPs,” for the access to information and privacy acts that govern them.

“That increase, it goes up by at least 50 per cent to 100 per cent every year. We’ve seen those increases since about 2015 onwards,” she said.

“We’ve kind of done a sort of review across government of how ATIP budgets are allocated and we know that we’re giving a lot already to ATIP, and we just need more.”

She said the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the need to digitize the collections faster.

Smith said Library and Archives Canada doesn’t have a dedicated digitization budget, but there are programs every year to digitize as much material as possible. 

“We try to focus on where things are the most popular, but it’s still a small amount of what we need to do,” she said.

Smith said the holdings of Library and Archives Canada amount to about 250 kilometres of shelves full of archival documents stored in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Gatineau, Que. and Renfrew, Ont.

New storage vaults are being built in Gatineau next to the current preservation centre there.  

“We think the world has gone digital but we still get transfers of paper records every year from notable Canadians, from the government, from publishers who transfer us collections,” she said.

“The move to digital is coming slowly in terms of the collections that we’re getting.”

Bak said digitizing the archival documents of Library and Archives Canada is problematic. 

He said academics often need to access documents no one has looked at before.

“What is the cost-benefit here in terms of digitizing these record sets, which may only be used by a small handful of academic researchers?” he said.

Digitization also presents legal complications as entire classes of records cannot be copied and circulated due to laws around copyright, legitimate government secrecy, and privacy.

“Indigenous communities have been effectively under government surveillance for hundreds of years, and the records of this surveillance are government records … Opening up these records would deprive Indigenous people of their privacy unfairly,” he said.

Digitizing the archival materials also will create a double burden for preservation because there will be a need to preserve both the original records and the new digital versions.

“Digital technologies are always changing, so maintaining the physical copies requires ongoing monitoring for data loss, data degradation and obsolescence. And then migrating them into new formats as formats become obsolete,” he said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

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