OTTAWA — When Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration library closed in the fall of 2012, head librarian Charlene Elgee wasn’t just worried about the loss of her job. She also feared that important documents she had immersed herself in for more than a decade would become unattainable to researchers.
“There’s a loss of accessibility,” Elgee said. “This material belongs to Canadians and I’m so afraid that some of this stuff will be lost forever if we don’t look after it.”
Staff at the Ottawa-based library received notice in April 2012 that the site would close that September. The six-person crew was then charged with scanning internal documents and identifying materials written by third parties which the government can’t store on electronic databases because of copyright law to put into storage.
“In storage, they’re not really available to the people who work in the department,” Elgee said.
Her story about the Citizenship and Immigration library is not unusual; it’s one of dozens of federal libraries to be shuttered since the beginning of 2012 part of a trend that some say means decades’ worth of knowledge is being lost in an effort to curb spending.
“With libraries closing, there’s content … that’s no longer available to the users be they researchers, members of the public, people who are developing policy in government departments and that’s always worrying,” said Marie DeYoung, president of the Canadian Library Association and librarian at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson Remi Lariviere confirmed that the department’s library materials “are housed off-site with a private sector provider” in Laval, Que. He said the closure of the department library saves taxpayers about $200,000 a year and rejected suggestions that they are inaccessible to researchers.
Lariviere said there are “clear service standards for retrieval” and that most Citizenship and Immigration employees the predominant users of the department’s materials access documents online.
Though DeYoung said making documents available online is “a wonderful thing,” she points out that not everything can be digitized. These materials can become lost or harder to access as they are moved into private storage facilities where either users or departments typically have to pay to access them.
DeYoung added that the speed at which some librarians had to dismantle collections could have led to some documents being erroneously destroyed or put into storage when they could have been digitized a concern also brought forward by Elgee, who said she and her colleagues were “rushed” and didn’t have much time “to try to make good decisions” about the fate of the library’s documents.
In the fall of 2012, Liberal MP David McGuinty, who said he was shocked by the scheduled closure of the library for the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, submitted a written question to Parliament asking all government departments to report on whether their libraries had closed in the last year or were slated to do so.
“I knew there was a systematic process underway to do away with analysis and analytical capacity in the federal government so I wanted to find out more detail in terms of how fast and how quickly this was happening,” he said.
A handful of departments reported plans to digitize documents and close libraries in an effort to save money and a followup survey of departments by Postmedia News this month shows that more have since decided to eliminate or consolidate their libraries.
The Canadian Revenue Agency; Citizenship and Immigration; Department of Fisheries and Oceans; Human Resources and Skills Development Canada; Natural Resources Canada; Parks Canada; the Public Service Commission; Public Works and Government Services Canada; and Transport Canada had plans to shut down or consolidate libraries in 2012, while Environment Canada; Health Canada; the Transportation Safety Board; and the Canadian Transportation Agency made similar decisions more recently.
“The government is eliminating waste and duplication in order to balance the budget,” said Natural Resources Canada spokesperson Jacinthe Perras. Her department closed five libraries between 2012 and 2013, with a sixth location scheduled to close in 2014. By the end of this year, Natural Resources Canada will have eight libraries, down from 14 at the beginning of 2012. The closures are expected to save the department $2.5 million a year.
Library and Archives Canada said it is working closely with federal libraries on “issues related to reductions” and has received about 1,000 boxes of “material of historical value” from libraries forced to cull their collections.
But not all surplus materials end up at Canada’s national library. Under a government multi-institutional disposition authority, libraries can dispose of materials they no longer require “either by redistribution or destruction.”
In the case of Natural Resources Canada, Perras said documents, such as books written by third parties “for which there are no duplicates,” remain in department libraries while duplicate books and academic journals were offered to other libraries, department staff and members of the general public before being recycled in a “green fashion.”
Chantal Lemyre, director general of corporate services at the Transport Safety Board which will close its Gatineau library later this year, said the TSB library collection was offered to other libraries before several documents were recycled as “a last resort.”
“We have destroyed quite a bit of paper, but not before checking … that it wasn’t wanted,” she said, adding that the closure of the library will save the department about $125,000 a year in librarian salaries. The agency does not pay to lease government space for the library.
Some departments have even sent surplus print collections overseas; for example, the Public Service Commission sent some documents to Afghan universities through the Books with Wings charitable organization that ships textbooks and technical documents to libraries in post-secondary institutions in Afghanistan.
While government is adamant that electronic repositories either searchable by the public or employees only, depending on the department are a move in the right direction, others remain skeptical.
McGuinty said some government employees might not have the time or expertise to search electronic databases and that it would be easier for them to go to a physical library and seek the help of a skilled librarian.
Elgee worries that changes in technology over time could jeopardize digitized documents.
But Mark Johnson, spokesperson for Environment Canada, said that in an age where people want information at their fingertips immediately, these databases are invaluable for ensuring researchers and policy-makers find the materials they need. “We are making materials more accessible, not less,” he said.
GOVERNMENT LIBRARIES CLOSED SINCE JAN. 1, 2012
Canada Revenue Agency: Eight libraries across the country were closed and materials consolidated in a single location in Halifax, N.S.
Citizenship and Immigration: The department library in Ottawa closed on Sep. 4, 2012.
Employment and Social Development Canada: Libraries in Gatineau, Que., and Montreal were slated to close on March 31, 2013.
Environment Canada: One staffed library and one unstaffed library were closed between 2012 and 2013. The department now has seven staffed and no unstaffed libraries and has “no plans to consolidate further.” A library for the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, which was scrapped in the 2012 budget, closed on March 31, 2013.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada: The department, which had 11 libraries at the beginning of 2012, is consolidating them into four centres by closing seven. Six libraries have already been closed and work is in progress to close a seventh.
Foreign Affairs and International Trade: A library at a Canadian Culture Centre at the Canadian Embassy in Paris closed on June 21, 2012.
Health Canada: The department’s print collection, formerly held at the Health Canada library, was moved to the National Research Council’s library in Ottawa last year.
Natural Resources Canada: Five libraries closed between 2012 and 2013, with a sixth location scheduled to close in 2014. By the end of this year, the department will have eight libraries, down from 14 at the beginning of 2012.
Parks Canada: Four regional libraries in Calgary, Alta., Winnipeg, Man., Quebec City and Halifax, N.S., have been shut down. Materials will be consolidated in a single location in Cornwall, Ont., by the end of 2014.
Public Service Commission: The library in Ottawa closed on Mar. 31, 2013.
Public Works and Government Services: The department library in Gatineau, Que., closed in May 2012.
Transport Canada: The department library in Ottawa closed on July 31, 2012 and the Canadian Transportation Agency closed its Gatineau, Que., library in 2013.
Government libraries to be closed in 2014
Transportation Safety Board: The agency library in Gatineau, Que., is being packed up and will completely close in early 2014.
Government libraries with an uncertain future
Royal Canadian Mounted Police: The RCMP is currently “reviewing the business needs of its library” and will make a decision about its fate once an analysis is completed.
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