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Managing ocean information in the digital era – Events in Canada open questions about the role of marine science libraries

posted Jun 9, 2014, 6:10 AM by SOS SaveOceanScience   [ updated Jun 9, 2014, 6:11 AM ]

Managing ocean information in the digital era – Events in Canada open questions about the role of marine science libraries

DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2014.04.012
Under a Creative Commons license
  Open Access


Many questions emerge about the role of marine libraries and ocean information in the digital age.

Grey literature is of increasing importance in the marine environmental sciences.

Ocean protection requires evidence-based policies and access to marine information specialists.


Information is the foundation of evidence-based policies for effective marine environmental protection and conservation. In Canada, the cutback of marine science libraries introduces key questions about the role of such institutions and the management of ocean information in the digital age. How vital are such libraries in the mission of studying and protecting the oceans? What is the fate and value of the massive grey literature holdings, including archival materials, much of which is not in digital form but which often contains vital data? How important is this literature generally in the marine environmental sciences? Are we likely to forget the history of the marine pollution field if our digital focus eclipses the need for and access to comprehensive collections and skilled information specialists? This paper explores these and other questions against the backdrop of unprecedented changes in the federal libraries, marine environmental science and legislation in Canada.


  • Canada;
  • Evidence-based policies;
  • Grey literature;
  • Marine information;
  • Marine libraries;
  • Ocean management

1. Introduction

Ocean scientists and stakeholders place high value on the collective body of marine information and knowledge. It is the recognized foundation of evidence-based policies for effective marine environmental protection and conservation (Wells and Bewers, 1992 and Mitchell et al., 2006).

Since 2012, Canada has found itself in an astonishing and unfortunate situation related to its ocean information resource. The federal government has launched an unprecedented cutback of key components of its marine science, and in particular its public service libraries, closing most of them across a wide spectrum of departments (CAUT, 2013, Dupuis, 2013, Dupuis, 2014, Turner, 2013, Wells, 2013a, Wells, 2013b, CHLA, 2014, CLA, 2014 and Sharp, 2014). This has been carried out under the stated purpose to spend less to run the government and to reduce the national deficit. One result has been the dismantling of a treasured network of freshwater and marine science libraries that have long served scientists, program managers, policy makers, and the Canadian public.

Marine science libraries and their staff are custodians of the accumulated, published ocean data and information, acquired over more than a century of inquiry and research. This knowledge is essential for addressing today’s many urgent ocean issues. However, in the digital era where much of the required reference information may be available at a tap of the keyboard, is the vital role of marine science libraries now considered a myth? Are such libraries and their skilled staff still needed for the mission of studying and protecting the oceans? For researchers on the front lines, are they essential for providing information and related search support required in rigorous research, synthesis and publication.

Querying the libraries’ role opens other questions, such as those around access to the information holdings. How much of the marine information, beyond the professional, peer-reviewed commercial journals and books (i.e., monographs), is digitized? This question involves an understanding of the prevalence and importance of grey literature, defined as “that which is produced at all levels of government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats, but which is not controlled by commercial publishers. In general, grey literature publications are non-conventional, fugitive and sometimes ephemeral publications”, and include a wide range of materials (Grey Literature Network Service, 1999). It is an important genre of information (EIUI, 2013). Are the massive grey literature holdings of most marine libraries largely digitized or being digitized? Is archival material (e.g., older data records and reports, books and proceedings from symposia, annual reports, cruise and expedition reports, photographs, personal journals) of much value in our networked world, where instant access to new information is the new gold standard, and the value of older and historical materials is often under-appreciated? Are marine science libraries simply no longer required in our brave new digital world?

2. Changes in Canadian marine science libraries

Lately, the focus of the debate in Canada has been largely on the network of science libraries run by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans or DFO (Munro, 2013 and Nikiforuk, 2014; It has been galvanized by pictures of dumpsters full of discarded data reports and books, images of people hauling away their treasured finds, and descriptions of chaotic sorting and culling of library collections. The DFO is the lead department for ocean research, ocean management, and management of all freshwater and marine fisheries, with a mandate under the Fisheries Act, the Oceans Act, the Species at Risk Act and others. All of these mandates are information intensive. The closure of seven of eleven of its libraries has purportedly led to savings of slightly under half a million dollars per year and seven or eight staff positions. However, the costs to the remaining two “core” libraries of servicing researchers and students across the country or from other countries have not been taken into account. As well, the once world renowned network of marine and aquatic libraries under their care has been lost. From St. John’s, Newfoundland, to St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and from the irreplaceable Eric Marshall Library at the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to the venerable Library at the Biological Station in Nanaimo, British Columbia, the DFO libraries have fallen like dominoes in the wind – shuttered for good, their collections culled, and remaining items moved to the two “core” marine science libraries in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and Sidney, British Columbia, as well as to two Canadian Coast Guard libraries (DFO, 2014).

Statements and letters issued from the office of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans have attempted to downplay the closure situation, saying that there were very few outside users of their libraries, that nothing pertaining to its mandate would be discarded, and that everything kept was or would be digitized (Shea, 2014a, Shea, 2014b and Nikiforuk, 2014). However, there are contradictions in the department’s own information. Many people do or did use the libraries, especially including the researchers at the DFO research institutes, the primary clients for whom the libraries were established in the first place. In some locations, many graduate students, provincial officials and consultant scientists used the collections. Internal government documents and the recent letter from the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans indicate that one-third of the collections (200,000 items) have been “culled” or recycled in a “green” fashion (Shea, 2014a), including many duplicates and some materials on subjects considered outside the new departmental mandate, e.g., toxic chemicals, environmental chemistry and toxicology, and aquatic habitat management. Noting that a new government might one day restore these responsibilities, this information would be gone or be widely distributed, limiting access. The collections of monographs and grey literature reports were not all in digital format, and copyright restrictions were taken to indicate that only those documents owned by the federal government can be digitized, thus excluding much of the grey literature such as reports from non-government organizations (NGOs) and other agencies, and many data reports. The end result has been a significant reduction of the collections, built up over many decades of dedicated work, and more difficult access anticipated by scientists and other users to materials that remain.

In summary, the cutbacks have included: losing most of the DFO libraries and their professional staff, hence losing the marine science knowledge centres in the affected research institutes; reducing the overall holdings by culling approximately 200,000 documents; suffering unknown losses of print grey literature, in the haste and chaos of the moves; severely reducing the valued and much used book collections; and removing the library spaces that were the working heart of the affected research institutes and extensively used by their clients. The library loss has been a blow to the morale of the already reduced numbers of librarians and research scientists, most of whom struggle with limited budgets, restrictions on communication (including publication), and uncertain futures. Details of the cuts and impacts, known and predicted, are documented on many websites (including DFO’s), in reports by investigative journalists such as A. Nikiforuk (see and M. Munro of Post Media News, in articles in Nature ( Hoag, 2012 and Owens, 2014), in the Minister’s letters ( Shea, 2014a and Shea, 2014b) and by some Canadian librarians ( Dupuis, 2013, Dupuis, 2014, CLA, 2014 and Sharp, 2014). Further evidence from persons directly involved is unavailable, most likely due to government restrictions on communication (DeYoung, pers.comm.).

3. Information management and the role of marine libraries

This dramatic milestone in the infrastructure of Canadian marine science is of importance to the international marine pollution research community. It raises questions about ocean information management and the role of libraries in ocean science in the digital era. Four questions are explored briefly here.

3.1. Is all aquatic and marine information of importance available on the web?

Most of the primary journals (those published commercially) are fully digital so that information is now easily available to users, provided they have access to established libraries or have accounts with the publishers. This information is mostly ‘pay for access’, and the costs are high per subscription or article, but access is assured if affordable.

The large unanswered question pertains to the status of the huge deposits of grey literature. As described above, these are materials such as government reports, documents from NGOs, and consultant reports. Some of this body of information is available digitally and almost all new information, regardless of source, is now published electronically. The concern is with grey literature of past decades and the cost and effectiveness of digitization of these holdings. Digitization is costly, requires a plan, and assumes copy-right issues can be resolved. Maps or other large-format documents, high-resolution photographs, and other data records may be difficult or expensive to digitize. Other considerations are whether it is worth the expenditure and whether the digital information will always be available. These concerns need to be addressed to minimize potential permanent losses. In addition, as one scientist (D. Forbes, pers.comm.) points out, once digitized, how will the records be found because “much of the accumulated librarian knowledge to facilitate that discovery is gone or going, and Google or other search engines, fine as they are, are poor substitutes for professional advice and expertise”.

3.2. What is the value of older marine information residing largely in the non-digitized grey literature?

Core research libraries usually have many data reports of great value to researchers interested in deciphering past and current trends in environmental conditions and populations of living resources. Libraries are where this material resides and is cared for, catalogued and made accessible to public and government users. The international Grey Literature group follows many of the significant events in grey literature and has brought much attention to its previously unrecognized value (see Many departments within the Canadian government, including DFO, publish their own internal series of reviewed, technical research reports, and older reports in such series are being digitized over time. However, much older grey literature and some newer publications are only available in hard copy, and will be for the foreseeable future. As shown by the research (; EIUI, 2013), NGOs also have routinely self-published many documents (e.g., for the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment, see Cordes et al., 2006 and but much remains in hard copy.

There are several points regarding the care of older information. As Scott Findlay of the University of Ottawa has stated (Owens, 2014), “the loss of historical environmental information will hurt policy-making – if we no longer have historical records, we don’t know the baseline measurements. So we’ll be unable to make decisions based on historical conditions.” Amongst others, the work of Lotze and Milewski (2004) was highly dependent upon such records – the baseline data were critical for establishing the changes in fisheries in the western North Atlantic over the centuries. As well, much of the “old” and irreplaceable literature in marine taxonomy and systematics has not all been digitized (G.Pohle, pers.comm.), and even if it were, the original manuscripts are often easier to work with and of value as rare historic documents. Local collections of taxonomic literature are also vital to all marine biological research. Often forgotten too are the irreplaceable data records and other archival materials left to libraries by retiring scientists. Collectively, this older grey literature has great value in curated collections, in both paper and digital formats.

3.3. How important is grey literature in the marine environmental arena in the 21st century?

Our research program at Dalhousie University is addressing this question by studying the publication output and use from several international and national bodies (Wells, 2003, MacDonald et al., 2004, MacDonald et al., 2007 and MacDonald et al., 2010, see Both print and digital grey literature is a growing and increasingly significant proportion of reliable published information in the sciences. It is produced extensively by all governments, the larger NGOs, consulting firms and many advisory groups to the United Nations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and GESAMP (the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection). For government agencies in many countries, and for prominent NGOs, grey literature is the primary way of reporting results of programs and projects (e.g., Soomai et al., 2011 and Soomai et al., 2013). Through selected case studies, we are gaining knowledge of such report use, e.g. GESAMP technical reports have been cited 1436 times, in 1178 papers (Cordes, 2004). Libraries are needed to provide organized repositories of the older print copies to users, until such time they are digitized, and information specialists are needed to facilitate access to these repositories, as well as to newer published materials.

3.4. What are the implications of closing historic libraries and reducing collections to future knowledge of the history of marine sciences and its sub-disciplines?

They could be grave. Historical documents in library archives are the core sources, and in some cases the only records, describing what was done and discovered in earlier times in marine science (in Canada, see Johnstone, 1977, Mills, 1989, Mills, 2009, Lotze and Milewski, 2004 and Hubbard, 2006). This is much more than an academic issue, as knowing this history allows us to learn from past mistakes (e.g. causes of the Canadian cod fishery collapse, fluctuations in the populations of British Columbia salmon), as well as acknowledge the accomplishments of previous generations (D. Forbes, pers.comm.). In a recent project on the 100-year history of the Biological Station in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, some of the contributors to the forthcoming book used its historic library extensively (Hubbard et al., 2014). They needed both the material resources (monographs, annual reports, data reports, photographs) and the informatics expertise offered at that time (2008–2009). As stated above, that library no longer exists and staff has been reassigned.

Some marine science historians and their professional societies have expressed concern about the loss of these historic Canadian libraries and their archival materials (see The Tyee articles, 2013–2014; CLA, 2014, CHLA, 2014 and NICHE, 2014). As far as is known, these materials have been kept safe during the library consolidation process, or have been donated to other institutions ( Sharp, 2014). However, many of the historical materials have been removed from the provinces where they have the most relevance, easiest access and greatest use, and being in fewer locations are more vulnerable to accidental loss, e.g., fire, earthquakes.

4. Conclusions

I have called the loss of the seven DFO libraries and their regionally important collections “a national tragedy, information destruction unworthy of a democracy” (quoted in Munro 2013, Nikiforuk, 2014, and Turner, 2013). This opinion together with comments from many other critics (e.g., comparisons to historic book burnings!) helped attract attention to the issue (Turner, 2013; Nikiforuk, pers. comm.), albeit all too late to change the rigid closure policy. The response of the professional library community was delayed and conciliatory (CAPAL, 2014, CLA, 2014, CHLA, 2014, Sharp, 2014 and UT Librarians, 2014). However, to their credit, “the Library and Information Studies Schools across the country wrote formal letters of concern to various parties and received responses that the cuts were necessitated by budgetary cut backs” (Spiteri, pers.comm.). As well, the Royal Society of Canada is now examining the status and future of Canada’s libraries (MacDonald, pers.comm., CAPAL, 2014). Unfortunately for Canada’s network of marine science libraries, it is too little, too late.

Access to reliable information, new and old, is crucial for effective research, objective analysis, strong policies and legislation, and solutions to today’s ocean problems. Can researchers in the marine pollution field access the information they need, both primary and grey, to ensure the currency of their questions and the comprehensiveness of their research? Do researchers still need and use the skills of information professionals while searching for information related to their research? Or are libraries in their research institutes now anachronisms, googled into redundancy? The Bulletin looks forward to hearing from you on this issue, in the interests of preserving and managing ocean information effectively in the digital era.


I thank colleagues David Aiken, Burton Ayles, Tom Duck, Elizabeth De Santo, Marie DeYoung, Don Forbes, Ken Freeman, Gareth Harding, Jennifer Hubbard, Don Gordon, Bertrum MacDonald, Margaret Munro, Michelle Paon, Gerhard Pohle, Diane Orihel, Andy Sherin, Suzuette Soomai, and Louise Spiteri for their thoughtful comments on the draft manuscript. The paper is dedicated to the information management professionals in the Public Service of Canada, who have worked with extraordinary commitment throughout a very difficult time to protect and preserve the core freshwater and marine science collections.


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