Who should be Canada's national librarian? A librarian or an economist?

Library and Archives Canada

The country’s librarians and archivists never had a good feeling from the start about Daniel Caron, the economist appointed in 2009 by Heritage Minister James Moore to be Canada’s Librarian and Archivist of Canada, partly because, they felt, his professional training and pedigree was as an economist. (He did a postgraduate degree in economics at Laval and then a doctorate in “applied human sciences” at the Université de Montréal.) Caron, in 2009, was also taking over what was described as a newly “unified” institution. Rather than have separate two separate positions — a national Librarian and a Chief Archivist — both jobs were going to “unified” in one office and Caron was picked to make it a success.

Caron’s program was unpopular from the get-go. He was not well-loved by his staff and he had to deal with constant sniping from the profession. He resigned earlier this month shortly after we published a story detailing how he charged taxpayers thousands of dollars for private Spanish lessons. That story got NDP researchers digging into what had been hiding in plain sight, namely, his travel and hospitality expenses for the last two years. They totalled $170,000, more than twice what his boss, Minister Moore, had racked up. In this age of austerity, that appeared to be too much for his political masters and, so Caron abruptly resigned.

With Caron gone, the country’s hoped that Minister Moore would look for someone with the pedigree of, say, Caron’s predecessor as Chief Archivist to become his successor. Caron’s predecessor has Ian Wilson, who had a long career as university archivist (at Queen’s) and as a provincial archivist (in Saskatchewan) before becoming the national archivist.

On Friday, however, Minister Moore announced that the interim  Librarian and Archivist of Canada will be Hervé Déry, another economist:

From Moore’s brief announcement: “Since March 2012, Mr. Déry has been the Assistant Deputy Minister and Corporate Secretary, Policy and Collaboration Sector, at Library and Archives Canada. Mr. Déry has also held several other senior positions within the federal government since 1982. He holds both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Economics from the University of Montreal.”

Just before that announcement was made,  “a broad spectrum of members from the heritage stakeholder community” issued a Joint Statement which they hope will guide Minister Moore in his selection of a permanent archivist. [PDF]  That “broad spectrum” includes:  Archives Association Of Ontario, Association Des Archivistes Du Québec, Association Of Canadian Archivists, Association Of Canadian Map Libraries And Archives / Association Des Cartothèques Et Archives Cartographiques Du Canada, Atlantic Provinces Library Association, Canadian Association For Conservation Of Cultural Property / Association Canadienne Pour La Conservation Et La Restauration Des Biens Culturels , Canadian Council Of Archives / Conseil Canadien Des Archives, Canadian Health Libraries Association / Association Des Bibliothèques De La Santé Du Canada, Canadian Historical Association / La Société Historique Du Canada, Canadian Library Association / Association Canadienne Des Bibliothèques, Canadian Urban Libraries Council / Conseil Des Bibliothèques Urbaines Du Canada, Library Association Of Alberta, Newfoundland And Labrador Library Association, Nunavut Library Association, Ontario Genealogical Society, Ontario Library Association, Progressive Librarians Guild – Greater Toronto Area Chapter, Quebec Library Association / L’association Des Bibliothécaires Du Québec, and the University Of New Brunswick.

In the meantime, Michael Peterman, professor emeritus at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., published a column in the Peterborough Examiner nicely sums up some of the feelings of those stakeholders:

Caron (did great damage) at the LAC, an institution of extraordinary national significance and of daily importance to historians of all stripes, be they academics, genealogists or private citizens. His job was no less than to oversee the preservation of Canada’s documentary heritage in a responsible and proactive way. But his approach was arrogant, slaphappy and counter-productive. In the name of budget austerity and faced with the need to cut several millions of dollars from his operating budget, he authorized, for example, the termination of vital programs like Interlibrary Loans, reduced access hours for researchers, and eliminated LAC’s standard duty of acquiring newly available archival material and published books. He claimed to be committed to digitalizing the archival collection, but, year after year, he offered little evidence of progress in that regard and provided only marginal information about the processes involved. He did little to consult with the country’s librarians and dismissed any queries or criticisms as merely petty and vexatious. And all that time he was improving his Spanish and allegedly traveling to undertake discussions with leading archivists in Europe while stonewalling their Canadian contemporaries.

Given the recent “resignation” of Daniel Caron, my worry continues to be that LAC will remain in a troubled and crippled condition. Will his replacement be a knowledgeable and informed leader with appropriate library credentials and expertise or simply another power-wielding bureaucrat like Caron? Once the smoke of 2012-13 has cleared, my fear is that Canada’s new head librarian will again be encouraged — with cleaner hands (for the moment) — to continue to disembowel one of our most important cultural and historical institutions.

Few archivists dispute the need for digitization and preservation of archival collections — it is the buzz of the twenty-first century. But institutions like LAC need not only ministerial protection and understanding but also an appropriate level of funding if they are to advance toward the future in a way that will address Canada’s best interests and the preservation and development of its archival heritage.

I hope that there will be enlightened consultation in Ottawa and that we will see a much better appointment than Daniel Caron, someone who will be able to restore LAC to its former reputation and significance while providing the wise leadership the institution so dearly needs.

8 thoughts on “Who should be Canada's national librarian? A librarian or an economist?”

  1. Three signs that the Harper government is basically uneducated and anti-knowledge: 1) do away with the long form census; 2) appoint a committee of politicians to review written Canadian history; and 3) hire an economist (twice) to oversee LAC. This will not end well.

    1. Agreed Jane. Let us not forget also, that this person
      “(Mr. Déry) has also held several other senior positions within the federal government since 1982. He holds both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Economics from the University of Montreal.” Of course, the fact that he is a long standing Federal government employee is really the most important qualification…why have a Masters in Library Science or most importantly an Archives degree?!!!

      The damage this government is doing to our history and to our future…such a disgrace.

      1. Jane and Julie, Given the Tories’ dismal record on historical, cultural, societal, and documentary matters, one probably, to avoid disappointment, should limit one’s realistic hopes to assuring that the B.A.C. survive “on hold” till a more competent and sympathetic government succeed that of Stevereeno Harpoon. And may disgraced Danniel “Conan the Librarian” Caron go to the nethermost depths of Hades!

  2. It was a non-librarian National Librarian, writer Rock Carrier, and Ian Wilson, National Archivist, who developed the plan to amalgamate the National Library and the National Archives. Ian Wilson was the Ontario Provincial Archivist previous to his appointment as National Archivist. In 2004 Ian Wilson become the first holder of the unified position of National Librarian and National Archivist, heading up “Library and Archives Canada”. Just by the name of the amalgamated organization one can see that it became a government department rather than an institution. This set it up for the takeover by a career bureaucrat, Daniel Caron, rather than an expert in either of the former institutions’ fields. As a professional librarian I would prefer that the next chief be a librarian or an archivist, but what I really want is for LAC to be treated as a special institution with an important mandate, rather than just another faceless government department. Treat it like the head of CBC or VIA Rail or other arms-length organizations, with a chief whose mandate is to fight for the success of his organization, not for his own career advancement within the nomenklatura of Ottawa.

  3. I think it’s a sad statement that this question is being asked. Librarians and archivists have a specialised education (masters degree), so why would we think an economist can then perform a profession for which they have not been trained and educated?? It’s an insult to every professional librarian and archivist. How would economists like it if we told them librarians could do their jobs (or insert whichever professional swap you wish to compare here)? It’s a question of basic respect and trust for the professionals in the field, period. This debate should not be happening.

  4. There’s no reason an economist can’t run a complex information organization like Library and Archives Canada. LAC has a professional management staff regardless of who is at the head, and that person should bring other skills, including to ensure LAC is jerked around politically as little as possible and funded appropriately.

    Unfortunately, whoever leads that organization has to undo what was done, implement the organizational change that was originally envisioned, and be able to manage both political masters and staff. In particular, not to waste the expertise – professional and managerial – of the senior LAC management.

    That’s a tall order. Librarians aren’t necessarily more qualified to do those things – plenty of libraries have non-librarian CEOs and lots of librarians aren’t interested in management, it’s not why they do what they do – but whoever the person at the top is can’t do it without the archivists and librarians.

  5. Why do we need a national librarian at all ?
    Libraries are a tool of the past that is quickly becoming irrelevant with the changes to the way people work.

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