On the loss of historical data and the closure of the DFO libraries
In the past few weeks several Canadian newspapers have covered the story of the ongoing closure and dismantling of many of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) libraries. The Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans has argued that this “library consolidation” program will save taxpayer money by closing rarely visited facilities and providing access to scientific records in digital format. The reality of this consolidation process, critics argue, is that third-party contractors carried out library facility closures, much of the promised digitization did not occur, and irreplaceable reports and datasets have now been lost. Peter Wells, an adjunct professor at the International Ocean Institute at Dalhousie University is quoted in the Globe and Mail as stating, “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… A modern democratic society should value its information resources, not reduce, or worse, trash them.” The recent closures can be read as yet another chapter in what has been called the Harper government’s “war on science.” Many scientists in Canada and abroad have voiced their concerns over the ongoing dismantling of scientific infrastructure in Canada and the increased political interference in the dissemination of scientific research. Should we, as historians of marine science, not also voice our concerns? As historians, what can we do? After all, the closure of the DFO libraries has the potential to hinder our ability to conduct research on the history of oceanography.
Marine scientists do not need to be convinced of the value of historical scientific records, but perhaps lawmakers do. Fisheries scientists employ historical records to deal with the problem of shifting baselines when trying to understand contemporary fish stock sustainability and the celebrated Scripps oceanographer Walter Munk famously argued that one of the major problems oceanographers have faced, since the inception of the field of marine science, is the problem of under-sampling. Simply put, the more data available, the better scientists can understand what is an extremely complex and shifting ecosystem. As any oceanographer will tell you, a single research cruise provides comparatively little information about any particular location, however, a series of cruises that visit the same “stations” will result in a series of data sets providing a much more complete picture. The same could be said about historical research, only our research cruises consist of trips to the archives. Perhaps the issue at the heart of the recent closure of the Canadian DFO libraries is a failure of lawmakers to understand that marine science is a branch of research more dependent than most on the accretion of observations over the long term.
I can’t pretend to know what we as historians should do, however, acknowledging that an important resource is being irreparably destroyed is a first step. I argued in a recent blog post that there is much potential for collaborative work between marine scientists and historians. In the wake of recent events, it seems to me that historians of science might also turn their collaborative efforts to standing with scientists in opposition to the destruction of marine science records. After all, marine science libraries and archives house our datasets as well.