Writing on the wall in closing of federal libraries

On March 29, 2012, the federal government introduced a new budget that outlined plans to cut $5.2 billion in departmental spending over three years. At the time, the media coverage was mostly about the expected loss of public service jobs, more than 19,000 positions. As the newly appointed Head of Collections at Carleton University’s library, where I am also responsible for gift operations, what I quickly came to realize was that the budget cuts were going to spell the end to many departmental libraries, as well as Crown corporation, advisory body, and local non-profit agency libraries. Many libraries were contacting the Carleton library in the early summer of 2012 to see if we would be interested in accepting some, or all, of their collections. In April 2013, Carleton Now wrote a short article on our efforts to rescue some of these collections.

One of these libraries was  the Ottawa branch of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). The ongoing DFO library consolidation across Canada, particularly in Alberta, is a flashpoint in current media coverage about the loss of valuable research material. But the DFO situation was not a unique one. It is one story among many where government libraries, due to staff and operating cuts, were forced to develop new plans. My personal experience in dealing with the staff who had the unenviable task of implementing these drastic budget cuts is one of utmost respect for their professionalism in the face of adversity.

The librarians and staff members who reached out to me to see if Carleton could accept some, or all, of their collections were folks who were often going to be out of a job entirely by the end of 2012 or, if lucky, reassigned. They were reaching out because they cared about the fate of their libraries, something which I don’t think came across in the media narrative. I saw anguish on the faces of employees who had built strong subject collections up over their lifetime, only to see them being dismantled in front of them. But despite the hard feelings, they did what they could to transfer the core essence of their collections to willing takers. In recent history, Carleton’s library accepted entire collections from CIDA, the National Capital Commission, and National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, Canadian Policy Research Network (CPRN) and the Heritage Foundation.

And what about the previously mentioned DFO Ottawa branch library? On four separate occasions over 18 months, they contacted us as their weeding plan progressed, offering updated lists with their planned discards. Given our large commitment to taking on entire collections from the above-mentioned libraries, we had to be selective in what we did accept from some of the other closing libraries, concentrating on rescuing the unique research material available. In the case of the Ottawa branch of the DFO, we took in a selection of historical fishery statistics and 25 boxes of rarer material. We did this again and again, working collegially with federal staff from the Natural Resources Canada, Statistics Canada, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, the CBC, the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse and the National Council of Welfare.

The disappointment in seeing the effects of the DFO closures, the images of books randomly strewn in recycling bins, is understandable. It signals a loss that means many things to many people: the loss of knowledge, the loss of the importance of paper books, the loss of special collections, and the loss of librarian expertise. But the DFO lost $80 million in funding in 2012 and as early as May 22, 2012, the media were reporting on the planned library closings and the layoff of librarians.

The writing was on the wall for anyone willing to see it.

David Sharp is the Head of Collections, E-Resources, and Serials (CES) at MacOdrum Library at Carleton University.

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