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The recent Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) science library consolidation from 11 locations to four is a well publicized story, one that probably doesn't need to be recapped in extensive detail. Basically, the government is taking all the collections from all of the locations and consolidating them into four locations, supposedly making sure all unique items are saved. They are also disposing duplicates as well as materials that aren’t core to their mission and letting go of the equivalent of 9.7 staff members.
This is more or less what we know for sure. But there is a lot we don’t know for sure and there certainly are a lot of questions. I, especially as a librarian, would like to know those answers.
Harper? Well he doesn't seem to like libraries much...
This whole DFO situation comes in the context of a government that has had a very poor record with regard to information and data.
From the cancelling of the long form census, to cuts at Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (Canada’s national science library), to drastic cuts at Library and Archives Canada, to cuts at Environment Canada libraries. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has a whole page dedicated to cuts and closures at federal government libraries.
This is also in the context of a whole raft of cuts and closures and restructuring across all of Canadian government science.
So, what is 'normal' for managing library collections and what happened at DFO?
Yes, the disturbing images of dumpsters full of books that are floating around are definitely shocking. However, it's important to understand that weeding is part of every library’s normal collection management strategy.
Keeping in mind the needs of their communities, librarians have to make sure their libraries’ collections are relevant and up-to-date, not to mention that it doesn’t outgrow the physical space that is available. It is fairly standard for weeded books and other materials to be sold to used book vendors or via Friends of the Library book sales or even put out on trolleys for community members to take for themselves. At the end of the process, some materials may end up recycled.
It is fairly rare that a library system will decide to close a branch, but it does happen. The decisions are difficult and wrenching and never taken lightly. The reasoning is often due to decreases in funding or changing usage patterns as more and more researchers are able to find the materials they need online.
Small departmental or institutional libraries are often the hardest hit in these situations. In the academic world, there are cases where small subject-focused branch libraries are closed and their collections are consolidated into the other branches.
When closures happen, the librarians and staff work very hard to minimize the impact on their community, especially to make sure valuable collections are not lost and that research support services are maintained.
This is where the DFO situation takes a downward turn.
Apparently, this careful process to keep irreplaceable material was not, at all, what happened at the DFO libraries that are being closed. Instead, chaos and confusion seemed to reign.
In the government's mad rush to save only about $400,000 -- a drop in the bucket at the scale of the federal government -- they are turning a process that needs to be deliberate and carefully thought through into a careless exercise which threatens a valuable part of Canada’s documentary and scientific heritage.
Was the library staff given sufficient time and resources to properly consult with their research communities? How did DFO library staff ensure that nothing valuable was weeded from the collections? What criteria were applied to decide if something should be weeded? For particularly in-demand items, did they ensure that there were multiple copies at different locations?
In a more normal process, the library staff would work very closely with a researcher to carry out the weeding and collection consolidation projects. There is no evidence that this is what has happened.
What does DFO stand to lose (or has already lost?)
For the kinds of collections that the DFO libraries have, it will be incredibly important to make sure all the truly unique documents and data sets are saved somewhere.
Collections of regular books and bound journals are important, but they are increasingly becoming available online and are also usually easily available for purchase or on loan from other sources if something that has been discarded needs to be replaced.
It’s those unique documents that are worrisome. These unique documents will mostly be comprised of original research reports from DFO scientists (and others) and data compilations -- what librarians tend to refer to as grey literature.
In other words, things that were not published in official scholarly journals but are still very important. And because they weren’t published in journals, there might only be a very small number of copies in existence.
While the common assumption for scientific research is that only very recent studies are important to preserve, for the kind of environmental/ecosystem/population study research that happens in DFO, a historical perspective is vital. We need to know how things have changed over time and for that, we need the old data and reports.
Can't we just digitize it!?
Then there’s the digitization and document delivery aspects of the project. DFO states that their clients vastly prefer digital access to materials where possible. In the modern world of libraries, most particularly in science, this is a given.
However, for the kinds of collections that DFO has, with so much of it being older data and reports, there will be an awful lot that isn’t online. What to do with that?
Well, their plan seems to be to digitize it. Which is fine. But digitizing and making available hundreds and thousands of unique and original documents is a far from trivial task.
Who is doing this digitization? Has it been outsourced and if so, to whom? What resources have been allocated to a systematic digitizing of everything unique versus just dealing with requests as they come in?
The digitized materials have to be properly discoverable by both government scientists and the general public. What metadata standards are being used and who is creating that metadata?
Since the documents are potentially just as valuable a hundred years from now as they are today, what are the long term preservation plans?
As for data, much of it will be in tabular format in old reports or binders. Is this going to be converted into formats that can be directly processed by computer or just scanned into PDF documents? How will the general public, including scientists from all over the world, be able to request documents to be digitized?
Is public access the real reason for the DFO closures?
One of the key rationales for closing the libraries is that they were seldom used by the public. This is very likely true, but there are two factors to keep in mind.
First of all, you can’t just walk into a DFO library unannounced. You need permission and must have a staff member present.
And more importantly, access to information isn’t something that is easily assigned a uniform value. Going to a library isn’t like going to a bowling alley where every game is more or less worth the same to users and to society. Accessing important scientific information can be transformational. A handful of accesses per year can still be incredibly important.
Researchers having the support of professional library staff in meeting those information needs can also be transformational. How will they ensure that members of the general public -- university researchers included -- will continue to have access to the research materials they need?
Wait! What about the librarians?!
One of the things that has been mostly left out of the media coverage of the DFO library closings is the staff -- both librarians and other staff.
Librarians have been particularly hard hit by cuts over the past few years. How many librarians have been let go? What are their areas of expertise? Is there enough professional staff to manage the consolidation of the collections, to drive the digitization program, to make sure loan requests are satisfied in a timely way?
The librarians and other staff will be incredibly important in continuing and building upon the DFO libraries legacy of building world class collections and providing excellent research support to government scientists and the general public. They need sufficient staff and expertise to be able to do that.
The hallmarks of a great library system are excellent collections, supremely qualified professional staff and maximum availability to the community of those collections and the support of the staff. If Canada wants to protect its scientific and environmental heritage, the government needs to make sure that documentary heritage is properly preserved, maintained and developed.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries are part of that heritage.
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John Dupuis is a science librarian at York University's Steacie Science and Engineering Library. He blogs about science and libraries at Confessions of a Science Librarian and can be found on Twitter at @dupuisj
Photo: flickr/Toronto Public Library Special Collections