Scientists knew last spring that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was closing seven of its 11 regional libraries housing decades of aquatic research.
But it was not until they saw the shelves being cleared, the books and journals being scooped up for free by private companies, and the scientific reports being hauled off to the dumpster that the magnitude of the purge hit home.
"It's a loss," said Burton Ayles, a former DFO regional director and the former director of science for the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, the site of one of the libraries that have been shut down. "It's a loss of historic material, it's a loss of the grey [not widely published] literature."
The department says it will save $430,000 annually by consolidating material that "remains pertinent to the department's mandate" in two primary locations – the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C., and the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, N.S. – and two specialized collections.
"The decision to consolidate our network of libraries was based on value for taxpayers," Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said in a statement on Tuesday.
"An average of only five to 12 people who work outside of DFO visit our 11 libraries each year," the statement said. "It is not fair to taxpayers to make them pay for libraries that so few people actually use."
The primary users of the libraries were DFO scientists, who prefer to obtain their information digitally, said Sophie Doucet, a spokeswoman for Ms. Shea.
Peter Wells, an adjunct professor and senior research fellow at the International Ocean Institute at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said it is not surprising few members of the public used the libraries. But "the public benefits by the researchers and the different research labs being able to access the information," he said.
Scientists say it is true that most modern research is done online.
But much of the material in the DFO libraries was not available digitally, Dr. Wells said, adding that some of it had great historical value. And some was data from decades ago that researchers use to determine how lakes and rivers have changed.
"I see this situation as a national tragedy, done under the pretext of cost savings, which, when examined closely, will prove to be a false motive," Dr. Wells said. "A modern democratic society should value its information resources, not reduce, or worse, trash them."
Dr. Ayles said the Freshwater Institute had reports from the 1880s and some that were available nowhere else. "There was a whole core people who used that library on a regular basis," he said.
Dr. Ayles pointed to a collection of three-ringed binders, occupying seven metres of shelf space, that contained the data collected during a study in the 1960s and 1970s of the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline. For a similar study in the early years of this century, he said, "scientists could go back to that information and say, 'What was the baseline 30 years ago? What was there then and what is there now?' "
When asked how much of the discarded information has been digitized, the government did not provide an answer, but said the process continues.
The department says material was offered to other libraries and third parties. It was also offered to the DFO staff on site, then the general public, and recycled if there were no takers, Ms. Doucet said. Scientists at the Freshwater Institute say a Winnipeg consulting company hauled away anything its workers thought might be useful – material that the scientists say is now lost to them.
"On my last visit, there were bound journals and maps strewn all over the place ... ," said a scientist who asked to remain anonymous because he still does work for the department. "And it was just appalling."