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Nation's Library Advocate Raises Questions about Federal 'Culling'

Canadian Library Association disturbed by closures, wants proof digitizing is happening.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 13 Jan 2014 |

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.

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Part of the collection of Maurice Lamontagne Institute library ended up in a dumpster in July 2013.

The Canadian Library Association (CLA), a voice for the nation's 3,000 public libraries, will soon issue a policy statement on its growing concerns about the dismantling of over a dozen federal libraries, including seven world class facilities operated by the Department of Fishery and Oceans (DFO).

"Our greatest concern is whether there was consultation with the communities these libraries served as well as the impact on service and access to content," said Marie DeYoung, president of the CLA and a librarian at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.

The closed libraries were all part of critical public infrastructure needed to defend, monitor and protect the longest coastline in the world as well as Canada's remarkable freshwater heritage.

"We are also concerned about insuring that the content, wherever it is digitized, is made available to the public and done in a timely fashion," added DeYoung. After further consultation with CLA membership, the non-profit group will soon release a formal position statement on what government secret memos refer to as a "culling."

The apparently haphazard consolidation of seven of DFO's libraries into two remaining centres has sparked outrage among scientists who have described the cullings as a national tragedy as well as "information destruction unworthy of a democracy."

The closed libraries include the world famous Eric Marshall Aquatic Research Library at the University of Manitoba, the newly renovated library at St. Andrew's Biological Station in New Brunswick and the French language freshwater science library serving the Maurice Lamontagne Institute in Quebec.

The shuttering of these libraries, and in many cases the marine research stations they served, is part of an effort by the Harper government that is dramatically reducing the role of federal libraries and archives in public life.

Last year the government eliminated 250 positions and cut a third of the archivists at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). It also reduced LAC's digitization and circulation staff by half.

James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), said at the time that the cuts will "undermine the capacity of Library and Archives Canada to fulfill its legislated mandate to acquire, preserve and make accessible Canada's history."

But federal libraries have been targeted across the board as part of a government deficit reduction plan. Parks Canada is shrinking five libraries into one, Natural Resources will close six of its 14 libraries (many contain some of the world's finest forestry collections) and the Canada Revenue Agency has merged nine libraries into one.

Closures made 'in great haste'

Meanwhile the government has also permanently closed the National Capital Commission Library, the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy library, the Public Service Commission library, the Canadian Cultural Centre library in Paris and the Transport Canada library.

Even the library of Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), the agency investigating a string of rail incidents caused by extreme hydrocarbons, is slanted for downsizing or "culling."

According to one DFO scientist, "The decision to cut the libraries was made by executives within DFO rather than imposed by higher levels of government. It was done without any prior consultation with the DFO research community and researchers have been kept largely in the dark throughout the process. There has been very little information provided to DFO science staff or the public throughout the process."

In a memo to The Tyee, the DFO insider also explained that "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."

Scientists fear that much valuable material, which taxpayers spent millions building over several decades, has been jettisoned into dumpsters or simply given away to the DFO employees, corporations or the public.

Skepticism about digitizing promises

They also refute government claims that key material will be digitized. Moreover, an unknown amount of material at two remaining libraries in Sidney, B.C., and Dartmouth,* Nova Scotia, has been culled to make room for some saved material from the seven closed libraries.

"The collections across the country were reduced haphazardly, without a clear plan and time to implement it," Peter Wells, a highly respected marine scientist at Dalhousie University and former Environment Canada researcher told The Tyee.

"I do not blame the working remaining librarians for this impossible situation, as they were simply following orders from "above." The fact remains -- irreplaceable collections critical to the functioning of the research institutes were purposively reduced and/or destroyed."

Scientists are most concerned about the loss of so-called "grey literature," any typed or printed research and technical reports meant for limited audiences outside of commercial publishing channels.

"Canadians who have financed the creation of these resources have a legitimate right to know what happened to these collections and what the decision process was for their disposal," said DeYoung.

"We are concerned about the speed with which this has happened," added DeYoung. In addition the CLA has many questions about lack of transparency surrounding the cullings and consolidation:

"How were the decisions made on culling the collections?" asked DeYoung.

"What is the strategy for providing access to the material?

"And if digitization is part of that strategy will the appropriate information professionals be involved and will there be a commitment to finance it and in an efficient and timely manner?"

To date the government has provided incomplete or unsubstantiated answers to these questions, particularly on the matter of digitization.

Plea for transparency

DeYoung notes that the government also promised to digitize the Library and Archives Canada collections after it made massive cuts.

"But there is nothing in that example that shows a clear strategy with a timeline and commitment of resources to achieve that."

Very little about the unprecedented culling and consolidation of federal libraries along with claims about digitization remains transparent, concluded DeYoung.

"None of this is clear. That's what information professionals do well. It is not apparent information professionals have been involved in the process."

The federal government says that the closure of seven DFO libraries will save taxpayers under half a million dollars a year.

But U.S. research suggests that a healthy regional network of science libraries contributed to productivity and actually saved taxpayers money.

*Correction, Jan. 13 at 10:05 p.m.: A previous version of this story stated that the second remaining library was located in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It is located in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.  [Tyee]

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