Nature’s Past is a regular audio podcast series produced by Sean Kheraj on the environmental history research community in Canada. It is published by the Network in Canadian History and Environment. The show features interviews, round table discussions, and lectures on a wide range of topics in environmental history, including climate change, urbanization, natural resource development, conservation, and food production. This is the latest episode, first published on the NiCHE website on February 3.
In 2012, the Canadian federal government began closing and consolidating many of its departmental libraries. More than a dozen research libraries have closed at Parks Canada, Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Foreign Affairs, Citizenship and Immigration, Human Resources and Skills Development, the National Capital Commission, Intergovernmental Affairs, Public Works and Government Services, Canada Revenue Agency, Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, and Canadian Heritage (click here for a timeline of closures).
In December, the government began to close all but four of its eleven Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries. News reports across the country showed startling images of books and other documents lying in dumpsters with rumors that others may have been burned. The culling of these libraries involved what has been described as a haphazard free-for-all with members of the public and industry scooping up abandoned books and valuable so-called “grey literature,” unique internal government publications. The process of library consolidation and closure seems to have happened so quickly that books that were still out on loan were never recalled. And beyond the loss of material, we still do not know the extent of the personnel losses. As library staff get laid off, valuable human knowledge vanishes along with the books.
One thing that stands out in this troubling story is the degree to which the library closures have targeted scientific and environmental research branches of the government. These libraries housed historical research materials of great relevance to Canada’s environmental history. As such, they are likely to have a detrimental impact on our ability to know about the past.
We decided then to find out more about this issue by speaking with Andrew Nikiforuk, a writer and journalist for thetyee.ca who has written extensively on this topic. I also sat down with a panel of environmental historians to get their take on the potential impact these closures might have on Canadian environmental history.
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- “Am120-GTR-Arps+Impro by Javolenus” by NiGiD
- “Cinematic Sentimental Melancholic Emotional Grand Piano Movie Pictures Theme Soundtrack 017” by RoyaltyFreeMusic
- “Cm124-FunkyGroove” by Javolenus
- “Am120-GTR-Arps+Impro” by Javolenus
Kheraj, Sean. “Episode 41: Closing Federal Libraries” Nature’s Past: Canadian Environmental History Podcast. 3 February 2014.
Legally, these libraries were supposed to have contacted the Library and Archives Canada to have its approval for the disposition of unpublished research. If these documents were published, then copies would have already have been deposited at the Library and Archives according to law as well. Unfortunately, whether or not departments follow the law on these matters is not always the case and will have to be determined.
In my own work, helping to save the Industry Canada library from closure in the 1990s, I successfully proved to upper management that library closures cost a department more money than they saved in a study I titled The Cost of Library Cutbacks And The Downward Spiral of Information Access. It was evident that after library funding was cut, branches began to buy their own duplicate copies of expensive information. These document acquisitions were piling up in offices where people were unable to find what they were looking for (one guy had almost $60,000 in cd roms in the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet that others who needed it did not know about). Informal mini-libraries soon sprang up throughout the department as “resource centres” that were mostly just big storage areas for books, magazines, and electronic content without proper cataloguing, so that people could not find anything. One resource centre was established by the admin person, as she gave her director an ultimatum that due to her fear of tripping over books piled on the floors of everyone’s office, either they establish a storage area like this or she was not going to enter their offices for safety reasons. Very quickly, the cost of developing these largely unmanaged resource centres was proven to be much more than the costs of the library cutbacks and so it was clear that to save money, the library’s funding had to be restored immediately, at first with surplus funds then by institutional core funding within just 6 months.
In the following years, I advised the new manager who wasn’t a trained librarian on how to reposition the library, to ensure its value was never again challenged while I was there. We did this by my convincing the department to allow the library to manage the intranet. I redesigned the intranet’s taxonomy to ensure library resources were made available to the whole department in a public place. We promoted client research training and I promoted knowledge sharing throughout the department by developing my own subject experts database to link subject experts with one another. We hosted networking meetings, invited outside experts to speak to our patrons on topics of interest, and I introduced missionary marketing tactics that helped promote greater usage of the library’s resources. The vision was that of the ancient Library of Alexandria where people in a forum of public discourse and learning, not just a repository of books. The end result was that we won awards for this work and the library, even 12 years after I left has been able to remain open and vital to their department. My client, the manager of the library, told me that she was told originally commanded to either fix the library or close it. Because of our work together, she said that we fixed and saved it, for which we should be proud.
Unfortunately, not all librarians or executives seem able to understand how to justify the value of a library or the true cost of closures. These cycles of closures and re-openings happen over and over, wasting funds and ruining careers. What is needed is a proper assessment of these cycles, the cost to an institution, and an establishment of a cost:benefit analysis of library closures to avoid the rash budget cuts by uninformed management. It is bad business practice not to understand how cost cuts cost more, almost immediately afterwards. And, any profession that cannot defend its value has to reassess its own leadership capabilities. This is a time to reflect and rebuild the librarian profession once again or go retrain for another career that can defend itself better.
Thanks for your feedback and for sharing your own experience at Industry Canada. It would be great to hear from librarians currently working in the system. Unfortunately, many fear reprisals for speaking out.