January 9, 2014 – Environment Canada has a phone number for its library in Calgary. But a meteorologist answers, and he can’t say what’s become of the books.
It’s a similar story in Edmonton and Quebec City where federal libraries, with shelves loaded with reference books and scientific reports on everything from beluga whales to songbirds, now exist only in name.
Environment Canada lists the libraries on its website but the books are long gone.
“It’s been moved to Saskatoon,” said a woman named Susan who picked up at the phone number for the Edmonton library. In Yellowknife an answering machine said the Environment Canada library “is closed.” And the number listed for the federal conservation and environment library in Winnipeg is no longer in service.
Environment Canada, like the department of Fisheries and Oceans, is closing and consolidating its science libraries to the dismay of some observers who worry valuable books and materials are being lost.
“My sense is that the Environment Canada policy has been to essentially hack one arm off to save the other,” said one scientist, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his job. He said the big worry is the loss of so-called “grey literature” — material that hasn’t been widely published, with as few as one or two copies in existence — and historical reports on wildlife and the environment that exist nowhere else.
Environment Canada libraries in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Yellowknife have closed and the collections have been shipped to Saskatoon. A skeleton staff of one librarian and a couple of co-op students are said to be dealing with the consolidated collection in Saskatoon, which includes 650 boxes stashed in a “caged” storage areas awaiting sorting and cataloguing.
Several Environment Canada libraries in the East — including the ones in Quebec City and Sackville, N.B., have also been shuttered, others have been downsized, and some cases valuable materials has been tossed, scientists say.
Cuts to the federal science library programs have been underway for years but concern and controversy has grown as the books have been cleared off the shelves, with excess and outdated material landing in dumpsters. Peter Wells, an ocean pollution expert at Dalhousie University in Halifax, describes the closing of the DFO libraries as a “national tragedy.” And recent reports have likened it to burning books.
Barbara Clubb, interim executive director of the Canadian Library Association, said the group’s members are concerned. The reports of loss of access to valuable materials are “very, very worrying,” said Clubb.
The government defends the closures saying they are part of an effort to modernize its science libraries.
Environment Canada’s media office said in a statement Thursday that the department is closing and consolidating 12 libraries and reading rooms as part of a “modernization initiative” and “digitization plan.”
And Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans insisted this week that the closing of DFO libraries will save taxpayers’ money and not impact access.
“It is absolutely false to insinuate that any books were burnt,” Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans said in a statement this week.
Seven DFO libraries across Canada, including two that have been amassing books and technical reports on the aquatic realm for more than a century, are being consolidated at two primary locations in Sidney, B.C., and Dartmouth, N.S.
Shea said duplicate materials were offered to other libraries. “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,” the statement said.
Shea also said “the decision to consolidate our network of libraries was based on value for taxpayers.”
“An average of only five to 12 people who work outside of DFO visit our 11 libraries each year,” she said. “It is not fair to taxpayers to make them pay for libraries that so few people actually use.”
Science historian Jennifer Hubbard at Ryerson University in Toronto said Shea’s argument is misleading because people cannot “just waltz” into federal research libraries. Hubbard, who has worked extensively with the DFO collection, said a security pass is needed to visit the consolidated DFO library in Nova Scotia.
She also said it made “no economic sense” to close the brand new climate-controlled DFO library at the St. Andrews Biological Station in New Brunswick built by the Harper government at a cost of several million federal tax dollars.
Environment Canada media officer Danny Kingsberry said in the statement much work remains to be done as the department consolidates material from five staffed libraries, seven unstaffed reading rooms and material from retiring scientists who “leave their books, journals behind.”
“There are approximately 650 boxes of print material in a storage cage at the National Hydrology Research Centre in Saskatoon, where the Saskatoon library is located,” Kingsberry said.
“The bulk of it is transferred material from consolidated EC libraries and EC Programs that has not yet been reviewed by local library staff,” he said. “This material will be sorted and either added to the collection or not, based on the relevance of each item.”
Both DFO and Environment Canada have online library catalogues and will arrange interlibrary loans, but many federal librarian jobs have been eliminated with the libraries. Kingsberry said the plan is to digitize “rare, historical and ‘one-off’ ” holdings but it is not clear how long that costly job will take.
“What is the plan for digitization and how much is being done,” said Clubb, at the library association. The association is also looking for information on the government plan for ensuring “information professionals” are available to help people find and access material. “You can not get everything you need on Google, by any means,” said Clubb.
Claims by DFO that “all material has been scanned and made available online is simply untrue,” said Hubbard. She said she has been having trouble locating historic reports about East Coast marine science that were on the selves of DFO libraries that closed.
Hubbard and other researchers say historical data and reports are increasingly valuable given the change underway in the world’s ecosystems.
“DFO is dumping documents, including grey literature that exists in limited quantities, just at a point when fisheries biologists around the world have been turning to historical studies, data, and graphical information to reconstruct the effects of fishing and fisheries policies, and to document environmental change,” said Hubbard.
“The Department of the Environment’s scientists would similarly need to have access to older data and documents for doing historical time series to investigate environmental change in terms of populations, climate, etc, or even — ironically — potentially to critique some of the current scientific narratives of which the Conservative government is suspicious,” she said.
Environment Canada’s collections include reference materials like the 16-volume Handbook of the Birds of the World, historic photographs of glaciers in the Rockies and reports produced by federal scientists over the decades, some found nowhere else.
Insiders at Environment Canada say a lot of material was discarded as a result of the closures of the regional libraries and renovation and downsizing at the department’s reference library in Gatineau, Que. They said the loss includes dozens of boxes full of historical environmental reports and studies from around the world that had been translated for use by Canadians.
“They were immaculate translations,” said one scientist. While the original reports may still exist in foreign libraries, the translations are lost. “If you knew about the obscure Russian papers from the 1930s, the librarian could probably bring it in for you, but you’d have to read Russian.”