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Are Canada's Archives for sale?

By John Corcelli


Peter Jennings once said that Canadians have a lot of respect for their institutions. How do we feel about our archives? Are they up for sale?

I decided to investigate for myself after learning of the sale of 800 images from the National Archives to Corel Corporation in Ottawa. Images are available on CD-ROM for $26 each. There are 8 in the series. (Globe & Mail, April 11th,1998) As a Canadian, who cherishes our history and the images of that history, a list of questions leapt to mind because I had to more to learn.

Is our Canadian heritage up for bids? What about privacy, copyright and images in the public domain? Will our sacred photo-collection be relegated to the sale of beer or, God forbid, a car or bottle of cologne? Armed with these questions, I contacted the National Archives in Ottawa and the provincial archive offices in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. For my own well-being, and the chance at a decent night's sleep, I had to know if there were any "checks & balances", as it were, in place. Would my favourite images of Agnes Macphail and Sir John A. Macdonald end up on a tacky tee-shirt?

In Ottawa, I spoke with Brian Carey, Director of Communications for the National Archives. He told me that the deal with Corel Corporation was set up by the Friends of the National Archives, a non-profit group that operates at arms length from Government Agency. Certain restrictions apply to this particular deal.

The National Archives gets around 100,000 requests a year for archival images, usually photographs or maps. All of these are secured by the Archives in their original format. Every request is reviewed based on the following criteria: origin, whether it's in the public domain, copyrighted and finally how the image is to be used by the requester. Full credit of the image must be seen on the reproduction of every archive in the public domain. The National Archives always asks the requester about the specific usage of the image. They then issue a reproduction of the image, once, and charge a fee. Funds are put back into the general consolidation fund of the federal government.

Is this a money-making commercialization of our country's history?

In British Columbia it is, according to Archivist Gary Mitchell. Ten years ago the B.C. Archives needed funding to aid its preservation work for its rich collection. After a long and detailed process to work out a policy, they made a deal with PAN Video to broker the commercial use of images in the public domain and to collect royalties.

But the majestic images of the Rocky Mountains are not going to appear on a tee shirt next summer, or at any time. Gary Mitchell assured me "that we [at the BC Archives] have the last word and final approval on all uses to safeguard the integrity of the images." Last year, the first year of the agreement with PAN Video, the BC Archives earned about $12,000. All monies were returned to the archives and their preservation.

Mitchell reported interest from Paris Match and NBC News, to name two, generated from their Internet site. Some 30,000 images are available to anyone around the world. BC is very interested in being pro-active about the use of its archives by other media and by students. In its promotional efforts, B.C. seems to be the exception rather than the rule. The Internet has opened a lot of new doors to accessibility to information so it shouldn't be any different for Canada's archives. Says Mitchell, "the speed of electronics has changed our attitudes about our heritage. People want archivists to release stuff quickly, but people must know that we are here to preserve it…it has to survive."

Lois York at the Nova Scotia Provincial Archives, fundamentally believes that information should be a "free commodity" and available to everyone. While no official policy regarding images is in place, they still insist on careful consideration about the use of an image. However each province has different regulations with their respective archive offices.

Nova Scotia's rich, preserved heritage stretches, end to end, for over three kilometres, including 100,000 photographs. Images in the public domain are protected and are copied for a small user fee. Income is small so it's not a real revenue generating project, although that policy may change in the future. Issues of copyright ownership and rights of privacy are considered carefully before an image is released. Credit to the Nova Scotia Archives must be given by the user.

In Alberta, Dr. Claud Roberto, Business/Marketing Manager for the Archives, says that a simple policy is in effect for its collection. Tee shirts companies should not bother to ask for use of an image. That said, up to $30,000 was earned last year and put back into the preservation of negatives of photographs, for instance. Dr. Roberto emphasized strict guidelines for every inquiry.

In Ontario, one can see images of our past, just about everywhere with the bulk of the requests coming from the publishing industry. Revenues are returned to the consolidated fund of the Ontario government, but B.C. leads the way on the promotion of its archives, says Allan MacDonald, Manager of the Ontario Archives. "We are in the process of putting our catalogue of microfilm onto the Web site but it's going to take some time to develop a system of retrieval. Our goal is to make the general public aware of its archives…public archives are 'public' institutions made available not locked away just for archivists. They are for all to enjoy."

While access and commercial usage may be on the rise, there are enough "checks & balances" in place to maintain the integrity of Canada's images with consideration for copyright and privacy. This reporter is relieved to know that his favourite image of Sir John A. Macdonald will not appear in beer ad.

John Corcelli is Sources National Account Manager with a keen interest in Canada's history.
See his listing in Sources.

Published in Sources, Number 43, Winter 1999.

See also:
Web Site Addresses for Canadian Archives

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