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It has been a difficult few years for the curators of knowledge in Canada. While the scientific community is still reeling from the loss of seven of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ eleven libraries, news has broken that scientists with Health Canada were left scrambling for resources after the outsourcing and then closure of their main library.
In January CBC news uncovered a report from a consultant hired by the federal government cataloguing mistakes in the government’s handling of the closure. “Staff requests have dropped 90 per cent over in-house service levels prior to the outsource. This statistic has been heralded as a cost savings by senior HC [Health Canada] management,” the report said.
“However, HC scientists have repeatedly said during the interview process that the decrease is because the information has become inaccessible — either it cannot arrive in due time, or it is unaffordable due to the fee structure in place.”
Government spokespeople dismissed the report, saying it was “returned to its author for corrections, which were never undertaken.”
The consultancy company fired back through a letter from its lawyer. “Representations that our client provided a factually inaccurate report and then neglected to respond to requests for changes are untrue,” it read.
However, Health Canada and the DFO are not the only government bodies to lose access to vital archival material in the past two years. Postmedia reports more than twelve departments losing libraries due to the Harper government’s budget cuts, including the Canada Revenue Agency, Citizenship and Immigration, Employment and Social Development Canada, Environment Canada, Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Natural Resources Canada, Parks Canada, the Public Service Commission, Public Works and Government Services, and Transport Canada.
Many of these departments lost multiple libraries, with historical records and books disappearing from shelves, scattered across private collections or tossed in dumpsters. In 2013 even the country’s main home for historic documents, Library and Archives Canada, faced major cuts to service, including hours, interlibrary loans and staffing.
This unprecedented process has triggered concerns about the loss of physical documents and imperfections in the digitization process. A recent report from the Canadian Libaries Association (CLA) expresses these fears in no uncertain terms.
“Currently in Canada the vast majority of research data is at risk of being lost because it is not being systematically managed and preserved. While certain disciplines and research projects have institutional, national, or international support for data management, this support is available for a minority of researchers only. A coordinated and national approach to managing research data in Canada is required in order to derive greater and longer term benefits, both socially and economically, from the extensive public investments that are made in research.”
But equally as worrisome is the loss of the librarians themselves, some of whom have spent decades familiarizing themselves with the extremely specialized materials in their collections.
Anyone who has written an undergraduate research paper knows how maddening it can be to dig through online databases for a single piece of information. The same is true for high level researchers, according to Jeff Mason, past president of the Canadian Health Libraries Association (CHLA/ABSC).
Mason is a librarian at a hospital in Saskatchewan with firsthand experience of working with health professionals. “Much as you would think a doctor would be an expert at treatment and diagnoses, when it comes to information in the health field, librarians are key resources,” he told DeSmog Canada by phone a day after learning of the Health Canada main library’s closure.
“I was shocked to hear that the Health Canada library had been closed because we thought it was safe as an organization,” says Mason.
In a field as specialized as medical research, having a librarian who is familiar with the material is integral to success.
“Unless you really know what you’re doing and spend all day everyday searching for information, these databases, or the internet, can be impossible,” Mason says. “Unless you spend all your times with your hands in it, you can’t really ever be sure that you’ve found everything that’s out there.”
A librarian’s relationship to a collection makes them able to help researchers and physicians alike find necessary information with speed and efficiency. They can aid researchers in formulating questions and narrowing fields of inquiry, streamlining the process of both digital and hard copy searches. “We tell our clients in our hospital if they spent more than 10 minutes looking for something, then they should have come to us,” he says.
With budget cuts and library closures, collections are being shunted to academic libraries that are simply not capable of maintaining the level of service of the original institutions.
“They’re short-staffed and they don’t have enough funds to do what they’re supposed to do,” says Mason. “Now they’re being contacted by government researchers and not-for-profits that used to get their information through the government of Canada.”
Head of collections David Sharp and gift specialist Colin Harness from Carleton University have released a stunning graphic detailing their institution’s efforts to “rescue” collections.
In 2012 and 2013 Carleton University engaged with 21 different government libraries. They were able to help fourteen libraries, finding homes for 500 rare items from Fisheries and Oceans Canada only, either by taking in their collections or connecting them with resources. Eight of those collections were either dispersed elsewhere or have an unknown status. One collection, from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, was declined because of “staff and space resource concerns.”
But even if the materials find a safe home either on a physical shelf or in a database, librarians, Mason believes, are still “integral to sound science and sound policy.”
Their loss is “really devastating to the state of science and knowledge in our country.”
The January report by the CLA corroborates Mason’s opinion. “Research libraries are essential institutions in developing and managing data repositories,” it reads. “Libraries and librarians have the expertise in resource description, storage, and access.”