What's Driving Chaotic Dismantling of Canada's Science Libraries?

Scientists reject Harper gov't claims vital material is being saved digitally.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 23 Dec 2013 |

Calgary resident Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous articles published in The Tyee here.

Scientists say the closure of some of the world's finest fishery, ocean and environmental libraries by the Harper government has been so chaotic that irreplaceable collections of intellectual capital built by Canadian taxpayers for future generations has been lost forever.

Many collections such as the Maurice Lamontagne Institute Library in Mont-Joli, Quebec ended up in dumpsters while others such as Winnipeg's historic Freshwater Institute library were scavenged by citizens, scientists and local environmental consultants. Others were burned or went to landfills, say scientists.

Furthermore, the government is falsely claiming that vital content is being retained by extensively digitizing material from nine regional libraries that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) whittled down to two.

"The Department has claimed that all useful information from the closed libraries is available in digital form. This is simply not true. Much of the material is lost forever," reports one DFO scientist who requested not to be named.

That picture of a taxpayer-funded treasure trove of information laid waste emerges from interviews by The Tyee with half a dozen prominent scientists, many of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear that their funding or other government support could be hurt if their names were connected with the concerns they were eager to share.

Some of the research scientists interviewed questioned the legality of what they saw happening, accusing the Harper government of "libricide."

Not only has the Canadian public lost critical environmental and cultural baseline data more than 100 years old, but scientists have lost the symbolic heart of their research operations.

A DFO scientist told The Tyee, "The cuts were carried out in great haste apparently in order to meet some unknown agenda. No records have been provided with regard to what material has been dumped or the value of this public property. No formal attempt was made to transfer material to libraries of existing academic institutions." (See sidebar.)

One scientist after another struggled to make sense of the shuttering of libraries devoted to water and fish in a nation that guards the world's largest coastline and roughly 18 per cent of the world's surface freshwater. Most saw in the actions a political agenda by the Harper government to reduce the role of government in Canadian society, as well as the use of scientific evidence in making policy.

According to an analysis by Bill Curry published by the Globe and Mail, the Harper government will reduce the size of the Canadian government to its smallest level in 50 years by 2015.

Closing libraries, stopping research

As reported by The Tyee earlier this month, key libraries dismantled by the government included the famous Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg; the historic St. Andrews Biological Station (SABS) in St. Andrews, New Brunswick (Rachel Carson, the celebrated environmental scientist, corresponded with researchers there for her book, Silent Spring) and one of the world's finest ocean collections at Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John's, Newfoundland.

At the same time the government has killed research groups that depended on those libraries such as the Experimental Lakes Area, the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission and the DFO's entire contaminants research program. The Freshwater Institute as well as the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research (COOGER) has lost much of their funding and staff, too.

Ken Lee, a world authority on oil spills and COOGER's former director, saw the writing on the wall and took a prestigious job in Australia.

In a private email originally sent to a colleague and then shared with The Tyee, one scientist compared the dismemberment of the Freshwater Institute library last week to a rummage sale: "I did manage to salvage a few bits and pieces, one of which was a three volume print version of the data that went into the now extinct DFO toxins database."

The scientist suggested "that interested individuals should drop-in and loot [the] library before the bonfires begin."

Kelly Whelan-Enns, head of media and policy research for Manitoba Wildlands, spent two days at the library trying to salvage maps from the 1900s and wildlife data from the 1920s.

"I saw a private consultant firm working for Manitoba Hydro back up a truck and fill it with Manitoba data and materials that the public had paid for. I was profoundly saddened and appalled."

"It's obvious that this government cares little for public discourse."

The scene at the Freshwater Institute's library shocked another scientist with 30 years of experience in the federal government.

"Hundreds of bound journals, technical reports and texts still on the shelves, presumably meant for the garbage or shredding. I saw one famous monograph on zooplankton, which would probably fetch a pretty penny at a used science bookstore... anybody could go in and help themselves, with no record kept of who got what."


Although some books have been transferred to libraries in Sidney, B.C., and Halifax, Nova Scotia, the dismemberment of priceless library collections has stunned freshwater and marine scientists and ordinary citizens.

"The fact that many materials were thrown away or given away is heartbreaking to those of us who are dedicated to this field of research [marine science and fisheries] and the history of science in Canada," says Peter Wells, a prominent marine environmental scientist at Dalhousie University.

Wells, who is also an aquatic toxicologist, spent a career working as a public servant for Environment Canada (1974-2006) on a variety of environmental issues.

"That we as a society are condoning information destruction and core library closures in Canada is unbelievable, and in my view, undemocratic and probably criminal... that would be an interesting aspect to investigate," adds the scientist.

"Through a misguided policy purportedly driven by the desire for cost savings in the public service, and I believe this was only one reason for this action, we have trashed a network of world-class marine and fisheries libraries, the envy around the world. The rest of the world cannot believe what is happening in Canada on this issue."

Concludes Wells: "If I were still working for the government, I probably would be fired for being concerned and outspoken about the future of aquatic science in Canada and the impact of current federal policies."

According to an infographic made by Environment Canada (another agency that has witnessed severe science cuts) "about 14 per cent of Canada" is covered by lakes, rivers, wetlands, marshes and the marine waters of estuaries.

Moreover "these fragile freshwater habitats, vital to the ecology and the Canadian economy, are under severe threat by drainage, land reclamation, pollution, overuse and development."

Scientists blast claim material adequately digitized

A DFO website claims that the library closures and consolidation of nine regional facilities into just two central libraries somehow "allows for easier search and access to clients no matter their location."

The site also defends the closures by claiming that few citizens ever used the libraries anyway, and that most material will be digitized.

An agency spokesperson did not answer a series of questions posed by The Tyee. Instead David Walters referred The Tyee to a government propaganda site.

Six scientists contacted by The Tyee all refuted various claims on the website.

They argue that DFO statistics show that only one out of 20 books in the department's 600,000 plus collection have been digitized. Moreover records on library usage were overtly biased and based on who asked for help, said Burton Ayles, a retired director general for DFO who lives in Winnipeg and has used the Freshwater Institute library frequently.

"Most people that come in to the library don't have to request help. They just use the material. Just look at any regular library."

Ayles had no doubt that the closures will severely restrict public and scientific access permanently.

"Previously one could walk in, scan the shelf of such material, select one publication and see if it is relevant to one's needs. Now you have to get an inter-library loan to even look at material that may be stored away in some vault."

'Losing libraries not a neutral act': scientist Hutchings

The Freshwater Institute library held collections dating back 100 years, on the quality and state of freshwater systems in central Canada, the Great Lakes and the Arctic.

Acclaimed Dalhousie University biologist Jeff Hutchings, who recently chaired the Royal Society of Canada's Expert Panel on the future of marine biodiversity, calls the closures scientifically disastrous and an assault on civil society.

"It is always unnerving from a research and scientist perspective to watch a government undermine basic research. There are many materials online but just as many books and materials that are not. The idea that you can send an email to Ottawa and get a book somewhere down the road is a myth. The idea that all requests will be honored also won't happen."

"From a science and research perspective these closures will have no positive impact on the quality of research but they will have a negative impact. Losing libraries is not a neutral act."

He notes that the closures have also demoralized researchers. "This is a department that has suffered cutbacks and been stripped of its responsibilities. For scientists, technicians and biologists, for people who have gone to university, the library symbolically represents knowledge and wisdom. It's key to research. Taking it out of a building is not easy."

'It must be about ideology': Hutchings

Hutchings said none of the closures has anything to do with saving money, due to the small cost of maintaining the collections. He, like many scientists, concludes that Harper's political convictions are driving the unprecedented consolidation.

"It must be about ideology. Nothing else fits," said Hutchings. "What that ideology is, is not clear. Does it reflect that part of the Harper government that doesn't think government should be involved in the very things that affect our lives? Or is it that the role of government is not to collect books or fund science? Or is it the idea that a good government is stripped down government? "

Hutchings saw the library closures fitting a larger pattern of "fear and insecurity" within the Harper government, "about how to deal with science and knowledge."

That pattern includes the gutting of the Fisheries Act, the muzzling of scientists, the abandonment of climate change research and the dismantling of countless research programs, including the world famous Experimental Lakes Area. All these examples indicate that the Harper government strongly regards environmental science as a threat to unfettered resource exploitation.

"There is a group of people who don't know how to deal with science and evidence. They see it as a problem and the best way to deal with it is to cut it off at the knees and make it ineffective," explained Hutchings.

"The other worrying thing is that no one seems to care a great deal about it. There is minimal political cost for doing these things just as there is no political cost to making bad decisions about ocean management."

Many scientists, including Hutchings and world famous water ecologist David Schindler, compared the government's concerted attacks on environmental science to the rise of fascism and the total alignment of state and corporate interests in 1930s Europe.

"You look at the rise of certain political parties in the 1930s," noted Hutchings, "and have to ask how could that happen and how did they adopt such extreme ideologies so quickly, and how could that happen in a democracy today?"

A recent Sunday editorial in the New York Times condemned the suppression and monitoring of environmental science in Canada by the Harper government:

"This is more than an attack on academic freedom. It is an attempt to guarantee public ignorance," said the editorial.

"It is also designed to make sure that nothing gets in the way of the northern resource rush -- the feverish effort to mine the earth and the ocean with little regard for environmental consequences."  [Tyee]

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