Alan Harnum

Some Reflections on the RSC Report

07 Dec 2014

I've finished my first readthrough of the Royal Society of Canada expert panel report on libraries and archives in Canada.

I think anyone working or considering working in the library profession in Canada should read the report (archives as well no doubt, but I'm less in a position to comment on this). It's in the formal style of these sorts of reports, but it's a pretty honest and wide-ranging overview of the current state of play in Canada.

The perspective I have on this report is my own and informed inevitably by my own experiences. Specifically:

I jotted down comments that struck me as I went through the report. This isn't anything approaching a comprehensive assessment, which would require more time and thought.

(Page 31)

One patron’s testimonial is worth a thousand gate counts when it comes to making the case for libraries. Librarianship isn’t about gate counts and circulation figures, but people helped, lives enriched, and communities improved. — Sandra Singh, Chief Librarian, Vancouver Public Library

I'm picking this quote out because it's emblematic of library rhetoric that I think is questionably followed in day-to-day practice. We're replete with assessment, economic impact studies, etc etc, throughout the sectors, sometimes with questionably useful methodologies, and circulation figures, visits and other numbers are prominently highlighted in our reporting.

One response to this might be about the difference in measuring outputs vs. measuring outcomes, but outcome measurement and measurement in general as an approach to demonstrating value is notoriously murky and manipulable (see, for example, Goodhart's law, or the well-noted "teaching to the test" phenomenon in education)

I'm not deliberately singling out Sandra Singh, but I see statements like this not infrequently while also having enough experience in the professional world to know how measurement-driven we are in how we operate and plan. I'm also not taking a position here on how much value we should place on the subjective individual experience vs. the "objective" measurement.

Basically, though, do we actually act this way in practice? Do we (and also those who fund libaries, whether it's municipalities, universities or schools) value patron testimonials to library value over things we can put a number on and place in a quarterly report?

(Page 39)

Many of the accounts we heard at our consultations were heartening and upbeat, filling us with the brio of how libraries and archives can change lives. But, others were poignant and disturbing, leaving us to wonder about the gaps and cracks.

I suspect some of what went on in the consultations was that some voices (the "poignant and disturbing" ones, such as those talking about the issues at LAC) slipped through that normally don't get a lot of airing in what public discourse exists about the state of the field in Canada.

There's a lot of what I would call a calculated positivity when we talk about how things are in libraries to "outsiders" (I'd describe the RSC panel in this, despite the presence of several people from the field on it), and the general lack of serious interest (by, for example, non-librarian academics or journalists) in how libraries are actually run and how people who work in libraries experience them means that the complex and sometimes pessimistic feelings typically gets aired only in backchannels, among trusted colleagues and friends.

(Page 54)

Although many associations listed advocacy programs as a key activity, when the Panel asked more specific questions about such programs, we found little evidence that they had adequate resources or planning or that they had much impact. This is a serious gap. We hope that both the library and archival communities can adjust their programs to be more successful. Canadians, as residents and constituents, need to know the social and personal role of libraries and archives.

I've come to be somewhat dubious about the whole "library advocacy" line of thinking, which sometimes seems a kind of victim-blamey narrative in which the ever-growing austerity of library budgets are a result of a failure to "advocate" with sufficient skill. See my comment on the school libraries situation below...

(Page 56)

Associations contribute substantively to the current status of Canadian libraries and archives, and we anticipate that they will continue to do so. However, there are many, and in the case of the library sector there is considerable fragmentation. Volunteers for governance boards and committees are increasingly difficult to recruit.

I'd be curious as to how different the current situation of fragmentation of associations is versus times past. I don't get the sense that we've seen a proliferation of new library associations in the last decade or so, so if recruiting volunteers for association work has become more difficult, I'd be inclined to look for other causes, such as:

(Page 132)

If the public is to receive the seamless service it expects from the Library brand, a brand synonymous with openness and welcoming inquiry, then libraries themselves may have to work together, across sectoral lines

Agreed. One thing that's somewhat striking for me in talking to older professionals is that cross-sector movement seemingly used to be more common. I'd like to see libraries of all sectors working together on the big problems facing the field, especially in technology.

(Page 135)

In the virtual world, libraries seem to be losing control of the ability to manage their collections, creating one place to look for everything the library owns, leases, or licenses. Libraries are trying to create unified collections through the use of discovery layer catalogues but libraries often meet resistance from vendors who want their products to be highlighted and branded. Vendors need to understand that their insistence on branding their products is confusing users and potentially destroying the marketplace. Libraries need to understand that vendors need business continuity and stability. Better communications can create a stronger library experience for users and more demand for their product than publishers and vendors provide

Having spent some time working in the electronic resources space, I'd say I generally agree with this, but also add the following:

(Page 152)

Many observers and commentators believe the decline {in school libraries} has accelerated in spite of continuous and compelling research, much now Canadian-based, demonstrating the positive influence of the school library in enhanced literacy, higher test scores, greater success at the post-secondary level, and advanced citizenship. All this has occurred in spite of the hard and vigorous advocacy by many parties, including both national and provincial libraries, educational associations, and grass-roots groups such as Ontario’s People for Education.

One begins to think that under conditions of austerity, privatization and general distrust of the public sector pushed from many influential levels in this country, no amount of advocacy could succeed, regardless of how evidence-based. School libaries have been hit the hardest by this because public education has been a particularly specific target of these trends.

Situations like that of school libaries is part of what makes me dubious about the current advocacy discourse; while I haven't studied the situation extensively, my sense from what I've read is that a broad number of groups and individuals did exactly what the advocates of advocacy prescribed, with extremely limited success (the notable exception is the Quebec situation discussed in the report).

(Page 169)

Neither graduate nor employer group appears content, but their concerns need to be understood against the struggle of MLIS programs to meet core curriculum requirements mandated by accreditation with available teaching resources.

Accreditation is really key to understanding why ALA-accredited MLIS programs operate in the way that they do. I recommend these two posts:

For anyone who wonders why they didn't learn what they needed to learn in library school (or more specifically, why they weren't taught it), the need of the schools to maintain ALA accreditation is a part of that.

(Page 172)

In our view, more responsibility for development and training must rest with employers. Whether the programming originates from universities, colleges or professional associations/organizations, there is need of a constant critical mass for programs to be created and to continually evolve. While individuals should contribute to their personal professional growth, institutions and corporations must recognize the new reality of substantial investment in their people. The constant retooling and rejuvenation of human resource assets must become a focus for the sector.

I 100% agree with this call for employers to step up and take more responsibility for the training and development of their staff. It's a bit shocking how little concerted investment there is in this across the library sector in Canada.

(Page 187)

The recommendations cover a wide expanse of disciplinary territory and jurisdictions. With the support of the Royal Society of Canada the Panel plans to monitor progress and release an update reporting on changes within two to three years.

Good news on the plan for monitoring progress and releasing an update. I'll look forward to it.

The condition and future of LAC were concerns voiced at every consultation and repeated themes in the submissions we received. A deeply felt sense of sadness and frustration pointed to issues involving communication, absenteeism on key boards, deterioration of internal morale, and international presence. The Panel believes that it will take time and strategic effort to rebuild trust among the professional and research communities in Canada and elsewhere. We are convinced that professional associations are eager to assist and facilitate such rebuilding of confidence and re-integration within Canada’s diverse population. Timing and accountable, clear communication are vital elements of such a renewal.

I don't want to put too much interpretation onto this point, but I think in some ways the situation at LAC has become a focal point for the library community in Canada because it's an outlet to discuss (and a particularly egregious example of) trends that many of us recognize in our own workplaces. Austerity budgets, deskilling, despecialization and outsourcing are hardly unique to LAC.