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Elizabeth May Questions Legality of Science Library Cullings

'Original materials will be preserved,' counters Tory minister in Parliament spat.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 27 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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Green leader Elizabeth May: "Will the PM commit to immediately investigating whether these acts in closing libraries and casting the materials to the winds, to dumpsters and to looters, are legal and restore and protect the documentary heritage of Canadians?" Photo: Green Party of Canada.

The controversial culling of seven federal science libraries operated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans sparked a brief debate in Parliament on Monday.

Elizabeth May, Green Party leader and MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, accused the Harper government of culling and closing the libraries illegally.

"Under the Library and Archives of Canada Act, these materials are protected as the documentary heritage of Canadians," argued May.

"Surplus materials are to be placed in the care and control of the library, and archivists and materials and records cannot be destroyed without written consent. I have spoken to the current Library and Archivist of Canada, and it appears to me the Act was not followed."

"Will the Prime Minister commit to immediately investigating whether these acts in closing libraries and casting the materials to the winds, to dumpsters and to looters, are legal and restore and protect the documentary heritage of Canadians?" May asked.

Gary Goodyear, minister of state and the nation's former science minister, answered that "nothing of the sort could be any further from the truth."

"Original materials will be preserved," he said. "Duplicate materials that nobody wants will be disposed of in the usual manner. Information which was available in the libraries continues to remain available in the digital world -- welcome to this century. I will say that this allows more people to access that information and at less cost to the taxpayers. That is the truth."

May characterized the response as "lame and insulting." 

'Digitization is not preservation': scientists

To date, the federal government has failed to provide evidence that so-called "grey literature" -- thousands of small independent reports and documents with no commercial affiliations -- were saved or digitized. The digitization budget for Library and Archives Canada has been cut by 50 per cent.

Moreover, scientists and librarians allege the government is not telling the truth about digitization, a costly and problematic process that often erodes the reliability and durability of data and documents. Archivists argue that "digitization is not preservation."

Scientists also charge that government did not consult with federal researchers about the culling of the libraries, which once held some of the world's finest collections on oceans, freshwater and fisheries.

The libraries were closed so haphazardly that books on loan weren't retrieved, scientists say. DFO's 11 regional libraries have now been consolidated into two libraries and two storage facilities. 

Scientists say the closures reflect the Harper's government's ideological agenda, which favours minimal government and distrusts environmental science.

Drop in library usage

To date, the government has failed to produce any reports showing potential cost savings or improved access to information through digitization. Studies suggest the opposite has happened.

A recent report on the closure of Health Canada's main library (one of nearly two dozen federal libraries closed) found a dramatic drop in interlibrary loans and usage: "because the information has become inaccessible -- either it cannot arrive in due time, or it is unaffordable due to the fee structure in place."

Goodyear, a Harper loyalist, was the minister that oversaw the dismantling of the world renowned Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) to save $2 million a year. He justified the closure, an act that outraged scientists around the world, by arguing that proper freshwater research should be done in labs and not in whole lakes.

That view prompted a blunt response from Jules Blais, president of the Society of Canadian Limnologists and a mercury researcher:

"This issue has been scrutinized at length in the scientific literature over the past 40 years, and it is clearly established that such small-scale experiments are inadequate to address issues related to ecosystem services, food web structure, land-water interactions, air-water interactions, shoreline communities, and migratory species, all of which are essential to natural ecosystem function."

Lab studies often miss the big picture, added Blais: "For example, the collapse of the food web supporting lake trout during acid rain simulations at ELA would never have been observed in small-scale enclosure experiments, and were not anticipated by laboratory experiments."

The 200,000-strong collection that served federal research scientists working at the ELA (the Freshwater Institute Library at the University of Manitoba) has now been dismantled.

Private consultants took away truckloads of material, while other parts of the collection ended in dumpsters. Less than one-quarter of the collection appears to have been saved.  [Tyee]

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