April 14, 2013 _ The libraries are home to the 50 illustrated volumes from Britain’s Challenger expedition that sailed the seas in the late 1800s exploring the mysteries of the deep.
The shelves heave with reports detailing the DDT pollution that wiped out young salmon in New Brunswick’s “rivers of death” in the 1950s. And they contain vivid reminders of native fisheries, Canada’s once vast cod stocks and the U.S. submarines that prowled the quiet fjords along the B.C. coast in the 1940s — history that is being packed into boxes as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans “consolidates” its world-class library collection.
Seven DFO libraries across Canada are to close by the fall, including two that have been amassing books and technical reports on the aquatic realm for more than a century.
The department said “all” the materials will remain available either online or through inter-library loans.
But critics said digital and remote access is no replacement for the real thing. They also fear valuable historical information will be lost in the purge, or “weeding,” now underway as the seven libraries are dismantled.
“It is information destruction unworthy of a democracy,” said Peter Wells, an ocean pollution expert at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who describes the closing of the libraries as a “national tragedy.”
Eric Mills, a specialist in the history of marine sciences at Dalhousie University, sees it as a “disaster” that will stifle research.
While Jennifer Hubbard, a science historian at Ryerson University in Toronto, said it could make fisheries’ science “a lot less effective.”
They also noted that one of the libraries being closed opened just last year – a climate-controlled facility at the St. Andrews Biological Station in New Brunswick built at a cost of several million federal tax dollars.
“They’ve invested all this money in a beautiful new library and now they want to close it down,” said Hubbard. “It just doesn’t make any economic sense.”
One thing DFO and the critics do agree on is that the libraries contain one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of information on fisheries, aquatic sciences and nautical sciences.
The libraries house thousands of reference books, and decades of technical and station reports on everything from beluga whales in the Arctic to oil spills on the east and west coasts. They also contain rare books like the 50 volumes produced after the H.M.S. Challengerexpedition that explored the depths the world’s oceans from 1872-76 and turned up thousands of sea creatures new to science.
DFO officials were not available for interviews on the library situation, but the department’s media office said by email that the closures make sense in the increasingly digital world.
“The growing willingness of Canadians to look online, coupled with an increasing presence of information online, including electronic scientific journals, enable the department to consolidate its library resources,” said Melanie Carkner, a DFO media relations adviser.
She said consolidation of the seven libraries is to be completed by the fall. Collections now located from Vancouver to St. John’s, Newfoundland, are moving to what DFO is calling its “primary” libraries — one at a research institute in Sidney on Vancouver Island, the other at an institute in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Two “subsidiary locations” in the Ottawa region and Sydney, N.S., will support the Canadian Coast Guard.
A catalogue of the DFO holdings is online, and Carkner said “materials will be scanned and emailed or shipped to requesters” or made available through inter-library loans.
“All currently available resources will remain available to employees and the public after the initiative is implemented; the only change is the process to search for and acquire them,” she said.
Mills, at Dalhousie, doesn’t buy what he calls DFO’s “smoke and mirrors.”
“It sounds like an efficiency expert’s dream,” said Mills, “but as far as scientific use of those collections goes, it sounds like a disaster.”
He has worked extensively with the 100-year-old collections in the libraries being closed in Nanaimo, B.C., and St. Andrews, NB. Most of the historical materials and reports have not been digitized and won’t be anytime soon, Mills said.
And he and his colleagues don’t expect inter-library loans will be easy or inexpensive.
“A great deal of material will be out of sight, out of action,” said Mills.
Even worse, some of the material could be lost, said Hubbard, who has worked with the collection in St. Andrews that contains reports on the local fisheries and marine environment that go back decades.
“I am really worried that they won’t bother to move it all because there is just too much of it and so they will just dump it,” said Hubbard.
While Carkner said “all” the materials in the libraries will remain available, insiders say a lot material is not being kept.
“We are weeding,” one DFO librarian, who asked not to be identified, told Postmedia News.
Scientific journals available over the Internet are being sent off for recycling. And many books are headed for “removal or retirement” because they are considered obsolete or surplus.
A list of holdings at the St. Andrews library, now being circulated, tags books and material for “discard” in red, while green and pink tags indicate material to “keep.”
It will likely be a decade or more before all DFO’s technical reports are all digitized and available online, the librarian said. But most of the reference books and materials in the DFO libraries – like Russia’s fishing monograms – cannot be digitized by the department because of copyright restrictions.
“They have about 10,000 holdings (in St. Andrews) and about 70 per cent can’t be digitized for copyright reasons,” said Caroline Davies, chair of Save our Ocean Science, a group trying to halt the closure in St. Andrews.
“The library is part of the marine resources network in southwest New Brunswick,” said Davies, noting that the brand new facility is used by not only federal scientists but by students and staff from the nearby university, college and fisheries industry.
Once it closes, the library users will either have to drive five hours to retrieve books from the DFO library in Dartmouth or ask DFO to send books back to St. Andrews on loan. “It’s ludicrous,” said Davies.
Wells see the library closures as more evidence of the way the federal government is “eviscerating” aquatic science by cutting jobs and eliminating programs, labs and services. “Libraries cannot simply be replaced by digitized collections,” he said.
The scientists are particularly worried about DFO’s station reports and documents have not been published elsewhere and will likely never be put online.
“It’s somewhat disparagingly referred to as the grey literature but there is a hell of a lot of interesting material in there from the point of view of people interested in the long-term history of the fisheries,” said Mills.
As an example, Wells pointed to reports from the St. Andrews station that helped Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, document how DDT killed young salmon in the New Brunswick rivers in the 1950s. She described the deadly effects in the chapter, Rivers of Death.
Carkner said the grey literature, like the other library holdings, “will be available through a variety of means, including online.”
She could not say how much money DFO will save by closing the libraries, how many library jobs are being eliminated, or how much the department is spending on digitization. And she couldn’t say if scientists and the general public would have to pay for inter-library loans.
As Davies pointed out: “Same-day courier, that isn’t cheap.”