In a report tabled Tuesday, Michael Ferguson says Library and Archives doesn't even know what it already has due to a backlog of 98,000 boxes of records — almost one-quarter of them military files, some dating to 1890.
Poor finding aids for some of the material in its collection make it difficult to locate records — including documents on the Indian residential school system needed by the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In addition, the federal institution responsible for preserving Canada's collective memory has no corporate digital strategy or program in place to manage the coming tide of electronic documents from agencies, the audit report says.
Ferguson found Library and Archives spent over $15 million on a digital repository that was tested and approved but ultimately never used.
The Ottawa-based institution is supposed to collect and preserve government documents, photos, films, artworks and other materials of historical value and make them available for public use.
"Overall, we found that Library and Archives Canada was not acquiring all the archival records it should from federal institutions," the report says.
The acquisition of federal records is governed by directives issued to departments and agencies, but some are out of date because they do not account for the records of new programs or changes to existing ones.
Since 2009, Library and Archives Canada was able to update the directives for just 30 of 195 federal agencies, meaning it could not ensure it was acquiring all retired records of archival value. As a result many records were stuck in limbo, awaiting Library and Archives' decision as to whether they should be saved or destroyed.
Some of the 98,000 boxes of records in the backlog have been there for several decades. The auditor found the backlog had grown over the years and there was no approved plan to eliminate it despite allocation of $600,000 this year to tackle part of the problem.
Researchers for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission told the auditors the uneven quality of archival finding aids meant missing descriptions of box contents, as well as inaccurate or incomplete listings.
Library and Archives says digital records will represent the "format of choice" by 2017. However, there was no overall corporate strategy for the preservation of digital data, the report says.
The institution spent $15.4 million developing a trusted digital repository for records, but due to a change in approach it was never used.
New Democrat MP Malcolm Allen characterized the move as "total mismanagement."
"In a government department you don't just simply end a program without some sort of rationale as to why you ended it, and what happened to the money," he said. "Otherwise the money's just gone into a dark hole."
Library and Archives agreed with the auditor's various recommendations and responded with plans to address the shortcomings.
The institution says it now plans to clear up the backlog of unopened boxes by the end of next year.
The goal "sounds very aggressive," Ferguson said at a news conference.
"At least if they can make a good dent in it, that will be significant progress."
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