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posted Jan 9, 2014, 5:43 AM by SOS SaveOceanScience   [ updated Jan 9, 2014, 5:43 AM ]

Suspicions over library consolidation as critics complain Harper government is trashing important books

Jen Gerson | January 7, 2014 | Last Updated: Jan 8 8:46 AM ET

More from Jen Gerson | @jengerson

France Bouthillier, director of the McGill school for information studies, says many libraries — corporate, government and academic — are going through a reorganization in response to changing technology
Christinne Muschi for National PostFrance Bouthillier, director of the McGill school for information studies, says many libraries — corporate, government and academic — are going through a reorganization in response to changing technology

In this occasional feature, the National Post tells you everything you need to know about a complicated issue. Today, Jen Gerson looks at complaints the Harper government is trashing important books and other documents as it ‘‘consolidates’’ the libraries of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO):

Q: What is the government up to, exactly?
A: DFO has reduced 11 libraries to four, leaving two major centres in B.C. and Nova Scotia, and two subsidiary locations in Nova Scotia and in Ottawa. These libraries contain a wealth of scientific information, ranging from rare publications to historic environmental assessments and baseline data. The department, though, said it has not reduced any of its collection; rather, it said it weeded out duplicates and will eventually make all of the information available via interlibrary loans and through digital databases.

Q: And why is it doing this?
A: Money: The department expects to save $430,000 for its efforts. The libraries were used primarily by DFO staff, according to the government, and anyway, digital requests have become the norm. “An average of only five to 12 people who work outside of DFO visit our 11 libraries each year.  It is not fair to taxpayers to make them pay for libraries that so few people actually use,”  Gail Shea, minister of Fisheries and Oceans, said in an email statement. The books and whatnot were offered to other libraries, and pretty much anyway who might want them, she said, ‘‘and finally were recycled in a ‘green’ fashion if there were no takers.”

Q: Did the Harper government burn books? Because that always looks bad.
A: “It is absolutely false that any books were burnt,” Ms. Shea said.

Q: Is this just a science-hating government going rogue?
A: France Bouthillier, director of information studies at McGill University, said it’s entirely normal for libraries to continually assess, consolidate and re-organize their collections. “Many types of libraries — corporate libraries, government libraries, academic libraries — are going through a lot of reorganization at the moment because of technology,” she said. Digitizing books and weeding through ancient collections is meticulous and labour-intensive work, she said. But shelf space is expensive; librarians spend endless, thankless hours curating content. Worthless or duplicate materials are routinely donated or destroyed by private recycling firms, she said.

Q: So why are scientists and activists complaining?
A: Critics of the Harper government have long touted a narrative that the Conservatives hate science, and say this is part of a wider trend of cutting back resources for cultural and scientific initiatives. The government has most definitely redefined how it does science — for example, the National Research Council has been retooled into a commercial R&D hub. Ms. Bouthillier notes the  government also made significant cuts to Library and Archives Canada: “I think there’s more ignorance and lack of care about what will happen to some parts of our heritage.” Kelly Whelan-Enns, lead research specialist policy analyst Manitoba Wildlands, is skeptical the DFO purge is about consolidation. “There seems to be more going on than the apparent consolidation of information … what we’re having is a very deep shrinkage of access to information.” Despite these concerns, no one has yet come forward with concrete examples of valuable books or databases that have permanently disappeared from the public domain.

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