OTTAWA—The federal archival agency spent $15.4 million on a digital record system it never used, and shut it down shortly after it was tested, approved, and operational.
That finding is one of numerous concerns uncovered by auditors examining Library and Archives Canada’s ability to keep up with its archival mandate in an increasingly digital world.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s office found that Library and Archives received approval to build a “trusted digital repository” — a system for storing and preserving digital records — in 2006. After spending more than $15 million on the system, Library officials shuttered the project after it was completed in 2011.
And the record-keeping agency has no records on that decision.
“The trusted digital repository was shut down in November 2012 without documentation from management on the rationale for the decision,” the audit reads.
“Officials at Library and Archives Canada explained to us that the institution had changed its approach from a customer-developed solution and was planning to implement a hybrid approach, which would include a commercially available solution.”
The audit found that the agency is largely unprepared for the deluge of digital files it anticipates receiving from federal departments, with digital files expected to be the preferred format by 2017.
The agency is also struggling under a massive backlog of hard copy files. Library and Archives staff confirmed to auditors that they have a backlog of approximately 98,000 boxes, including 24,000 boxes of military records. Some of those records date back to 1890.
It’s not just a concern for academics and researchers, however. The audit notes serious difficulties in locating records on the residential school system, impeding the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“Challenges confronting the Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner of Canada included finding aids that listed boxes but did not describe box contents, described records that did not match the contents of physical boxes, or failed to identify all records in the boxes,” the audit reported. “As an example, one of the researchers found an undescribed box to contain three years of reports that confirmed students’ attendance in residential schools.”
Library and Archives Canada is the permanent repository for the country’s documentary heritage, including records on the federal government’s decisions and documents of national significance. The agency has a series of agreements with 195 departments and agencies to retain documents of archival value.
But the audit found that a number of these agreements are severely out of date — one, with the National Film Board, dating back to 1969. A number of the agreements do not cover changes in department’s programs, meaning records of substantial archival value could be lost.
“Examples of programs with no coverage include (Parks Canada’s) national marine conservation areas and species at risk,” the audit stated.
The audit recommended that the agency update its agreements with departments to access more documents, develop a plan to deal with its archival backlog, and come up with a strategy to adequately preserve digital files. The agency agreed with all of the recommendations.