Author raises alarm about closure of federal libraries

fisherylibrary-584 copy.jpg Eric Marshall Aquatic Research Library in Winnipeg is one of seven DFO libraries that are being closed down. (CBC) 

First aired on On the Island (03/01/14)

Author and investigative journalist Andrew Nikiforuk is sounding the alarm over the federal government's dismantling or closing of a number of federal libraries in fisheries, the environment and ocean sciences. Nikoforuk has been writing about the closures for the online weekly magazine the Tyee, and he expressed his concerns in a recent interview with the regional B.C. program On the Island.

Nikiforuk told host Gregor Craigie that at least a half-dozen federal government departments are affected, including Parks Canada and Environment Canada. "The most dramatic closures appear to have taken place in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans," he said. He believes that Canadians should be concerned because "we are a maritime nation, we have the longest coastline in the world. And we have about 20 per cent of the world's surface water in this country. So these libraries reflect that very critical piece of geography."

Nikiforuk cited a number of institutions slated for closure, including the library at Winnipeg's Freshwater Institute, which he described as "one of the world's finest collections on freshwater." It had data back going a century, as well as "critical data on the Arctic and on proposals to drill for oil and gas up there."

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has nine libraries, "and the government has closed or dismantled seven of them." Some of the collections were moved to Sidney, B.C., and others to Halifax. "But what really shocked scientists was the chaotic and haphazard way in which these libraries were shuttered," Nikiforuk said, adding that maps and reports "in many cases were merely thrown away."

According to the federal government, the vital material is being saved digitally and will be readily accessible. But scientists claim they haven't seen any evidence of that. Nikiforuk was told by one Winnipeg scientist that he'd previously checked books out of the Freshwater Institute's library, but he was never asked to return the books. When the library was closed in December, the public was invited to come in and take whatever they liked, with no record being kept of the material given away or subsequently trashed.

A reporter for Post Media who filed a freedom of information request obtained a secret memo that referred to the closure of the libraries but made no mention of digitization, only of "culling."

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Nikiforuk objects to what he sees as "a lack of transparency" in the government's actions. Some of the scientists he spoke to characterized the closures as "information destruction unworthy of a democracy." Much of the archival material "essentially provides baseline material on the state of fisheries or the state of a waterway before infrastructure projects," he said, and thus has legal value as evidence. Without that material, there's no way to prove an infrastructure's environmental impact.

The federal government has framed the closures as a cost-cutting measure. But Nikiforuk regards it instead as "a very strong ideological statement." He went on to point out that "it only cost half a million dollars to maintain these libraries, which cost taxpayers tens of millions to create over the last 30 years, and which provide incredibly important services to scientific research. It's priceless sort of stuff."