Book Burning or Fact Fudging? What I Found Out Researching the DFO “Book Burning” Claims

20140105-110903.jpgI was shocked recently to read an “article” a couple friends had linked to on Facebook about the Canadian Fishieries and Oceans Library and Archives being “simply sent to landfill or burned”.  Why would the government want to destroy centuries of archival research I wondered?  “Article” is in quotes because I quickly realized it was not a work of news, but a blog post, but many people don’t realize there’s a difference.  You’re about to see why there is.

This blog on a site called Boing Boing –which not helpfully links back on its own website, at least when the links actually work –claims there is a Conservative, “war on the environment”, that “An irreplaceable, 50-volume collection of logs from HMS Challenger’s 19th century expedition went to the landfill”, and disturbingly, “Some of the books were burned”, and also “The Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg and the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland: gone. Both collections were world-class.”

Wow.  Book burning by a major G8 government in 2013/2014?!  This is truly shocking. Decades of research being dumped? Stunning.  Libraries that are just “gone”?  Awful.   But as I kept reading, I realized none of these claims are backed up by anyone.  They’re not attributed to any identified person.  They’re not quotes.  The article contains a boxed link to something, again, not attributed, or linked back to its source that claims scientists are being “muzzled”.  It names someone called only “Hutchings”.  Who is this person?  Why are they mentioned?

So I decided to do a little investigating for myself.  (Incidentally, something I always recommend people do before posting something for all your friends and family to see.) As a journalist, I deal in facts.  Not hysteria, not hyperbole.  When you’re screeching, “The sky is falling!!”, I’m liable to go outside and see for myself, instead of running around with the other people who are now terrified simply because someone told them to be. You can have an opinion, just make sure you’ve done your homework.

Let’s look at the claims made here, one by one, for fact checking:

Claim 1.  “The Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg and the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland: gone. Both collections were world-class.”

Fact 1. I looked at several reputable news sources, and also went right to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans website for their handy FAQ on Libraries Consolodation.  While, yes, they are closing both those libraries, they say, (a news article on the Winnipeg closure here) “The Department’s 11 library locations will be consolidated into 4 locations, composed of 2 primary locations, the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney BC, and the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth NS, as well as 2 specialized collections residing at the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) College library in Sydney, Nova Scotia and the CCG technical library in the National Capital Region.”

So what’s happening to the collections, you might ask?  From DFO: “Consolidating Departmental libraries will result in minimal change for external users. There will be no changes to the size or scope of the collection,” and “The Department may remove only content that is duplicated at one or more libraries and, in rare instances, materials which fall outside the subject disciplines pertinent to the department’s mandate from its collection.”

The Winnipeg Free Press article linked above also goes on to say, “DFO scientists had already cannibalized what was left of the library, but hundreds of books, journals, maps and reports remain.”  So what appears to be happening, is the good stuff from the library was sent to one of the remaining libraries.  What they didn’t deem valuable was kept by other DFO scientists.  The leftovers were opened up to the public. This stuff is not being trashed willy nilly, from the research I’ve done.  And just as an aside, when scientists and librarians have deemed the stuff not valuable enough to keep, doesn’t that make you wonder if it’s truly as historically irreplaceable as some might suggest?  My grandmother kept years of old newspapers, but does that mean I need to become their custodian when no one wants them?  Might the DFO be getting rid of some stuff, as we all frequently do when years-old bills, used post-it notes and 9 year old greeting cards start to clutter up the home office?  Yes.  Are they dumping their vast collections in the garbage, and are they “gone”?  It would appear not from the facts at hand. They are digitizing and consolidating their collections.

Now, if you’d like to merely brush this stuff off by saying, “the government is lying!!!”, then knock yourself out.  But can you prove it? Merely being distrustful of an entity, government or person, “just because”, is not a substitute for a well-reasoned, fact-based opinion.   I can claim to be 21, and say I have a 23″ waist.  Can I prove it?  Nuh uhh.  In my world of journalism, you have to be able to back up what you publish or broadcast, or you get sued, or fired.

Claim 2.  “An irreplaceable, 50-volume collection of logs from HMS Challenger’s 19th century expedition went to the landfill”

Fact 2.  It’s hard to figure out where this one comes from, and thus fact check it.  Mainly because it comes with no other information, no source, no proof.  I can find no proof or evidence online this has happened. No one’s mentioned it.  I looked on the website for the HMS Challenger Society.  Surely an organization dedicated to and named after the very ship these logs came from would be decrying this loss of history?  Not a mention.  Then I found an article on canada.com that states, ”

“The libraries are home to the 50 illustrated volumes from Britain’s Challenger expedition that sailed the seas in the late 1800s exploring the mysteries of the deep…. history that is being packed into boxes as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans “consolidates” its world-class library collection.”

Huh.  So it’s being moved.  Not dumped.

But they’re still burning the books and maps and archival papers, right?

Claim 3.  The Big, Scary one:  “Some of the books were burned”

Fact 3.  Since the blog doesn’t tell me where this book burning went down, finding witnesses is a bit of a needle in a haystack.  And there’s not quote from any DFO employee, even anonymously, that they were forced to incinerate this stuff in the basement of a stuffy old building in Ottawa.  So what really happened? Another round of searches turns up this article from a BC online newsmagazine called the Tyee, whose headline reads, “Dismantling of Fishery Library ‘Like a Book Burning,’ Say Scientists”.

Well.  How about that.  Add the word “Like”, and it kinda changes everything, doesn’t it?  This phrase comes from a quote, from an unnamed scientist.  “I was sickened,” said one prominent research scientist who had worked for the federal government for 30 years, and who did not want to be identified. “All that intellectual capital is now gone. It’s like a book burning. It’s the destruction of our cultural heritage. It just makes us poorer as a nation.”

So I get it.  Scientists say this library consolidation is bad.  And again, having the info online or on paper, keeping a dozen libraries or just 2, those are all separate discussions you can have. All I’m doing here is looking for facts.  And “book burning” doesn’t appear to be one of them.  But hey, it makes a good blog headline, and gets it passed around, right?

Journalism vs Blogs

Now all of this fact checking is just what I had time to do in an hour at my kitchen table.  If I were doing this at work, we’d have people out there doing interviews, chasing witnesses and videotaping everything.  So before anyone discounts this mini investigation as just some internet searching, and says it barely scratches the surface, you’re right.  This is what I spent an hour on a Saturday doing: reading.  Fact checking.  And now it’s time for a glass of wine.    But bring me proof anything claimed in the original hysterical blog is true, and not only will I write about it, I’ll bring it to the major-market TV station where I work and share it with everyone.

Bottom line here, friends, before you repost stuff, do a few things:

1.  Check the facts.  If a neighbour tells you Joe Smith is killing babies in his basement on your street!!!! on Facebook, might you want to call the cops, ask how the tattler knows that, or even knock on Joe’s door yourself, before you join the lynch mob or molotov his house. Google search stuff.  Read reputable news articles about it.  Speak to someone in the know.  When you read something, see if a person has been quoted.  Does that person actually exist? Google them.  Who are they?  What do they do?

2.  Check your sources. Don’t confuse blogs with real news.  Don’t confuse bloggers with obvious agendas and hate-ons as journalists.  Get your facts from real media. If it hasn’t been covered yet, send a friendly e-mail to your media outlet of choice inquiring about it. People who work in media are not omnipotent, we need tips, and to know about what concerns you, our customers. Or–better yet–get the facts for yourself.

3.  Don’t buy into hype.  If something sounds hysterical/unbelievable/insane, it’s probably because it is.  Don’t buy into the also oft-screeched paranoia of “the media are being blocked from covering (insert whatever story here) by the government/advertisers/shadowy men in black.  It just doesn’t happen.  Want one tiny example?  Google Air Canada.  Read all the stories of complaint and troubles and problems that come out monthly about them.  Don’t you think if this media/corporate conspiracy was real, all Air Canada’s news stories would read more like Westjet’s? I’ve worked in three major Canadian markets, for every network, and never once has myself, or anyone I’ve ever worked with been ordered to kybosh a story because a corporation asked.

And yes, I obviously see the irony in writing this on my blog. Comments welcome.

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