Internet Archive Canada’s Scribe—the setup used for scanning. Photo by Becky Simmons.
Last week, while the rest of Toronto was focused on Pride, a free Arkells concert, and the Hot Docs acquisition of Bloor Cinema, the Internet Archive Canada was laying off 75 per cent of its employees. On Wednesday July 6, all employees participated in an organization-wide conference call where they were told that due to drastic funding cuts, the layoffs were unavoidable. On Thursday, the company sent out the list of affected staff: out of the 47 employees working, 33 will be laid off effective August 12.
While the layoff is huge, it isn’t entirely unprecedented in the current economic climate. What makes the IAC cutbacks unique is the dedication of the departing employees, several of whom independently reached out to Torontoist with a similar message: losing their job was sad, but the prospect of the IAC stopping production is devastating.
The Internet Archive Canada is a wing of the larger, San Francisco–based non-profit established in 1996 that is working on building an open source, completely unrestricted internet library. Currently the Internet Archive has over 150 employees in six countries worldwide: the United States, Canada, Guatemala, China, England, and Scotland. The Toronto office opened in 2004 and has rapidly expanded since then.
The Elements of Euclid, digitized by the Internet Archive Canada. Available to anyone, anywhere, for free.
Kate Farnworth, an IAC employee who has been with the project for over three years and is one of those laid off, explains that the IAC is an “open source digital library so that people can access information wherever they are… Free access to information is a wonderful thing to work towards.” In discussing the Toronto downsizing, Brewster Kahle, founder of the project, argues that, “At the end of the day [employees] are building a library for the Wikipedia generation and to that generation—if its not online it’s as if it doesn’t exist. The real value is the loving care in terms of building the collections of books that are now being put online.”
While the IAC has begun to include the digitization of audio and video, it still primarily focuses on digitizing written material. For copyright reasons, the organization works mostly with books written prior to 1922. Employees check each book for quality and suitability for scanning. Then, for two shifts a day, scanners manually copy each page of the book, uploading them and ultimately making them freely available across the internet.
Becky Simmons, who began working at the IAC in 2007, clarifies that it’s not the work itself that is enjoyable—indeed, she says that the act of scanning, flipping a page and scanning is often boring and monotonous. The major job requirements are “tolerance for repetitive motion and a good eye for detail.” Despite the tedium, the employees at the project love working there. Patrick Stitt, an employee who has been with the IAC for over three years, sees the people who work there as “craftsmen and women, mining books with our hands and cameras, shaping that information into artifacts that would long outlive us.” He remembers scanning a Bloor bus transfer from 50 years ago and medical prescription pads from the 1930s. By digitizing historical works, the books themselves can be browsed without being subject to physical handling and ruin. The IAC employees we spoke with believe that they are preserving and helping to disseminate pieces of Canada’s history.
Julian Freeman scanning a book at the IAC. Julian is one of the 14 employees at the IAC who will remain after August 12. Photo by Becky Simmons.
Internet Archive Canada currently scans about two million pages per month, putting approximately 4,000 books online monthly for free access. Most recently, the universities of Toronto, Ottawa, and Alberta have served as the primary funders of the Canadian project; one of their previous major funding sources was Microsoft. The funders are the ones who decide what books are digitized. Often the books come in waves of different subjects—a stack of medical texts one week, philosophy treatises the next—and range from mint condition to well-loved. In discussing some of her favourite parts of the project, Farnworth told us, “I really like the books where you can see that someone has handled it and they have written their own notes in the margins. It gives you a whole other context for the books.”
Funding uncertainty has forced the Canadian project to reduce its monthly budget by about 75 per cent (from over $100,000 to around $30,000). Prior to the layoffs, the organization had 27 scanners—people who manually copy each page of a book; the new budget allows for 11 scanners to remain. Following the layoffs, the night shift will be canceled, and the expected output will be 250 books uploaded per month.
Despite planning for the future, IAC staff continue to be optimistic that news coverage of the downsizing might bring an influx of project funders. The soon to be ex-employees are contacting the media in hopes that people will learn about the project and fight for its survival. “We have dodged bullets before when funding was short but this is serious,” Kahle said, “It is a sad day for us at the Internet Archive.”
This post originally misspelled the name of IAC employee Patrick Stitt. We regret the error.