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The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

A press release recently arrived in my inbox. “The Writers’ Union of Canada,” it said, “is watching with increasing alarm media reports about the closing of federally established research libraries.” That started me thinking. It’s a current and important political issue, but beyond that there’s a larger question of intellectual standards, of the whole relationship of past and present.

The Writers’ Union email offered links to coverage by various journalistic and academic sources, one of them an online British Columbia news source called The Tyee, which I’d never heard of before. It included an article by Andrew Nikiforuk on the destruction of several research libraries established and run by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The article quotes a number of concerned scientists, some speaking anonymously out of fear for their jobs.

The attack on science and scientists by the current government is a familiar story, and a distressing one, but I was struck by something more than that. I began to contemplate the increasing lack of respect for the past, not just by the people in Ottawa, but by the whole culture.

A few years back I was told about the trashing of the archive at a civic theatre in a small Canadian city. New management was planning a renovation, and the theatre’s archival material went into a dumpster. That’s not a metaphor. At least one former employee salvaged some material from the dumpster for himself, but the rest was lost. What was old, the whole record of what had happened in the past, was despised and destroyed.

The ministerial defense presented when the assault on the Department of Fisheries libraries was called into question—that everything of importance has been digitized and is available to the public online—is unconvincing, and at best appears to be based on a narrow and naive sense of the nature of research. Selection of what is to be digitized—the choice of what is included in ‘everything of importance’—will inevitably tend to narrow the range of available material. At best the selection is a gamble. Who knows what obscure bit of information will be needed tomorrow?

In January in The New York Review of Books, the American historian, Robert Darnton, reviewed The Allure of the Archives by the French historian Arlette Farge. Darnton, who, besides being an historian, is University Librarian at Harvard, takes the book as an occasion to analyse the current accepted wisdom about information.

He offers three representative commonplaces. First, we live in the information age. Misleading, he says; “every age was an age of information, each in its own way.” The second, all information is available online. That’s plainly false. Third, the future is digital. True enough, he says, but also trite and misleading.

The French national archive contains 252 miles (miles!) of documents, and that doesn’t include documents relating to defense. The Farge book is about the kind of history created by careful line by line study of some inches or feet out of those miles. Farge spent years on the documents from a single eighteenth century court of law. In his description of her work, Darnton points out that even archival research on such vast quantities of undigested fact and opinion will be shaped, at least in part, by things like the form of filing within the archive.

Two hundred and fifty two miles of documents. Surely only the very simple will believe that all this detailed documentation could be summed up in a neat package that might appear on Wikipedia. Or be digitized by a government department.

According to a source inside DFO, the Fisheries libraries are now to behave with profit-seeking efficiency. That will tend to mean you assume your answer before you go looking. Which is not research. Such an approach empowers the vanity of the present and leaves no space for the inspired, the fortuitous. The absolute difference of the past. The complexity of truth.

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