Library and Archives Canada preparing for big move

Library and Archives Canada has compiled the first-ever master list of how well its massive collection is holding up as it prepares to move thousands of pieces of Canadian history next year.
Library and Archives Canada compiled the first-ever master list of its items before a move into a new $34-million collection storage facility.

It's a packing list like no other.

Library and Archives Canada has compiled the first-ever master list of how well its massive collection is holding up as it prepares to move thousands of pieces of Canadian history next year.

"As stewards, we're just doing the work for Canadians, so they should know what we're doing and what it looks like," said Sylvain Belanger, director of holdings management at Library and Archives Canada.

The move into a new collection storage facility will see everything — from more than one million Second World War files to a copy of the Halifax Gazette of 1752 — being transferred to a facility better designed to safeguard the holdings.

The $34-million facility has been in the works since 2009 and is expected to open next year.

"It's a lot of planning, a lot of logistics," said Belanger. "It is packing up many apartments."

But the new facility will only hold a fraction of the archives' collection.

The report on the analogue holdings, released this month, details the state of 20 million published items, 28 million photographs, 400,000 audio recordings, 425,000 pieces of art and 547,000 musical heritage items, among others.

"A lot of it seems very simple: we're talking about provincial publications and so on, but in there we are taking care of the Constitution, the key documents of government, the history of our prime ministers," said Belanger.

"We're caring for all these things, we're really caring for what Canada looks like, how it was built and how it evolved."

The collection is currently being housed in 12 separate facilities, but a number of those will close when the new storage facility opens.

"In bringing it all together we are getting a global picture and we can see where we are," said Belanger.

The report notes it is all at constant risk.

"Paper degrades. Ink can erode the paper on which it is traced. Red rot can afflict the leather used in the past to bind books. Audio-visual records deteriorate and playback machinery disappears," the report said.

There's also the reality of physical damage.

A 2003 report by the auditor general catalogued a series of problems plaguing the archives and the library.

"Published heritage is at risk because the collections of the National Library of Canada are housed in buildings that do not meet accepted standards for temperature, humidity, and space for these types of documents," said then-auditor general Sheila Fraser.

"The Library's conservation practices cannot make up for the shortcomings of the physical infrastructure."

Fraser reported that between 1988 and 2003, the library suffered 116 environmental incidents. About half involved high temperatures and flooding, damaging about 30,000 documents.

Cost of repairs was estimated to be $4.5 million.

Items in good shape

The 2012 study reports most of the collection is in good shape.

There is some concern about the state of a small portion of more than 1.2 million Second World War files, which were damaged by water while held by the defence department.

Other items, such as movies and audio tapes, run the risk of becoming obsolete, while newspapers, with their poor paper quality, are often difficult to properly preserve.

While the library reports the collection is in good shape, some groups have raised concerns about the shape of the library itself.

Library and Archives was not immune from recent government-wide budget cuts, and needs to trim $9.6 million off its budget.

It is eliminating at least 100 jobs and cutting grant programs.

The government said the cuts won't affect service to Canadians, as the library is moving forward with efforts to get as much of the collection online as possible.