Contempt for values: The controversy over Library and Archives Canada’s Code of Conduct

Early this March, on a Friday—Friday the 13th, as it happened—a journalist named Margaret Munro uploaded a 23-page PDF to the document-sharing website The file detailed certain new policies at a beleaguered federal institution. It was accompanied by a brief article in the National Post which attempted to explain the document’s significance—a few talking heads were interviewed, some token analysis was provided—and that looked to be about the end of the story. It seemed to be standard fare for a slow Friday in the newsroom, something which would be of interest to serious policy wonks and not much to anyone else.

The document in question was the new Code of Conduct issued by Library and Archives Canada (LAC), the federal institution tasked with preserving and making available Canada’s documentary heritage and the official records of its government for present and future generations. In spite of this seemingly profound mandate, the ongoing difficulties faced by the organization in recent years—such as savage budget cuts and an increasingly de-skilled management culture—had so far generated comparatively little press coverage or public attention outside the professional circles of those most directly affected. There was little reason to believe a leaked code of ethics, however controversial, would prove any different.

But then a curious thing happened.

People all over Canada started talking about the Code. Social media and professional listservs exploded with commentary. Follow-up articles appeared in dozens of newspapers and blogs. By the end of the following week, the issue had featured on CBC’s Early Edition, As it Happens, and Jian Ghomeshi’s Q. It had become the biggest piece of library-related news in recent memory.Why?

A code like no other

The Code of Conduct issue bridged the gap between professional anguish and public sentiment. Here at last was a direct piece of evidence, straight from LAC’s management, which could encapsulate for all readers—for all citizens—how badly things at the institution had gone awry. Concerns over the document tended to center around a few broad issues.

‘High risk’ activities

In a lengthy section discussing “conflicts of interest,” the Code prohibits employees from participating in libraryor archives-related professional conferences, teaching engagements, or other unspecified “personal activities” (presumably including publishing in academic and professional journals). The document describes all such avenues of scholarly expression as a “high risk” to LAC—an institution whose legal mandate is “to facilitate in Canada co-operation among communities involved in the acquisition, preservation and diffusion of knowledge.” LAC officials have since attempted to back away from this, but the Code itself is quite unambiguous—“personal activities” such as teaching are universally subject to approval, and approval can only be sought for activities which meet all of the following criteria:

  • The subject matter of the activity is not related to the mandate or activities of LAC;
  • The employee is not presented as speaking for or being an expert of LAC or the Government of Canada;
  • The third party is not a potential or current supplier to/collaborator with LAC;
  • The third party does not lobby or advocate with LAC;
  • The third party does not receive grants, contributions or other types of funding or payments from LAC;and
  • The employee has discussed it with his or her manager, who has documented confirmation that the activity does not conflict with the employee’s duties at LAC or present other risks to LAC.

Preventing LAC employees from engaging in professional discourse does a profound disservice to scholarship in fields relating to technology, history, libraries, and archives. It discourages many of the nation’s foremost heritage experts from discussing their life’s work with the wider world and restricts their access to innovations being developed and shared by their colleagues outside LAC—innovations LAC sorely needs to meet its mandate in a future characterized by rapidly changing technology.

The implications of the Code extend far beyond employees’ professional lives, however—they constitute an affront to these individuals’ freedom of thought and expression, even at home. An illiberal interpretation of these provisions could be used to intimidate employees, prevent them from participating in conferences and teaching engagements, and discourage them from holding office—or even voting—in unions or professional organizations.

Conflicts of interest—real and imagined

This is not to say that there are no conflicts of interest that the management of Library and Archives Canada should be concerned about. One such is the conflict between LAC’s Code of Conduct with the underlying professional ethics of its employees. As information professionals, librarians and archivists are already governed by well-established professional codes of ethics and principles, developed over centuries of service to the public. One such principle, from our own Canadian Library Association, is this:

It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable.

It is difficult to see how highly educated and experienced librarians, archivists, and information technology experts could reconcile these core professional values with the spirit and letter of the LAC Code. We don’t, for example, expect that accountants will cook the books because they happen to be employed by an institution which might prefer that they do so! Many commentators see these moves to undermine employees’ professional ethics and identities as part of a broader attempt on the part of LAC to deprofessionalize and de-skill its workforce.

Duty of loyalty

Much was also made of the document’s lengthy insistence that employees have a “duty of loyalty” to the Government of Canada. One passage reads:

As public servants, our duty of loyalty to the Government of Canada and its elected officials extends beyond our workplace to our personal activities. Public servants must therefore use caution when making public comments, expressing personal opinions or taking actions that could potentially damage LAC’s reputation…they must maintain awareness of their surroundings, their audience and how their words or actions could be interpreted (or misinterpreted).

While the concept of a duty of loyalty is not new, having been extensively debated in both government literature and the courts, the emphasis on its extension to non-elected officials (such as LAC’s managers) and to employees’ private lives—and private thoughts—is deeply troubling.

Sweeping scope

The true danger of the Code, however, lies not in any individual clause but rather in its purpose and articulation as a whole. The language of this Code could be taken to imply that the most basic liberties—participating in politics, joining professional organizations, or even discussing one’s work with family at home—are subject to the scrutiny and approval of managers. It even implies, as we have seen, that the “duty of loyalty” protecting elected officials from public criticism by civil servants extends to LAC’s non-elected management!

Sections pertaining to “personal activities,” in particular, display a disregard bordering on contempt for employees’ civil liberties. In one passage employees are warned that their private lives and conversations “could become a work-related matter” if they criticize the organization or its management in any fashion. A passage on “wrongdoing” even goes so far as to encourage employees who suspect colleagues of breaching the Code to report on their activities “in a confidential manner and without fear of reprisal” to an individual called the “Senior Officer for Internal Disclosure.” Elsewhere, a definition of “conflict of interest” says that “perceived” wrongdoing is every bit as severe and punishable as actual, demonstrable misbehaviour— and the resolution of all such conflicts is apparently invested in a so-called “COI Administrator.” What does this all amount to? Ultimately, it means that should you find yourself accused or even suspected of contravening any provision of the Code, you may be subject to real disciplinary action including termination. This could be motivated by something as simple as a personality conflict with a fellow employee—or a manager feeling that your choice of friends outside of work somehow casts aspersions on the Conservative Party of Canada.

We can all recogMyronGroovernize the need for public bodies to balance their duties and functions as government representatives with their employees’ right to freedom of expression, but in this case the balance is drastically skewed—taken as a whole, the document represents a stark warning to employees: “Watch out. Critical thinking is not welcome here. Leave your values at the door—anything you say, do, or think might just come back to haunt you.”

An institution in crisis

In spite of intense recent media coverage of LAC’s difficulties, the institution’s travails are nothing new to the nation’s librarians, archivists, information technologists, and historians. LAC had been widely criticized in academic and professional circles for increasingly worrisome decisions undertaken since 2009 by new managers who have at times seemed to lack any practical understanding or professional experience of how to run such an institution. The Librarian and Archivist of Canada had been replaced by a career bureaucrat—neither a librarian nor archivist—whose public speaking engagements have provoked vigourous debate as to his understanding of basic principles underpinning technology and information management.

The institution was asked to implement savage budget cuts and has fired a fifth of its workforce. It has cancelled a number of universally admired programs—interlibrary loan, the National Archival Development Program—while spending tens of thousands of dollars on renovating offices reserved for the exclusive use of senior management. Reference and research support services have been slashed, and a new website for the organization appeared to provide less access to LAC’s holdings than ever before. Community groups have also been turned out of the building, and the once-lively exhibition spaces on the first floor are now dark. Even the signs bearing the organization’s name have been removed from the front of its Wellington Street headquarters.

All these decisions were justified in the context of a “modernization” strategy which was ostensibly geared towards increased online service delivery at the expense of in-person service. Serious questions have since been raised about LAC’s ability and even its competence to implement this increased digital focus. Recently, LAC management have taken to the editorial pages of newspapers, and even to paid marketing services, in order to advertise—or defend—their increasingly embattled vision for the institution’s future.

Embarrassment over the Code of Conduct, meanwhile, has seen even Heritage Minister James Moore publicly disavow LAC’s current management on the floor of the House of Commons, where he insisted that neither he nor his staff have anything to do with the ongoing changes at the organization. The credibility of this disavowal is up for debate, as it comes from a government that has made a name for itself through heavy-handed and direct control of policy and narrative across the federal public service. However, the effects of negative press coverage like that surrounding the Code of Conduct continue to be felt—most recently, Heritage Critic Pierre Nantel has formally requested that the Information Commissioner of Canada broaden an investigation into the muzzling of government scientists to include LAC.

The bigger picture

In spite of the controversy, the changes at LAC continue unabated. This is a cause for ongoing concern not only for Canada’s information professionals and the communities they support—academics, policy analysts, teachers, and students of all kinds—but to the citizenry as a whole. How well are we served as a people by a national library that treats its foundational values with such contempt? What are we to make of a repository that speaks loudly about providing access to its holdings while quietly muzzling its employees and shutting its doors to the world?

There are no easy answers, but the insights provided by LAC’s Code of Conduct might help us at least to start asking the right questions.

Myron Groover is a Vice President of the British Columbia Library Association and chairs its Information Policy Committee.