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Closing libraries, foreclosing research

Will Knight

In 2007, Stephen Bocking, professor of environmental studies at Trent University, asked me to conduct some research on British Columbia’s aquaculture industry. The plan included a visit to British Columbia to consult the collection at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) library at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.

As a budding historian of Canadian fisheries, I was excited to visit this site. Established in 1908, the station was the third biological research station in Canada and the first on the west coast. Its library—in existence since the station’s inception—proved to be a treasure trove.

A darkened room with close-packed shelves, the library looked like a working scientist’s lumber-room overflowing with material. It was a particularly rich repository of grey literature: scientific reports and studies printed and distributed in limited quantities, and which are usually difficult to track down. These were squeezed onto shelves and, in truth, made me despair that I could navigate this daunting terrain.

Over the course of several days work and with the help of the librarian, however, I found material that supported Stephen’s research project, which led to his publication of new analysis. I was also side-tracked by shelf-reading, a problem familiar to most researchers. You begin wandering along a shelf, randomly pulling out books and reports, leafing through them without any discernible purpose. This is how I found, for example, Stella and Edgar Worthington’s Inland Waters of Africa (1933), an untapped source for a yet-to-be written history of English colonial fisheries administration.

This serendipity and freedom are intangible qualities that physical libraries foster and which digital archives, which are undoubtedly valuable, do not reproduce. And it is one reason, among many, why the library’s closure—one of five libraries that DFO has shuttered—is so troubling. DFO claims that the closures are cost-saving measures; the collections from the five closed libraries will be consolidated in two existing libraries. The lack of physical access will be offset, officials promise, by the digitization of materials.