Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is cutting an on-site World War I workshop intended for high school history classes, and took some heat in the Globe and Mail for the decision (the article, "First World War workshops soon to be history" [Feb. 25, 2010] is behind a pay wall).
The workshops offered Ottawa-area students the opportunity to handle World War I era letters from soldiers and learn about the soldiers' experiences from LAC archivists who had expert knowledge of the material.
The article paints Canada's national archives as near-sighted for replacing face-time between students and expert archivists with online PDFs and lesson plans for teachers.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and Canadians should be applauding the decision. In the face of a huge Canadian deficit this year, it is important for cultural institutions to justify their spending and look for more efficient ways to offer Canadians their services. LAC has achieved this by placing the learning resources online, making them available to far more students, and reassigning the staff who offered the workshops to other tasks.
Critics argue that it's not the same for students to read online PDFs as it is to hold the actual letters written by soldiers, and that the expertise of the archivists adds to the learning experience. I certainly cannot argue that these cuts are not a loss for Ottawa-area students and teachers. But, claims made in the article that teachers - who are not WWI experts - cannot teach the content or that students will be unable to make the connection between the short-hand, “GSW” and “gunshot wound” are overly apocalyptic.
Our educational curriculums are designed to teach our students skills that are realistic and are based on their maturity and prior education. To suggest that Canadian high school teachers are unable to teach those skills without the help of an archivist is a disservice to the countless excellent teachers out there - many of whom have no option but to create their own lesson plans.
If a teacher is concerned that the students will not have the same experience with a PDF as they would with the actual letters, I invite them to use some creativity: print off the letters and Google “how to make paper look old.” All you need is some coffee and a little bit of planning. Not sure what a “GSW” is? Read the tool kit that accompanies the project, or email an archivist for clarification.
This shift from on-site to on-line content will create a program that students and teachers from Vancouver to St. John's to Yellowknife can use in their classrooms. Unlike smaller countries like Italy or Germany, Canadians are not connected via high-speed rail lines or short bus trips. Even if financial restraints were not a concern, it would be environmentally irresponsible to fly all Canadian students to Ottawa to participate in these workshops. Paying to set up workshops across the country is equally unrealistic.
Instead, to keep our education system competitive, we have to ensure our virtual connections can bridge the vast distances our geography demands and offer all students access to important educational resources.
The solution is not to offer more local programming, but more national programming that is created once and remains useful for many years. Instead of asking Canadians to continue to pay for each workshop, LAC has decided to ask Canadians to pay once more for archivists to scan and upload the documents and make them available for years to come at no further financial burden.
The change may not be the best for everyone, but it's better for most Canadians. Face- time is great, but we must also be prudent and accountable to all Canadians for the money we put into services accessible to only a few. For that, I applaud LAC for their forward thinking as we continue to make our educational system more sustainable, from coast to coast.
Photo Credit: "Takin' it to the BANK$Y" by John.