No, I haven’t lost my mind, and no, this isn’t a parody of a liveblog, done National Post Dear Diary style, although come to think of it, that might actually be kind of entertaining. Wait, no—there is no possible way that satire could compete with the (sur)reality of committees in this Parliament.
Anyway, I’m here—early, even—and staring longingly at the tray of food at the back of the room. Technically, I don’t think reporters are allowed to graze on the cookie buffet, but maybe at the Library of Parliament committee, they’re more freewheeling.
Not actually overheard, since it was pretty much addressed to me by a staffer: “Why is Kady O’Malley here?” Okay, I’ve been outed. I explain: I’m here to liveblog the Library of Parliament committee. Stunned silence results. No, really. Why are you all looking at me like that?
Seriously, though—this committee may be treated as the punchline to a joke; it’s pretty much seen as the ultimate punishment, as far as House assignments—but the Library itself rules our world in so many ways. It’s full of researchers, analysts, experts on every topic you could ever want to know, and more. Oh, and books. So many books, and documents, and maps!
Also, I may have made a few teeny tiny comments—constructive, positive, Library-friendly comments—about how the parliamentary website drives me “bonkers” during that roundtable at Queen’s, so I’m curious to see if anyone else feels the same way.
Anyway, today, the committee—which is a joint committee, so there are both MPs and senators, and I didn’t think to check the member list before coming down here, so I may end up mangling names—will be going over the main estimates with the head librarian, William Young.
The room is starting to fill up. It’s surprisingly bustling, actually—there are a half a dozen staffers on the government side, and … two on the opposition benches, but that might just mean they’re running late. Or that no one else actually believes the Library of Parliament committee exists; it’s a complicated, long-running joke by the people who print up the meeting schedule.
Russ Hiebert is on the Library committee? Really? What did he do to deserve that?
Okay, we’re on. The chair, for the record, is Blair Calkins, a Conservative backbencher; he’s trying to get things started, but seems a little flustered.
Oh good, Tommy Banks is here! He’s one of my newly discovered favourite senators.
The chair is laying down the law; he wants speed and efficiency in questions and answers. There’s a quick joke about how many people are here—”that’s what happens if you feed people,” someone notes—and then we’re off, with the opening statement by William Young.
Okay, mystery of the apparently robust government staffer turnout solved: those aren’t actually staffers, they’re Library folk, and according to Young, a lot of them are recovering from, or still enduring, the flu. “We’re the walking wounded over here,” he notes. Hopefully not still contagious, though, right?
On to the meat and potatoes of main estimates—the money. Short version: the budget has gone up, but that’s because the Librarian (when I use a capital L, it means I’m referring to Young, since that’s his official title) has a bold plan for the future. I think it may include this interweb thing, but we’ll see.
Damn, I think I missed my window to grab something to eat. Hopefully it won’t affect my coverage if I pass out from lack of breakfasting.
According to the Librarian, they’re going to try to improve services to parliamentarians—I think I heard something about new research on the Afghanistan mission, and Arctic sovereignty, but my earpiece wasn’t working so I had to switch seats.
One of the priorities will be bringing the librarians back together—they’re housed in half a dozen buildings at the moment; Young wants to see “fewer roofs.”
One more thing—the anticipated copyright reform. Ooh! This might get good. The proposed legislation to amend the Copyright Act, which has been sitting on the Order Paper for months, has to include a provision to allow fair use for parliamentarians, and for all libraries. He wants the committee to think about how to get that exemption included in the bill; maybe by reporting back to the House, or talking to the Speaker, or—here’s a suggestion: Don’t just react with blind obedience to the inevitable juggernaut from lobbyists seeking even more draconian copyright laws. That was me, not the Librarian, but I bet he’d agree.
And now—questions! First up, Donald Oliver, a senator, who wants to know if the benefits for Library employers are “comparable” to other House staff, and Young assures him that they are.
Did I mention Cheryl Gallant is on the Library committee? That, unlike Hiebert’s presence here, does not surprise me.
Oh, Senator Oliver wants to know how the Librarian is ensuring staff diversity and employment equity, and will doubtless be relieved to hear that there is a framework under development. The last policy was put in place in 1986, so it’s past time to update it, as far as Young is concerned. Oliver wants exact numbers: women, the disabled, visible minorities and Aboriginal staffers. Young apologizes; he doesn’t have the exact details, but he’ll try to send them along.
Next up is Tommy Banks, who admits that he has a bias in favour of copyright holders—I guess that shouldn’t surprise me—and asks if it’s okay to talk to Young about the current regime. He gets the go-ahead, and proceeds to interrogate the witness: what do television shows, literary works, films and other creative products have to do with the work of Parliament? When he wants to watch a movie or read a book, he buys it.
I cannot believe this just turned into a debate over copyright law. This is just—cool, because it happens to be one of my more wonkarific obsessions.
The Librarian, meanwhile, explains mildly that there are more uses of CD-Roms than just movies, but remind the committee that he isn’t an expert on copyright law.
Banks then goes off on a new tangent; some publishers, he says, have deals with more than one parliamentary library, so how would that work?
The Librarian’s copyright expert saves the day by assuring the senator that we’re not talking about movies that someone just wants to see; it would have to be related to one’s work as a parliamentarian. This seems to relieve Banks for the moment, but it strikes me that this could be one heck of a sleeper issue.
Gerry Byrne, an MP, confesses that he was shocked to find out that there are ten buildings currently housing librarians; he notes that the budget has only gone up by one per cent, and wonders whether the Library really has sufficient resources to meet the demands of parliamentarians, voracious bottomless research sucking pits that they are.
The Librarian says that he did initially request additional funds—”We’re still playing catch-up on this one,” he acknowledges. They’ve been able to “scrape by” on internal reallocations, but he doesn’t know how much longer that will work, especially given the move towards more sophisticated use of information technology. There will be additional resource requirements both in the research department, and something called “parliamentary learning” that will provide members with a “holistic” educational experience.
He finally realizes what he was actually just asked: Do you have enough money? “No, we don’t,” he concludes, to the visible relief of his staff, who may have thought the boss was about to walk away from a free shot at getting more money.
In response to a question from Gurbax Malhi, Young describes the various outreach activities in which the Library engages—everything from bringing in school groups to working with teachers. His goal, he confesses, is to make the Library more than just a library, but a nexus for the community. Which seems a little ambitious, but good for him.
Hiebert has a few questions on staffing, and then wants to go back to copyright. Oh boy. He wonders if there is much turnover in employment, and Young tells the committee that they are facing a bit of a retirement crunch—but there is no general increase in turnover. “The same or lower than in the rest of the public service?” Hiebert asks. Yes, says Young. (Insert vigorous nodding from one of the Library folk sitting behind him.)
Hiebert also wants to know about international outreach, and Young is happy to tell him about all that; there are workshops, seminars, all sorts of good things. He’s also been very active with the interparliamentary association, and has been pushing for a joint meeting of parliamentary libraries from around the world, which has apparently now come to fruition.
And now, the copyright exemptions: Hiebert says he sees a lot of good arguments in favour of the exemption, but wonders if there’s a down side. “Well, from Senator Banks’ perspective,” the Librarian begins, amid good-natured laughter from the members—when was the last time the all-seeing ITQ eye saw good natured camaraderie on display at a committee?—and confesses that, from the Library’s point of view, there are no drawbacks. Hiebert wonders if doing so would comply with our international obligations, and Young points out that Australia just did the same thing, and had no problem.
Receiving timely information from government departments is becoming an issue, Young admits—and he brings one of his staffers up to the table to discuss the problem in more detail; apparently, there are some departments that respond promptly to researcher requests, but others just ignore them. Denise Savoie commiserates, and wonders why there is such a delay in obtaining that information, but unaccountably fails to ask which departments are the worst, as far as laggardly response rates.
Ken Dryden is here? Really? Huh. He wants to know how Canada stands up, relative to other countries, as far as the quality of our Library. Young admits that one can always do better, but notes that parliamentarians get “excellent” service. He’s always surprised by how very smart and hard-working his bright, young staffers are; really, this Library is “the gold standard”, but that doesn’t mean it can’t improve how it does things.
“We’ve probably been too reactive,” Young says—legislative summaries, for instance, which are wonderful (yes, they really are; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to that well to fake some sort of understanding of a bill)—but take a long time to put together. Maybe the Library should also look at providing a shorter, less detailed analysis that would be available as soon as legislation is introduced.
Canada is part of a group, he says, looking at the future of parliamentary research—it’s called Parliament 2020, and is global in scope. They’re looking at all those issues, most significantly, the advances in technology.
Gerard Asselin—a Bloc Quebecois MP I think—seems growly. He wonders how much the restoration of the Library of Parliament building cost: $120 million, according to Young (and worth every penny, according to ITQ) but he compares that to the typical annual budget for the Library itself, and questions the claim that it has only gone up by one percent.
The librarians look a little taken aback; Library finance officer Lise Chartrand notes that there have been other increases, particularly the amount paid to the House of Commons for services.
I cannot even tell you how delicious those sandwiches look.
I’m not sure what Asselin’s point is; even a separatist can’t be opposed to enhancing and improving the Library of Parliament, can he? Oh, wait. I guess so. He may be the only ideologically consistent member in the Bloc Québécois caucus. The librarians beside me are starting to grumble quietly as Asselin goes on a rant about the “moral issue” of spending millions on a library when there are people in his riding without jobs, and money needed for unemployment insurance, and—oh, please. It’s not an either-or.
And that would have been the very unfortunate note on which the meeting would have ended, but Bonnie Brown has one more question: what, she asks, does the Library want the committee to do, as far as the copyright question? Young answers the question carefully, and repeats his not-quite-suggestions: talk to caucus, or the Speaker; report back to the House. There are any number of ways of dealing with it.
Carolyn Bennett pops up, and she absolutely thinks the copyright issue is important—crucial, in fact—and wants a separate meeting to discuss the issue. The chair waves her off, but politely. It can be taken up in camera, he reminds her.
And with that, he ends the public portion of the meeting with a vote in favour of the estimates, as presented.