Parliamentary Bookshelf: Reviews

Article 12 / 15 , Vol 43 No 1 (Spring)

Parliamentary Bookshelf: Reviews

Government Information in Canada: Access and Stewardship. Amanda Wakaruk & Sam-chin Li, Editors. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 376pp.

Last summer when Nova Scotia hosted the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (Canadian Region) annual conference I worked the information desk. There were times when we weren’t very busy, so I started to read Government Information in Canada: Access and Stewardship edited by Amanda Wakaruk and Sam-Chin Li. As an information professional, the subject area was of great interest to me and I ended up reading it avidly at the desk. Some delegates asked me what I was reading so intently, and I think I may have disappointed them when I showed them the cover. But, they shoudn’t have been.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “I can understand why you, a librarian, would be interested in this book, but why should a parliamentarian be interested in this material? What’s in it for me? “

In a democracy, publicly accessible information is not a want, it is a necessity. This became very clear to me a few years ago when I participated in a cycling tour in the Baltic states organized by librarians for librarians. We cycled from library to library through the countryside of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Throughout this tour, 80-odd cycling librarians were treated with the utmost respect by the citizens and the politicians. As librarians, we were lauded and praised wherever we went. People cheered everywhere we cycled, the red carpet was laid out for us, and we had many police escorts. The Baltic people, so long subjugated by Soviet rule, had been denied freedom of information and the freedom to access that information. They recognized access to information as necessary for democracy. They weren’t closing libraries; they were opening brand new national ones and they were ensuring that all citizens have the access to information they need. In short, they understood the enduring value of access to government information – a principal goal of this book.

This book will help you, the parliamentarian, understand why and how libraries curate and store government information for present and future generations. This work, in turn, helps ensure a functioning democracy for years to come. Because the book’s contributors are all librarians who work in the field, and their comments and conclusions are based on years of experience and knowledge, the parliamentarian can get a first-hand glimpse of the challenges and issues that librarians face in their stewardship role. The reader will also learn about the real dangers that exist to the preservation and access of government information.

A parliamentarian may not garner much from reading the entire book cover to cover. There are certain sections, however, that warrant attention. I’ll spend the balance of this review highlighting the chapters that I think may benefit a parliamentarian.

The first chapter discusses the state of government deposit systems in Canada, both federally and provincially, and is the result of a survey conducted by three academic librarians who work in the field. This chapter is foundational and provides the basis for the rest of the book. It offers an objective view of the current situation in Canada and states clearly which provinces have depository and legal deposit programs and which ones do not.

Chapter three, written by another field librarian, concentrates on the Library of Parliament and discusses the rules and orders of parliament before analyzing where to find parliamentary information. Of particular use to a parliamentarian might be the chart that traces the issue of gun control through the parliamentary record. Here the authors trace the evolution of gun control from statements on the December 7, 1989 shooting at the Polytechnique in Montreal to the enactment of the Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act in 2015.

The next chapters discuss the situations in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario respectively. A parliamentarian should pay particular attention to the end of these chapters which discuss the challenges of open government and digital information, particularly in regard to access and preservation. For example, governments are making the decision not to publish material in PDF format. Although these documents are currently more accessible, what happens to them in the future? Librarians or curators need to decide what and how to keep these documents for future generations. In doing so they need to determine: What is a document? How do we find these documents? Should curators convert these documents to another format? How do they store these documents? How long will the format be readable? Should the document be converted to contemporary formats over time? What is the risk of losing the document forever?

The last three chapters examine the future and the need for understanding and collaboration to ensure that future generations have access to critical government information:

“The last two decades of government information librarianship have taught us that digital government information is much more precarious than its print equivalent has proven to be during the past one hundred years” (p. 275).

Chapters 10 and 11 are particularly eye-opening and warrant a serious read. In Chapter 10, the authors point out that:

“one has an easier time finding and reading a surveyor’s report of Aboriginal lands that was submitted to and published by the Government in Canada in 1897 than finding and reading an academic research paper submitted to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in … 1997” (p. 276).

To illustrate the problems with stewardship, they use an example from the Romanow Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada. “Transcripts and … stakeholder submissions were removed from the Health Canada web site.” Later they discovered that a single copy of these documents was on a CD-ROM in the desk drawer of a single federal employee. When questioned, the employee asked, “Who would want them?” Fortunately, through library and archives collaboration, these documents were saved. Another example is the removal of Stephen Harper’s video diary and daily posts. These materials have evidentiary value and need to be given the proper stewardship they deserve. These observations are shocking, and parliamentarians can help the situation. By reading “Appendix 10.1 – A Proposal and Call for Partners” and “Appendix 10.2 – Resolution on Access to Canadian Federal Government Information,” parliamentarians will get a sense of the importance of this topic, the challenges involved in government information stewardship and the importance of making this information available.

Another astounding revelation in these last chapters is that:

“One might estimate that there are more born-digital government information items produced in a single year than all the two to three million non-digital government information items accumulated in the FDLP (US Federal Deposit Library Program) over 200 years” (p. 305).

The Canadian environment is similar.

The contributors to this book all work in the government information sector; they are not academics. Because of the real-life experiences and observations in this book, it is a must read for anyone interested in government information in Canada, particularly its dissemination, access, and preservation. The book provides a historical overview of how government information has been handled in the past and how it is being handled in the 21st century. It presents some real problems, as well as possible solutions, that exist in our current situation.

If you’re still reading this “review,” I hope I have convinced you of the need to at least peruse this book’s valuable insights into the current situation of government information in Canada. Simply put, government information is in crisis. Parliamentarians can help fix some of these problems if they understand the situation. This book will help you do just that.

David McDonald

Legislative Librarian, Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly