Our uncommon shared future
And what's brought down . . . deposited books caught by a passing maelstrom
The move to the electronic forms of publication, and sometimes to the exclusion of print versions, is something many of us have understood to be coming. In May of 2012, I reported in Government Publication to go paperless by 2014, that the Canadian Government will stop producing print publications.
How will this new environment change the way we conduct research? Naturally we will be more dependent on computers, but we will also be more reliant on the institutions, public and private, that preserve and make accessible e-content, content that was once only available in print.
The preservation and access to electronic publications sounds straightforward, but it is not. Required are stable links to authoritative information available on various devices through a variety of platforms and applications using agreed upon standards over the varying life spans of various documents or publications.
Many of us are familiar with the experience of locating information on the internet in an idiosyncractic way. Google can be great, and so can much more specialized search engines like "MADGIC ", or even "Government of Canada Publications Search", but why can it still be difficult to find what you expect to be obvious? Such difficulties are larger than issues related to simple indexing. It could be that aggregation will eclipse indexing as the single largest challenge facing our new information ecology. In fact, it may be time to begin re-defining the very term publication.
For an expert summary and detailed discussion of the evolving digital landscape, I can highly recommend, Facing Change: A Perspective on Government Publications Services in Canadian Academic Libraries in the Internet Age, prepared by Sherry Smugler for the American Library Association. Ms Smugler began her career at the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library and subsequently became a Government Publications and Reference Librarian at the University of Toronto's Robart's Library. Facing Change should be of interest to anyone who deals with the production, use, and administration of government information, not just to those in academe.
The report emphasises the need for co-ordinated approaches to addressing the complex issues surrounding the provision of government documents online in an era of diminishing resources. The following example illustrates 'why'. Library and Archives Canada (LAC), charged with preserving our history and making it available, announced last year the elimination of 210 positions, including government documents specialists, and cuts to digitization staff by 50%.
The future looks daunting. Currently, less than 1% of LAC holding's appear to be digitized. By one account, provided by the Canadian Associaton of University Teachers (CAUT) "it will take LAC 300-700 years to digitize its pre-2004 holdings". Computers will advance, but most of the material still appears on pages of printed type. Here we are only talking about the historical record. Not mentioned are subsequent post-2004 holdings.
One Facing Change conclusion: the "best way forward may include a range of governmental and non-governmental organizations and insitutions with a stake in the creation, preservation, organization and dissemination of government information". Some of the many current stakeholders in this collective effort are listed in Smugler's report:
• CIC-Google Government Documents Project
• Depository Services Program (Canada)
• Digital National Security Archive (ProQuest)
• Digitization Projects Registry (US)
• Early Canadiana Online
• Government of Canada Web Archive
• HathiTrust Digital Library
• Internet Archive
• Library and Archives Canada
• Library of Congress Web Archiving
• National Security Archive
• Parliament of Canada
• Save Library and Archives Canada (CAUT)
• Statistics Canada
• University of Toronto Academic Librarians
And what of future stakeholders? Who will they be? And how will they organize? Challenges of changing enivironments make collaboration difficult but even more essential. As Smugler writes, a "healthy democracy thrives on open, free, easy access to information produced by its government".
Here is an historical question for decade's end: will 2014, the year that Canadian publications transitioned from paper to bytes, and stopped producing hard copy in print, be viewed as a 'signpost' of progress in our democracy?
Given print's illustrious 500+ year history, who would have predicted, even a decade ago, the swift fulfillment of the antitypes?
Let's hope we can navigate in this new environment, and move more confidently toward the common goal of preserving and providing access to shared government publications, in whatever form they take, for the generations of current and future researchers.
Below is a picture of the Toronto Reference Library's extensive collection of The Canada Year Book, a work that has been published for over 140 years, and considered by many as the government's flagship publication (2). It contains statistical information that documents the economic, demographic, and social life of Canada. According to an announcement posted in the Daily, Statistics Canada "will continue through other means to keep Canadians informed about their social and economic life". The 2012 issue is the first item on the far right pictured below, and the last to be published for the foreseeable future.
(1) Discussions about types and antitypes are normally part of biblical exegesis, but For Frye, the field of typology* can also have more secular applications. Typology leads to a theory of historical process, he says, pointing to "future events that are often thought of as transcending time, so that they contain a vertical lift as well as a horizontal move forward', much like waking up from certain types of dreams, "when we wake up from sleep, one world is simply abolished and replaced by another". This sounds familiar enough.
*Typology should not be confused with typography, the art of letterpress printing, .
(2) For electronic versions of past issues of The Canada Year Book, click here.
If you have read to this point, you may also be interested in this earlier post.