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Federal Politics

Key DFO Library Closure Questions Go Unanswered: Scientists

Feds insist necessary research was 'retained,' but don't mention digitization.

Andrew Nikiforuk 12 Feb

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 stories here.

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

A federal government reply to a New Democratic query about the closure of seven famed libraries operated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) leaves many questions unanswered, scientists say.

In response to a letter from NDP MPs Kennedy Stewart and Robert Chisholm expressing concern about the closures, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea explained that the decision to close the libraries champions modernization, as "more Canadians turn to electronic sources of information, and in-person visits are no longer the main way that people use libraries."

The response makes no mention of digitization, which the government once claimed was part of its modernization package.

The minister's reply "shows a complete ignorance of the role of science libraries, the importance of physical collections, the huge value of regional collections and archival materials, and the role of professional information specialists in research labs," says Dalhousie marine researcher Peter Wells, who worked for Environment Canada for 34 years.

Although open to the public, the libraries were primarily designed to serve federal research institutes and their staff.

"DFO management simply does not understand or worse, pretends not to understand, the role of libraries in their own system. This is quite shocking and completely unacceptable," says Wells.

Burton Ayles, a former director general of the department and retired aquatic scientist, adds that the modernization claim makes no sense because most of the materials in the science libraries had not been digitized, and the materials were not available to researchers except through interlibrary loans.

Closing seven regional libraries and consolidating the remaining materials into two facilities -- one in Sidney, B.C. and one in Dartmouth, N.S. -- will not improve access, says Ayles. Consolidation will make it harder and more expensive for researchers to retrieve materials through interlibrary loan, explains the scientist.

Ayles, a retired biologist, lives in Winnipeg and witnessed the chaotic closure of DFO's Eric Marshall Aquatic Research Library at the University of Manitoba.

"This is an extremely inefficient process... How can reviewers of developments affecting freshwater in the prairies, the north or Ontario access material?" asks Ayles. "Only through mail service from Victoria [near the Sidney library] -- and we know what is happening to that."

DFO 'retained' necessary research: minister

Minister Shea's reply states that DFO "identified and retained the research materials required to support its mandate" before the closures. Nearly one-third of the 660,000-title collection was culled.

It also states the department isn't clear on where all the culled books went. "It is unknown how many withdrawn materials were distributed via the processes described above and how many were ultimately recycled." Those "processes" include culling, giveaways and distribution to other libraries.

In many instances, DFO didn't bother to call book lenders to return their materials, say scientists.

Scientists also claim they had no say in what was saved or discarded. As far as The Tyee can establish, researchers using the libraries were not consulted about the culling process or the fate of the collections.

In their Jan. 13 query to the minister, the New Democrats asked what happened to the valuable "grey literature" in the libraries. Grey literature consists of independent reports and documents with no commercial publisher.

Minister Shea's reply omits the issue. Librarians continue to say the materials are not being preserved. The government recently cut the budget for digitization at Libraries and Archives Canada by 50 per cent.

Elizabeth May, Green Party leader and MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, has questioned whether the culling and closing of the libraries is illegal.

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

"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."  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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