The Closing of the Science Libraries, its Media Coverage and the Government’s Spin

On December 5th, The Winnipeg Free Press ran a story that described scientists and marine consultants rushing to the library at the Freshwater Institute at the University of Manitoba to haul away materials slated for landfill.

Winter RobinNorth/South Consultants, who specialize in field research and environmental assessments for government and corporate clients, drove up with several vehicles including a flatbed truck. “Old environmental impact statements done for past projects were at the top of the rescue list, in part because they offer baseline data on such things as fish populations and toxicology as well as novel methods to do proper assessments, said one scientist who used the library frequently. ”

On January 3rd, The Huffington Post ran, “How the Harper Government Committed a Knowledge Massacre”. This was quickly followed by the C.B.C.’s “Fisheries and Oceans Library Closings Called Loss to Science.” and the Globe & Mail’s “Purge of Canada’s Fisheries Libraries Called Historic Loss Scientists Say.”

Margaret Munro, national science writer for Post Media News, actually broke the story about the closing and consolidation of federal science libraries back in April. She quoted scientists and academics explaining their profound misgivings that historically valuable documents would be kept, and that only duplicates and so-called “grey material” would be culled and the remainder digitized.

“Information destruction unworthy of a democracy,” said Peter Wells, an ocean pollution expert, Dalhousie University. Eric Mills, a specialist historian of marine sciences at Dalhousie called it a “disaster.”  “It could make fisheries science a lot less effective,” said Jennifer Hubbard, a science historian, Ryerson University.

Broken TreeAs described in Munro’s story, the libraries contained one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of information on fisheries, aquatic sciences and nautical sciences, reports detailing the DDT pollution that wiped out young salmon in New Brunswick in ‘50s; vivid descriptions of native fisheries and the huge cod stocks of the past; 50 illustrated volumes of Britain’s Challenger expedition in the late 1800s; not to mention baseline data so essential to understanding changes in our environment.

Here’s how this sad saga started. A secret federal government document, “Strategic and Operating Review” (made available through an access to information request by Postmedia) laid out cuts of $79.3 million to the Department of Oceans and Fisheries’ (DFO) for 2014/15, on top of cuts totalling $17.2 million in the previous two years. These included cuts to library services and the consolidation of its programs at four locations. “Main activities include culling materials in the closed libraries or shipping them to the two locations, and culling materials to make room for collections from the closed locations.” Projected savings: $443,000. No mention of digitizing the collections.

In response to the dust up resulting from this story, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Gail Shea issued a press release about “serious misinformation about the consolidation of DFO libraries.”

“It is not fair to taxpayers to make them pay for libraries that so few people actually used…In 2011, over 95% of the total documents provided to users were provided digitally…All materials for which DFO has copyright will be preserved by the department…Duplicate materials, including books, from the libraries being consolidated were offered to other libraries and third parties if they wanted them. They were also offered to the DFO staff on site at the library, then offered to the general public, and finally were recycled in a “green” fashion if there were no takers. It is absolutely false to insinuate that any books were burnt.”

Minister Shea reveals a rather skewed idea of science libraries.  Of course ordinary tax-payers are unlikely to use them, but that doesn’t reflect on their value. Sadly, culling collections is a necessary evil and integral part of library science, but it requires great care, human resources, knowledge of the particular subject matter and time, which are inconsistent with culling in great haste to save money. And digitizing collections is not inexpensive or clear cut either. (The Canadian Library Association has expressed some concerns about digitizing and the future of Canadian libraries in general.)

Also, limiting a collection to what is copyrighted seems overly restrictive. I assume the Canadian government wouldn’t have the copyright to the 50 illustrated volumes of Britain’s Challenger expedition in the late 1800s for example.

Libraries are invaluable. Their holding, cataloguing and retrieval of the bits and pieces of our past, especially when these scraps in and of themselves aren’t particularly pertinent, is crucial to our understanding of an issue. In the Winnipeg account, some baseline data would appear to have been “saved”, but no one other than the guys with the flatbed truck would know where to find it or what exactly the scavenged papers contain; moreover, the value of their haul is diminished simply because it is no longer the property of a public institution and readily available for peer review.

The library story is one more to add to the pile of Harper’s-assault-on-science stories, one more to add to the muzzling of Canadian scientists, the cancelling of the long form census, the trampling of climate science, the shutting of the Environmental Lakes Area, the draconian gutting of departments and on and on. Thank you, you dedicated Harper watcher bloggers and web masters for keeping these issues alive.

But why hasn’t the library closing story penetrated beyond the science sections and into the realm of general public discourse? (An exception: The Fifth Estate did a piece called “Silence of the Labs.”) Does the library story sound too much like a rant from the usual pointy-headed wets? Is it too squishy: he said, she said? Or does the traditional press think the larger “we” don’t care. Perhaps we don’t. Or perhaps the neglect of the story is just another example of the beleaguered and desperate paucity of the press these days.

There is more at work here than Harper government’s relentless drive for efficiencies. Money for communication officers to police the discourse between scientists and journalists, prisons and to promote the War of 1812 ($28 million) isn’t lacking.

The closing of science libraries is not the sort of issue that bites you in the neck, but the effects, especially when you bundle it with all the other closures, cancellations, and mangling going on, will eventually impact the quality of our lives and our health, not to mention our democracy. That’s under threat now.

Closure of Fisheries Libraries called a Disaster for Science by Margaret Munro. http://o.canada.com/news/science-news/closure-of-fisheries-libraries-expected-to-stifle-science/

Secret Memo Casts Doubt on Feds’ Claims for Science Library Closures http://thetyee.ca/News/2013/12/30/Harper-Library-Closures/

DFO Press Release re closure of libraries http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/media/npress-communique/2014/20140107-en.html

Scientists go fishing for old documents http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/scientists-go-fishing-for-old-documents-234554691.html

Nation’s Library Advocate Raises Questions about Federal ‘Culling’ http://thetyee.ca/News/2014/01/13/Library-Culling-Questions/?utm_source=daily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=130114

3 thoughts on “The Closing of the Science Libraries, its Media Coverage and the Government’s Spin

  1. http://publicitywhore.com/index.php?a=profile&u=flmaconoch

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  2. Penny Pepperell Post author

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