Closing Science Libraries?

I’m worried about recent news stories on the closure of science libraries.

library

Last year, the Conservative government decided to “consolidate” the 11 Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries into only four. The government claims that this is a “modernizing” practice that will improve access to services without affecting any of the libraries’ collections.

Recent reports suggest otherwise. Scientists say that parts of collections have simply been thrown out, before being digitized. Some have even started using the term “libricide” to describe the way that library collections were disposed, calling the process “chaotic,” describing a situation where “cuts were carried out in great haste apparently in order to meet some unknown agenda.”

These library closures worry me for a few reasons. First, many scientists who use these libraries are skeptical that the collections will remain accessible. The government claims that an interlibrary loan service will ensure that access to library collections will not be affected by these closures, but a year ago Library and Archives Canada ended their interlibrary loan service.

Scientists are also worried that the documents have not been digitized. If these documents haven’t been preserved digitally, this valuable information (including rare volumes from the nineteenth century and more recent documents that were never published) will be lost. This data destruction means that important information will not only be inaccessible to the current government (who, admittedly, don’t seem to be relying on scientific evidence very much), but it will also be unavailable to later governments that are committed to introducing evidence-based policies.

evidence based

This irreplaceable material is part of our patrimony as Canadians. Previous generations paid for this research with their tax dollars. No government has the right to destroy it. The Harper government may not like science, especially scientific research on our water and wildlife, but it does not have the right to literally trash the products of decades worth of research just because it doesn’t suit the ideology of the Harper Conservatives.

Destroying data is not just an ideological problem, it’s also blatant fiscal mismanagement. These are valuable collections that Canadians have already paid for. Closing seven libraries is expected to “save” $443,000 in 2014-15, but this figure doesn’t take into account the price we have already paid for these rare documents (including, for instance, a very rare 50-volume collection of logs from HMS Challenger’s 19th century expedition), or the value of having access to this data. The Harper government has spent over $100 million dollars advertising their Economic Action Plan (that’s over 225 times more than the savings of closing these libraries!). We need better fiscal management from the government, and priorities that better serve the needs of Canadians.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is responsible for managing Canada’s fisheries and safeguarding its vast waters. Their scientists, as well as the general public, rely on historical information, because they know that climate and environmental issues must be charted over long periods of time. Without this information, how can the department and the government make the best decisions about water and science policy?

The destruction of information conjures up Orwellian imagery of knowledge suppression and book burning. These are scary images, but they need to be seen as part of the government’s broader commitment to disregard the evidence and proceed forward with its own agenda. How can we possibly have evidence-based policy if we’ve gotten rid of all the evidence?

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