Valerie Knowles takes on the closure of Canada’s federal science libraries in this piece for the Ottawa Citizen from January 16, 2014.

The Ottawa Citizen on January 10 highlighted a piece relating to the closure of federal science libraries. What this otherwise excellent article failed to mention, however, was the lamentable closure of numerous other federal libraries, a development that had been quietly underway for many months and that will seriously impede research and undermine our understanding of Canada’s history.

Among the other libraries closed to date are those of the Immigration and Refugee Board, Transport Canada, Public Works and Government Services Canada, the Public Service Commission, the National Capital Commission, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the Canadian Transportation Agency and Canadian International and Development Agency. In the past, I have used CIC’s library to research a Canadian immigration history that is used in universities across this country. I am now working on the fourth edition of this book, but I cannot continue doing research in CIC’s library because it has been closed.

Even when forward-looking library managers take into account the reality of digital publishing and act accordingly, they and their staff, to say nothing of outside researchers like myself, cannot but deplore the consignment of valuable books, documents and photos to basements, where they will be out of reach of researchers and in danger of being lost forever.

Michael Molloy, Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, cites an example of a unique document slated for oblivion. He is researching the development of Canada’s refugee policy in the critical period between 1969, when Canada signed the UN Refugee Convention, and 1978, when a revised Immigration Act was implemented.

According to Molloy, developments in refugee policy at the Cabinet level can be tracked online, but the critical decisions made by the Cabinet were communicated to immigration officials in an “Operations Memorandum” inserted in an immigration officer’s instruction manual. “These instructions,” reports Molloy, “governed how Canada resettled refugees from Chile, Uganda, Eastern Europe and the early phases of the Indochinese refugee movement and had a profound impact on Canadian refugee procedures down to this day. So far as we know, only one copy of the Ops Memorandum still exists: in the Immigration department’s library, which has closed.”

Other irreplaceable documentation destined for oblivion deals with Canada’s labour history, not a small part of any country’s heritage. These documents were held by the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada library, which has closed.

Library closures and service reductions are ostensibly part of the Government’s budget control measures. Regrettably, the Government and federal policy makers often don’t consider the implications of the wanton dismissal of print material. They don’t seem to realize that a huge body of literature does not exist on the Internet. This includes older documents and the pay-per-use literature of academia. Even if digitization is underway it will take many years before certain library holdings are completely digitized and their contents made available to researchers via the Internet. In any event, do we have any idea how long electronic records will survive?

Furthermore, it does not seem to register with federal decision makers that librarians are still the best search engines. Many people don’t know how to search the Internet expeditiously, or even where to begin a search. With the loss of government librarians, civil servants seeking reports and other background material or researching their own reports will have to rely solely on their own research skills. This will result in less informed reports with the unfortunate implications this has for policy formulation.

In short, no matter what type of format is consulted, skilled and knowledgeable librarians have provided quick and efficient research access to the information government policy analysts and researchers need. And this should continue to be the case so that their advice to ministers on matters affecting Canadians every day is well-founded. These same librarians have also been, of course, a valuable resource to outside researchers like Molloy and myself in bringing to light the background to public policy.

Good public policy is based on the findings of good research, not ideology. For this reason, if for no other, the federal government should abandon its deplorable policy of dismissing federal librarians and closing the libraries they serve. Cost cutting and savings to the Canadian taxpayer can in no way justify what is now taking place.