Response to the Royal Society Expert Panel, Status and Future of Canada’s Libraries and Archives

Respectfully submitted by:
 
Louise White, APLA President
April 11, 2014

 

Introduction

On Friday November 8, 2013 the Royal Society of Canada’s expert panel on the Status and Future of Canada’s Libraries and Archives held a public consultation at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Lou Duggan, Atlantic Provinces Library Association (APLA) Past President, appeared before the Panel to raise two issues of particular concern to APLA members:  communicating the value of libraries to our communities and to Canadian society as a whole; and the neglect or closure of school and rural libraries.  The following is the Association’s response to selected questions posed by the Panel.

What is your mandate and who are your members?

The Atlantic Provinces Library Association, first established as the Maritime Library Association in 1918, exists to promote the interests of libraries in the Atlantic Provinces while fostering the development of librarians, library assistants and technicians and information professionals.  Over 380 members, including the groups just mentioned as well as institutions, are drawn from public, academic, school, and special libraries across the region.  APLA is an entirely volunteer organization. 

From your collective perspective, what challenges or issues are most prominent for your association today?

There is so much energy around libraries today it can be difficult for an Association to keep up.  Most libraries are currently on the upswing of the standard technology S curve having successfully rebalanced their collections and services to take advantage of online and digital systems.   As the fields of interest in library practice widen, it becomes increasingly time-consuming to create and promote professional development (PD) activities.  APLA’s annual conference remains a critical venue for PD.  The Education Institute (a cooperative effort brokered by The Partnership) is a recent addition in this area.

Without question however, advocacy for libraries has become the major challenge for APLA.  The existence of the Panel itself reflects the necessity to communicate the value of libraries for funding agencies, principally public, and for all Canadians.  The time to research and develop advocacy campaigns, whether in response to cut backs or closures or to promote a collection or service, requires time and effort that is difficult to secure in a volunteer organization.

As expressed at the in-person consultation in Halifax, APLA is particularly concerned with the diminishment of library service in the secondary school sector and to rural areas.  Reversing this trend in support of improved literacy rates, and all which literacy rate implies, is a major concern for APLA.

What would your association be doing if funding were increased? And what are you not doing because of cutbacks or reduced funding?

With access to the required resources APLA would engage in large scale campaigns promoting the benefit of access to libraries and or library practitioners for secondary schools and people living in rural areas of the region.  Our current efforts are scaled to our volunteer base and funding that derives from membership fees. 

How in your view should LAC relate to major archival and librarian/library organizations and associations?

APLA was sufficiently concerned about constraints placed on LAC staff by that organization’s original Code of Conduct to file a complaint with the Information Commissioner of Canada.   That complaint was settled after review of the revised Code.  Access to the expertise of LAC staff is important to APLA members and no barrier to professional exchange will go unchallenged at the Association level. 

Libraries are currently hybrid operations, constantly pulled toward traditional services by many core users and pulled, equally, by a concern for relevancy from other users and potential users. What issues are libraries facing as they try to make the transition to new service models?

Many academic, special, and large urban public libraries in the region have been afforded the opportunity (time, money and expertise) to balance long standing modes of service with emergent means.  These opportunities have not, however, been extended uniformly.  School libraries have lost out to the competing priority of the core curriculum.  Rural public libraries have lost out to core infrastructure.  When libraries are closed and library practitioners reassigned, two key things are lost:  an environment conducive to reading; and skilled guidance in the discovery and evaluation of information sources. Identifying or creating the opportunity to establish reimagined school and rural libraries is a goal for APLA. 

How do libraries measure outcomes of their service and community impacts?

Any enterprise should be able to demonstrate how it solves the problem it was created to solve.  Because libraries exist principally to provide access to content that would otherwise not be available because of financial, geographic or technological barriers, use is the most frequently cited metric.  Because the sources of content are now so diverse - print, online commercial, library websites, local digital platforms, to name only a few – collection, analysis and dissemination of use data has become an overwhelming task.  Libraries are however learning to focus on trend level data from key indicator resources to address this problem.  

Implied by the creation of libraries to improve the literacy level of citizens, is the desire to maximize the portion of the population which is socially and intellectually engaged.  Therefore, libraries also exist as a locus for social and intellectual inclusion.  Impact in these areas is measured by participation rates and partnership arrangements. 

Libraries are responding to the need to communicate their outcomes by more frequent use of promotional rather than reporting techniques.  More work of the promotional variety is required however.  APLA will evaluate opportunities to communicate the value of libraries and participate where able.

Would Canadians know of or understand the contributions libraries make to civic life in Canada?

It is perhaps most important that funding agencies know of and understand the contributions libraries make to civil life in Canada.  Individuals will make use of a service they need or desire to improve their own life, assuming they are aware of its availability and value.  It is the responsibility of civic leaders to ensure that all services that contribute to a literate, informed, democratic and economically stable society are made available.  Libraries are one of those services, providing as they do reading and information literacy, commercial barrier free access to content and welcoming community space which facilitates the exchange of ideas. 

In the digital era, what support for patrons do/should libraries provide?

First and foremost, libraries should continue to provide commercial barrier free access to digital content.  Canadian libraries purchase, on behalf of their users, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of commercial digital content each year.  Without access to this content, research in the country would suffer irreparable harm, teaching and learning at all levels of the education system would be seriously impaired, and all citizens without the means to fund the subscription or purchase of commercial content would be denied access. 

Libraries should also continue to digitize select portions of their print collections and provide description, curation and preservation services which enable discovery and open access.   Libraries are providing leadership in the field of digital preservation in particular.  This must continue if the digital era is to be preserved until it too is eclipsed.  

Libraries should continue to make their open access digital platforms available for the deposit of objects by external individuals or groups.  These community based partnerships provide a vital service particularly in the collection, dissemination and preservation of Canadian history. The provision of access to quality content has always been the mission of libraries.  Digitization is a powerful and well used means to this end.

Library practitioners play an important role in shaping the future of digital content.  As key players in the commercial marketplace, we critically assess the content on offer as well as the related pricing models.  The open access movement in scholarly communication in particular has been fuelled by the market analysis and actions of library practitioners, contributing to global access to publicly funded research in all disciplines.  Libraries should continue to influence the digital content marketplace in support of access for all patrons.

Because it is the business of library practitioners to critically assess content, regardless of format, we are well placed to impart the skills of critical inquiry.  Library practitioners should continue to teach the skills required to find high quality resources efficiently and effectively.  Research by library practitioners into information seeking behaviour and the development of systems which better match that behaviour must also continue.

What will be the function and future of a bricks-and-mortar library in a paperless-society?

In the event all content becomes paperless, and free, and easy to find, and secure, and every individual has the technology and skill required to access it, the purpose of the brick-and-mortar library may come into question.  Until such time, library practitioners in existing structures will continue to repurpose space once set aside for print collections for activities ranging from server rooms to community meeting space.  Practitioners with the luxury of designing new brick-and-mortar spaces will begin their planning with a different set of assumptions and create libraries that are as changed from their 1970s counterparts as newly constructed hospital are from their similarly dated equivalents.

Public Libraries are primarily funded by local municipalities, with little funding coming from any other level of government. Many towns and rural communities are too small to support needed technology. How do we encourage the creation of library systems (or consortia) that can meet the increasingly sophisticated technology-driven needs of libraries-whether urban or rural?

Funding models for individual public libraries vary, but they are almost always part of a library system which provides centralized support for tasks such as acquisitions and cataloguing.    So the question is whether those systems, working in a consortium model with other partners, could secure the funds and expertise necessary to provide technology-driven library service.  Partners need not be limited to other library systems.  Community based consortiums would also be in step with developments in library service and may hold more promise.  In keeping with our mandate, APLA would promote and endorse such efforts.