Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Z659 is the Library of Congress subject heading for “Libraries – Destruction and Pillage.” The very fact that there is a subject heading for “Libraries – Destruction and Pillage” should stand as a sorry testament to world history.
Granted, for many people the thought of a library being destroyed triggers a sort of automatic moral retching. An almost unthinking sense of outrage wells up, and the indignation is only further stoked when the destruction occurs somewhere that people think “should know better.” History, particularly the history of the 20th century, has put in most people’s minds a negative association between the destruction of books and foul repressive ideologies. Thus when a library (or archive) is destroyed it is often met with shock and outrage, particularly when the deed seems linked to a political motivation.
Granted, there are actually a range of gradations between what seems to be evoked by the term “biblioclasm” and what actually transpires. In democratic countries (even nominally democratic ones) political leaders generally have some awareness that destroying books is met with less than positive reactions and therefore they put up a range of defenses that aim to turn the destruction into a story of “library consolidation” or “digitization.” At the very least, it should be recognized, that the attempts to reframe the conversation from one about long-term preservation to one about reformatting for the digital age serves to muddle the clarity of the matter. After all, libraries do periodically choose to deaccession material from their collections, likewise consolidation and digitization occur often in large library systems; however, it is important to have a realistic understanding of the way that these processes work particularly when they are being used as potential cover for actions that would not fall under the heading of “standard library functions.”
Case in point the recent Canadian calamity wherein several libraries and archives related to the environmental sciences (many of which are run by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans) have been rather unceremoniously introduced to the elements. In what seems to be a politically motivated move by the government of Prime Minister Harper, years of data and texts (much of which was publically funded) has been destroyed, opened for a near equivalent of looting, or has fallen into a questionable category of consolidation and digitization. The very haphazardness of the actions has greatly enhanced the appearance of the wanton destruction of these libraries as it seems somewhat unclear exactly what has been destroyed, what has been digitized, what has been moved to a different collection, and what has been taken by other groups/individuals once these libraries were forced to rescind their “we expect you to return this” policy.
While the appellation “libracide” is not one that people should throw around lightly, the mischief afoot in these Canadian science libraries should be cause for concern. Particularly as there are several elements at work in the dismantling that seem to pull the description of what has transpired distinctly in the direction of “destruction.” These are factors that should have been early warning signals about what was planned for these libraries, warnings that may have been easily missed because (alas) much of the work done in libraries (and the amount of time these tasks take) is not fully understood.
First and foremost, and at risk of being a bit reductive, library restructuring or consolidation or de-accessioning are all rather involved processes. Frankly, the stereotype that libraries are generally well organized has its roots in reality. The haphazard nature of the discarding that seems to have occurred in these Canadian environmental science libraries speaks to a greater desire to close the libraries than to actually consolidate them in any kind of meaningful way. When a library chooses to no longer keep a book or item (to “deaccession” it) this does not mean that a member of the staff simply chucks the book in the garbage, instead there are a variety of steps that need to be taken ranging from checking to make sure that the book can genuinely be deaccessioned (if it is a duplicate, for instance) to updating the catalog holdings to reflect that the item is no longer part of the collection. Furthermore, most libraries – which often find themselves already pressed for space – cannot easily just accommodate a massive influx of books from consolidation, so any plan to simply combine two libraries is a monumental organizational undertaking.
Secondly, and this is a fact that cannot be stated often enough: digitization is not a panacea. Apparently the Canadian government promised to digitize (and thereby make electronically available) the most important contents from the libraries. While digitization occurs in numerous library systems and is a popular way to make material available electronically it must be noted that digitization is not an instantaneous process. Properly executed digitization (with good metadata, performed to archival standards, made searchable by using OCR [Optical Character Recognition]) takes time, it is not simply a matter of “scan and you’re done.” The easily accessible digital facsimiles that people have become so accustomed to finding online are a nice end product that conveniently hides much of the work necessary to get to that end product. Thus, when a government bent on cutting libraries announces that they will “digitize the important stuff” those paying attention should be struck by the dissonance – for funding a massive digitization project is not cheap or fast (even if it’s done on the cheap).
Thirdly, though still about digitization, the creation of digital copies may be used as one tool in a preservation and access strategy but it does not mean (does not mean!) that the originals should be discarded. Perhaps the original documents will be sent to secure off-site storage, but for the originals to be destroyed is ethically wrong, professionally negligent, and simply stupid. What happens if the digital files are corrupted? What if the scans turn out to be of such a low quality (if they were done in haste) that they are unusable? What if an automated scanner was being used that skipped numerous pages? In other words: when digitizing materials the original should not be destroyed. In addition it is worth remembering that even good digitization brings with it a host of other issues. For example: digitized content needs to be periodically updated to newer hard drives as older technologies are made obsolete, old file formats need to be updated if they cease to be the standard, and it is considered an important element of archival practice (for preservation’s sake) to keep multiple copies of digital files lest a hard drive be destroyed or misplaced (this principle is called LOCKSS [Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe]).
All of which is to say that from the very outset there were clear warning signs that something fishy was afoot. A solid understanding of library processes makes it clear that the plan for these Canadian libraries was always worthy of suspicion.
Granted, as is too often the case, the destruction of these libraries just represents the most blatant outrage in a series of problems that have been mounting. This is not a reference to the Harper government’s stance on the environment (which is an outrage of another sort) but the fact that these attacks on specific libraries come amidst serious cuts that have already negatively impacted libraries and librarians (which returns to the question: with such shrunken staffs who was supposed to do all of the work associated with digitization and deaccessioning?). The fact that these were specialized libraries being dismantled only further suggests that any steps towards digitization, consolidation, or dismissing of some materials needed to be handled in a careful manner by a staff with a high degree of expertise – a staff that seems to have been routinely slashed before this latest injustice.
In writing about the somewhat sorry status of NYPL and the controversy around the “central library plan,” the New York Times writer Michael Kimmelman described the accumulation of staff cuts, budget cuts, and ignored needs as “demolition by neglect.” While such “demolition” is often quiet and unseen it creates a state of uncertainty and insecurity in which it is easier for actual demolition to occur. What has occurred at these libraries in Canada is a travesty and a shame, and while the scientific/environmental aspect of this incident is important to recognize, it should not be forgotten that this is a demonstration that the slow destruction of libraries can easily jump to destruction of a more blatant and vicious variety. After all, the “everything will be okay” plans that were given lip service by the Harper government were a clear farce from the outset as the libraries had already been gutted of the very staffs that could have kept this process from devolving into disarray.
Z659 is the Library of Congress subject heading for “Libraries – Destruction and Pillage.” And sadly, when the history of what befell these Canadian libraries is written, Z659 is where the story shall be shelved.
It’s a sad comment that a subject heading like Z659 needs to exist, it’s an even sadder commentary that today there are new events falling under this heading.
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