Thursday, August 28, 2008

What's happening at LAC

It's my last day at LAC tomorrow and I'm keen to get back to classes. Before I wrap up my time there, I thought I'd blog about some interesting things I read about in LAC's magazine called ACCESS. One of the interesting projects mentioned is something called "The Canada Project." The purpose of this project is still a bit fuzzy but I get the impression it has the goal of bringing a huge volume of Canadian content online. The project is a national effort involving LAC, the University of Waterloo, the Library and Archives of Quebec, the Open Text Corporation and so on. There was an announcement about the Canada Project back in December 2007, but I still can't find anything substantial about it.

Moving on, let's look at some of LAC's statistics. These are simple, descriptive statistics but I think they are useful in tracking patterns and in focusing discussion. Much better than vague examples certainly...

Here's the numbers for LAC in 2007:
Acquisitions include 23 terabytes of electronic records (I wonder how much of that is non-government?), 73,000 Canadian publications, and apparently more than 600,000 images digitized. According to this, around 47,000 reference inquiries were answered.

The website statistics are presented elsewhere in the brochure-cum-magazine part of the publication shows what's happened from 2004 to 2007. Average number of visits per day was around 46,000 in 2006 and 2007. Likewise, there was 17 million visits in 2006 and 2007. I wish there was more detailed data on the website. Specifically, I wonder about the geographic origin of visitors to the website. I also wonder about how the website is being discovered.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Classes Soon, End of The Summer

The summer is coming to an end here and I confess I'm looking forward to classes starting again. I'm feeling good these days and thinking up ideas for presentations at conferences in 2009. At the same time, I'm a bit sad to see the end of my work term. It has been interesting learning about how the federal government works, but it hasn't been, ah, inspiring in every respect. It has been a good experience to work at a large institution though as it is such a contrast to the small places where I have worked. It is refreshing to see that people who specialize to a high degree (e.g. in film or military records) can actually dedicate themselves to that.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Everybody needs cataloguing; a LCBO story

Yesterday, I was looking to buy some wine at the LCBO and I asked the staff how the wine was organized. They first said the obvious; it was done by origin (e.g. Canada, France, Italy etc) and that VQA status was another factor. I found this lacking. I asked if the wines were sorted within each of these categories - they seemed confused by my question. Gah!

In my question, I suggested a simple classification scheme (alphabetical by vinter name, then sub-organized by wine name) and they seemed confused. I wish a librarian or some body had organized it properly, according to a meaningful standard. I was looking for a particular type and wasted 10 minutes looking around for it. Wine, just like books, needs both intellectual control (place of origin, in this case) and physical control (tell me how to find bottles on the shelf).

That's Ontario for you. I wonder if wine is better organized elsewhere in Canada or abroad?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Save The Time of the User

During my studies in library school (that term hardly covers it, but I'm trying to use commonly recognized terminology), I was introduced to S. R. Ranganathan who famously articulated five guiding principles of library science back in 1931.

Today, I felt as though the fourth law ("Save the Time of the User") was not being honoured. I don't work with the public in my present position (except for those rare occasions where they somehow call my office line directly and then I help them with great energy), but I am still concerned with the user experience. As a rule, libraries and archives should not set up obstacles to users and yet that seems to be happening. I suggested that a current problem - which could cause significant delays for users - be put online. We may not know when or how this Big Problem will be solved, but we can at least let people know about the nature of the problem. Then they can determine how it affects them - only then can they make an informed judgement on how to use their time. This suggestion was denied and the reasons were not terribly good.

I'm starting to think more about whether there is any kind of coherent philosophy that can hold together the information profession. Public service may have worked, but that leaves out all the private sector people...

Monday, August 18, 2008

The administrative cost of access restrictions

This post is largely concerned with thinking about archival management. As with many posts here, it is a speculative thought experiment. In essence, I am probing the question of whether restraints should be put on what sort of restrictions ("tax" is a better word, actually) that donors impose on their materials. Every additional restriction imposed on a fond raises administration costs and serves to partially frustrate one of the primary goals of archives, providing access to information. In support of the thesis that archives should consider requiring financial donations to accompany donation of materials, I am going to reference the National Trust in the United Kingdom and the accounting concept of total cost of ownership (TCO). Should archives actually require financial donations as a matter of policy? Probably not, but I think it might be economically useful to signal to donors that their requests are not all the same.

How did I get thinking about these issues? Well, a big part of it is that I am simply curious and like to think about issues like this. However, it was also partly inspired by something I'm doing at work. Essentially, I am fixing the metadata of a large organization that has placed a wide variety of restrictions (usually chronological; x file opens on y date) on its materials. It is fairly labour intensive to administer such restrictions and I wonder if this is necessarily the most productive use of the organization's resources.

In technology and computing management, there is an interesting notion called the total cost of ownership (TC0) which seeks to make a more complete estimate of the costs involved in owning something. According to Wikipedia, this notion become popular in the late 1980s but has longer routes. To take a simple example, the cost of acquiring a desktop computer is far more than the cost to buy the system itself. You need to include the cost of support (either in-house or contracted), the cost of software, the cost of the electricity, the cost of space, e-waste and perhaps some appreciation of how that purchase will affect other costs. Lately, I have been thinking that this concept may apply to archives.

There is some precedent for non-commercial organizations to make requests like this. The National Trust is an English organization that cares for both lands and built heritage, the latter often including the country homes of the aristocracy. Following the Second World War, many aristocrats were no longer able to maintain these large estates in light of taxes and the declining income of agricultural lands. As a result, some donated their estates to the National Trust for a tax benefit. It soon became apparent that this was not sustainable as the Trust was incurring substantial costs to keep these properties in good repair. As a result, the organization began to decline such donations unless they were accompanied by a financial endowment to help with the administration costs they produce. As a result, the National Trust is better able to care for the responsibilities in its care and preserve them for future generations to enjoy.

To be fair, I have not heard of any library or archives ever doing anything like this, but perhaps they should. The "suggested donation" could scale with the size and complexity of the donation. Ultimately, I don't think any archives will do this but it does serve as an interesting way to raise the issue.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Branching out from blogging?

It has recently been suggested to me that I should consider trying to publish in archival or information publications. I have thought a bit about this recently and the prospect interests me. I think it is valuable to be capable of writing both long term (articles, books etc) and short form pieces and potentially, a more traditional forum might be helpful. In terms of archival publications, I'm not sure how difficult it would be to get into journals and items of that nature.

No matter where I end up professionally, I do hope to keep active in research and writing. I would like to combine research oriented writing and shorter journalism style resources. One potential problem that occurs to me is trying to find a way to make that ambition fit with work. I don't want to be in a position where all such writing has to be done on my own time, outside of the office, if I can avoid it.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Trying to understand under-funding: Toronto Public Library vs Library and Archives Canada

Ask almost anybody in the archives or library sector if they need more funding and the answer will be yes. One could argue that this is simply professional self-interest, but I find that to be an inadaquete answer. I think most people in the field genuinely think that greater financial resources would help them provide greater services to the public and that all of society would benefit. I wonder if there is some reasonable level that both laypeople and professionals could agree to? Obviously no government is going to agree to spend all of its funds on the cultural sector and zero spending generally isn't regarded as an option either. One way to get this conversation started might be to look at per capita funding which can provide some relative information.

Note: Service area is meant to denote the organization's primary or legislated georgraphical service area, although certainly there will be users from outside that area.

Library and Archives Canada
Service area: Canada
Service population: 33 million (according to StatsCan
Annual budget (2006-2007): 175 million (source
Per Capita: $5.30 per person (approximately)

Toronto Public Library
Service area: Toronto
Service Population: 2.4 million (Source)
Annual budget: (Annual Public Report 2007 171 million
Per Capita Spending: $71.25 per person (approximately)

Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management
Service Area: Nova Scotia
Service Population: 0.93 million (a href="">source
Annual budget: 2.2 million
Per Capita Spending: $2.36 per person (approximately)

Interesting to think about that. One could critique the very rough analysis I did above on any number of grounds (e.g. archives and libraries serve different populations, the data come from different years etc) but it does provide a very rough way to attempt to compare these kinds of organizations. I've met people who consider LAC to be very under resourced and the above comparison would lend some weight to that guess. This kind of thought experiment is also part of an effort to understand administration to a greater degree and to support advocacy.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Search: How Google and its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture

A few days ago, I found a copy of The Search: How Google and its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture by John Battelle. The book was published in 2005 (only a year after Google went public), so I suppose you could say that it is dated in some respects. That said, I am still finding it very interesting.

One thing so far that strikes me as a bit sad is that searching is something that information professionals know a lot about but everything they know seems to be left out of the picture. Instead, computer science academics and technology people have seized the problem and made some good progress toward solving it.

Yet again, I also wish that there was some organization or centre that studied Canadian Internet habits the way that the Pew Center does in America. I can't tell you how many times I've read some interesting American study or survey and have wondered if its observations would hold true in Canada.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

European vs. North American Archives: The New World Wins

Somebody I know recently returned from doing historical research in a number of British and French archives and libraries. As I am very much interested in European history (as well as archives and libraries generally), I found this interesting to hear about. However, to my disappointment, these institutions are very restrictive to the point of silliness. In order to access some materials, the person referred to above (who is a PhD student in history) had to present letters of recommendation from their doctoral supervisors, go through interviews* and other obstacles in order to access the materials which date from roughly about 1640 to 1800.

As I listened to these travails of research, I couldn't help but contrast it with my experience of research in North America. Archivists and librarians make it so easy and welcoming here. The whole point of these institutions is to connect people with information and I think barriers to access should be as few as possible. The Library of Congress gave me a library card simply on request and it was great. My impression is that most Canadian libraries and archives are likewise open and welcoming to users.

I suppose one could argue that European archives have more fragile materials that are much used and they need to ration access. I could grant this, but there is a relatively simple solution - providing reference copies. Even so, I got the impression that the staff were being overprotective. As far as I'm concerned, North American archives are better to their users. It pains me to admit that since I tend to admire many aspects of European culture but that's what the evidence indicates so far.

Based on this evidence (and I am certainly curious to know of counter-examples), it seems that North American archives and libraries are more open, more accomodating and perhaps even more democratic than those in Europe. I would like to hope that any interested person could, on request, ask to see the papers of Sir John A. MacDonald (Canada's first Prime Minister) and there would be none of thise nonsense about letters and interviews. I shudder to imagine the difficulties one would have in trying to do the same in Europe.

*On the other hand, collecting this sort of information would make it so much easier to understand one's users...

Friday, August 1, 2008

On Not Adding Value, Digital Copyright

While I strive to stay upbeat at my workplace, it is hard to escape the notion that I am adding relatively little value. I can think of others things I could do in the organization that would be better, but I'm stuck in this relatively junior position that fails to take much advantage of my skills and education. One benefit to this situation is that it is encouraging to think more about my skills and what I could do. I think information professionals (archivists, librarians etc) still need to work on overcoming the custodial view (e.g. that librarians are just those who protect/keep an eye on collections) that some have of the profession.

I have also been thinking about copyright again. While I certainly hope that the new proposed Canadian copyright law doesn't emulate American mistakes (e.g. DCMA; for more extensive discussion and critique, see the blog of University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist), I wonder if existing law covers the following problem. Take an item that is public domain and then digitize it and make it available online. Let's also say that the digital surrogate of the item is available in a number of formats, is available in high detail or resolution and has good metadata. Does the organization/person that performs that digitization process earn any copyright or intellectual property rights on the item that was public domain in its original, non-digital form? If so, this could have interesting implications for archives (and libraries, for that matter). I wonder if anybody has considered these questions. It certainly seems relevant to Google's Book scanning project or other efforts of that kind.