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Scientists go fishing for old documents

Library kept books, rare reports

Shelves at the Freshwater Institute library are left nearly empty on Wednesday. The federal government is closing the facility.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Shelves at the Freshwater Institute library are left nearly empty on Wednesday. The federal government is closing the facility.

Fish and water scientists turned into scavengers this week, descending on a soon-to-be-closed federal library to salvage hundreds of books, journals and rare reports that are about to be tossed.

The library at the Freshwater Institute on the University of Manitoba campus is one of seven slated for closure by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Some material, 38,700 items, has already been sent to the DFO's library in Sidney, B.C., one of only two remaining Fisheries libraries in Canada.

When word got out the rest could be trashed, biologists, aquatic scientists and other researchers from North/South Consultants were dispatched to rescue what they could. DFO scientists had already cannibalized what was left of the library, but hundreds of books, journals, maps and reports remain.

"There's a treasure trove of stuff there," said Don MacDonell, one of the principals of North/South, which does field research and environmental impact assessments for government and corporate clients. "In our field, aquatics, the library was quite valuable. It serviced the whole central and Arctic region."

The library's closure adds insult to injury following the near-death of the Experimental Lakes Area and several years of deep staff and budget cuts at the DFO's Winnipeg operation, including the Freshwater Institute. The institute, once a hub of research, is now eerily quiet. Some local biologists say they would be shocked if the institute doesn't close entirely in the coming years.

The closure of the DFO library follows the demise of a similar library, Manitoba Conservation's collection once housed in the Via Rail station downtown. The closure began quietly last year. The government plans to digitize much of the material, but critics said the library's demise means the loss of a huge archive of provincial research and environmental licensing documents.

A DFO spokesman said only duplicates from the Freshwater Institute's library were slated to be recycled. One-of-a-kind materials were sent to B.C., and the 14,400 duplicate items had already been offered to other libraries and DFO staff.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the team from North/South loaded three vehicles, including a flatbed truck, with boxes of books, journals and "grey literature" -- old consultant's reports, government documents and other studies that won't ever be available online and are otherwise hard to track down.

Old environmental impact statements done for past projects were at the top of the rescue list, in part because they offer baseline data on such things as fish populations and toxicology as well as novel methods to do proper assessments, said one scientist who used the library frequently.

"It's hard to leave it behind, knowing where it's destined," said another.

As University of Manitoba grad students, the scavengers logged hundreds of hours in the library doing research.

"I don't know what I would have done without this library," said one woman.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

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