February 6, 2014

What’s going on in Canada’s fisheries libraries?


1865 Newfoundland stamp, image from Libraries and Archives Canada

1865 Newfoundland stamp, image from Libraries and Archives Canada

There’ve been a lot of ups and downs on the literature front for Canada this year: on the one hand, Alice Munro, the second Canadian to win Nobel Prize for Literature (after Saul Bellow), and all the attendant confetti and hoopla. And on the other, David Gilmour, acting like an incredible douche. (He was, we remember, the man whose apology contained the sentence, “I was having a conversation, in French, with a colleague while this young woman was doing this interview,” thereby achieving Maximum Patronizing Points in the game of Being a Human.)

But the news coming out about the fisheries libraries just keeps getting worse. First, last spring, it was announced that seven of a total of eleven Fisheries and Oceans libraries would be closed, for projected savings of $443,000. Nobody was really delighted about that, but the idea was the materials would be digitized and therefore made even more accessible to researchers and the public.

But then it turned out that not only weren’t the books and reports being digitized, carefully weeded, or at least inventoried before being discarded, they were being actively trashed. Off they went to sales, giveaways, and landfills, and that was that.

Historic collections were lost in the process, among them, according to The Tyee:

the famous Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg; the historic St. Andrews Biological Station (SABS) in St. Andrews, New Brunswick (Rachel Carson, the celebrated environmental scientist, corresponded with researchers there for her book, Silent Spring) and one of the world’s finest ocean collections at Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

The closings were done with so little oversight that it wasn’t until alarmed scientists started taking pictures of dumpsters full of studies and emailing each other about valuable materials that were being offered to first takers that the true extent of what was going on came out.

It’s been called a “national tragedy” and a “historic loss,” and, troublingly, this wholesale erasure of years of environmental records also seems to be part of a larger hostility on the part of the Harper government towards environmental science, especially climate change research.

And now it turns out that it has actually cost the government more than $22,000 to dispose of materials, according to a recent CBC News report.

Also, it’s probably illegal: Green Party leader Elizabeth May is arguing that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has violated the sectionsof the Library and Archives Canada Act that address “publications that have become surplus to the requirements of any government institution” — namely, that they are public property, and you can’t throw them out without the “written consent of the Librarian or Archivist.”

Meanwhile, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea has claimed that all copyrighted material has been digitized, and that the scope and capabilities of the fisheries libraries will not be affected, but  the former claim is unverifiable, and the latter is just not true.

There are a lot of issues this debacle brings up, but one to focus on — one that also applies to our homegrown library consolidation and book dispersal crisis, otherwise known as the Central Library Plan — is the failure to spell out any kind of digitization or responsible long-term storage method that allows patrons to have the same kind of access they’d had before. This has been noticeably lacking in the discussions of the CLP.

Digitization or other preservation methods aren’t a panacea (just ask Nicholson Baker), but spelling out exactly what’s being preserved, how, and when would give the public one more way to measure a library board or a government’s actual commitment to access, and hold them accountable to it.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.