Book Review: The Big Gov’t Eraser

Librarians, like hoarders, save everything because you never know what is needed in the future, and governments like to change the record as they go along. As Government Information In Canada puts it, “the goals and interests of future researchers can never be fully anticipated.” Though record-keeping has never been cheaper and easier, it has also never been more haphazard.

Government Information makes this point beautifully.

“Consider this: one has an easier time finding and reading a surveyor’s report of Aboriginal lands that was submitted to and published by the Government of Canada in 1897 than finding and reading an academic research paper submitted to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and published for the Government of Canada by a private company in 1997,” write librarians Amanda Wakaruk of the University of Alberta and Steve Marks of the University of Toronto.

Records matter. Library and Archives Canada since 1953 has had a mandate to preserve every single federal document. Some jurisdictions like Prince Edward Island, Yukon and Nunavut have no preservation mandate whatsoever. Others are poorly funded.

The result: electronic data vanishes in an instant. In 2016 a newly-appointed Liberal cabinet asked Google to delete previous entries by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the website. This included daily posts and a video diary. “The Privy Council Office who made the request explained that removal of former government content was common,” authors note.

Would researchers, historians, taxpayers, legislators or litigants find it useful in a hundred years to know Stephen Harper’s video diary? That’s not for today’s clerks to say. This is the point of Government Information In Canada.

“It took libraries centuries to develop standardized practices for preserving print works,” write contributors. “Sustainable solutions evolved from best practices following decades of trial and error, and the slow creation of symbiotic relationships between publishers, libraries, archives and readers. Today, working with digital media, we do not have the luxury of centuries to develop best practices for the preservation of works dependent on computer code and technological compatibility.”

Digital records are more problematic in the ways they are “understood (or not), shared (or not), and stored (or not),” says Government Information. “It was not bit rot or technological obsolescence but rather a lack of infrastructure development, the dismissal of professional judgment and highly partisan policy decisions that brought us to a government information ‘crisis’ situation in Canada.”

“Crisis” is not too strong a word. Vanishing records are only noticed once they’re gone. As authors put it, “The half-life of government web content is notoriously short.”

By Holly Doan

Government Information in Canada: Access and Stewardship; edited by Amanda Wakaruk and Sam-chin Li; University of Alberta Press; 376 pages; ISBN 9781-77212-4064; $80.00

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