Irreplaceable science research may be lost when Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries across the country are closed down, researchers fear.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada hopes to close seven of its 11 libraries by 2015. Already, stories have emerged about books and reports thrown into dumpsters and the general public being allowed to rummage through bookshelves.
"We actually spent about three days in the Eric Marshall library boxing up materials," explained Kelly Whelan-Enns of Manitoba Wildlands, an environmental public research organization. That library was in the Freshwater Institute, the Fisheries Department's central and Arctic regional headquarters in Winnipeg.
Whelan-Enns described bookshelves in shambles, periodicals strewn across the floor of the library and maps — old and new— left lying around.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada told CBC News that all of its copyrighted material has been digitized and that the rest of its collection will be soon.
"Users will continue to have completely free access to every item in DFO’s collections. All materials for which DFO has copyright will be preserved by the department," Fisheries Minister Gail Shea wrote in a statement to CBC.
But that doesn't calm the nerves of some researchers.
"It's not clear what will be kept and what will be lost," said Jeff Hutchings, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University.
The Fisheries Department had 660,000 documents in 11 libraries spread across the country. The plan was to consolidate its collection in two main facilities in Dartmouth, N.S., and Sidney, B.C. Two other auxiliary facilities in Sydney, N.S., and Ottawa would house coast guard documents.
That meant closing archive facilities such as the Eric Marshall library, the library at the St. Andrews Biological Station in New Brunswick and the Maurice Lamontagne Institute's library in Mont-Joli, Que.
A Radio-Canada story in June about the Mont-Joli library showed thousands of volumes of the department's literature in dumpsters.
Fisheries and Oceans said the closings and consolidation would save the $443,000 in 2014-15.
Hutchings said he doesn't know how well the department's plan is going to work.
"We're dealing right now with a department that has lost people, resources, money. It's shutting down facilities. One wonders where they are going to find the resources to digitize this extraordinary amount of material," said Hutchings.
The department website says 30,000 documents are available online and that "outstanding items will be digitized if requested by users."
The website also says only duplicate items will be removed from its collection.
It does add, though, that "in rare instances, materials which fall outside of the subject disciplines pertinent to the department's mandate" may be removed.
The Fisheries Act went through a major overhaul in 2012. At the time, critics said it was to get rid of environmental elements of the act that hindered the government's plans for resource development and export.
One of those critics was Tom Siddon, the former federal fisheries minister in Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government. He was responsible for the last major overhaul of the Fisheries Act that introduced many of the environmental protections that were taken out of the act in 2012.
"I call it [closing libraries] Orwellian, because some might suspect that it's driven by a notion to exterminate all unpopular scientific findings that interfere with the government's economic objectives," Siddon told the CBC.
Siddon suggests striking an independent panel to determine the relevance and importance of the documents.
"You do not extinguish national libraries of knowledge or history in an arbitrary way any more than the government would be allowed to extinguish the record of cabinet deliberations or to burn the books of Hansard," he added.