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Library luminary Eric Marshall earns national award

Eric Marshall’s Fisheries Library at the University of Manitoba was closed due to federal cutbacks. - Peter W. Rusland/file
Eric Marshall’s Fisheries Library at the University of Manitoba was closed due to federal cutbacks.
— image credit: Peter W. Rusland/file

Eric Marshall is reluctantly flattered about getting a national library award.

But the retired Cowichan Bay resident would rather have seen his namesake research library — the subject of his award — not closed by the feds last fall.

“It’s an award I’d rather not have gotten. I’d rather my library was still there,” he said of the 2014 Freedom To Read Award from the esteemed Writers’ Union of Canada.

“I think the whole idea of the Union award is to draw attention to (the closure).”

The award is given annually to individuals or groups furthering the cause of freedom of expression.

Marshall learned of the kudo Friday as the Federal Fisheries’ 15,000-square-foot Eric Marshall Aquatic Research Library now sits derelict at the University of Manitoba.

“I was very much taken aback when I got the call; it came out of the blue.”

Marshall, 83, will share the award with journalist Chris Turner. His articles shone a spotlight on closure of Canadian research libraries, adverse effects those closures had on scientific research — and on stewardship of Canada’s environment, the Writers’ Union’s email to Marshall explains.

To underline the irony of the Marshall Library’s demise, he’s asked former colleague, John Cooley — a retired Department of Fisheries staffer — to accept the award on his behalf Feb. 25 in Toronto.

Writers’ Union chairwoman Dorris Heffron said her organization has become concerned in the past year or so “about the inhibiting of scientific research in Canada through diminished funding of libraries, staff reductions, and closure of research libraries, resulting in difficulty of access to research documents and the loss of documents.”

“We are also deeply concerned about what is commonly called the ‘muzzling of scientists,’” her email reads. “Your work in building what many regard as the best library in North America on freshwater aquatic research was so outstanding that the library has been named after you.

“That was a 25-year project for which you were specially selected because of your earlier library expertise.”

The honour salutes Marshall’s vocal objections to the library’s closure, Heffron notes.

“Dismantling of that collection was done in such an inept way that documents have been lost and destroyed. You, and the research library named after you, have come to symbolize the stand against inhibiting scientific research in Canada.”

To the chagrin of students and researchers, Marshall Library was closed amid budget cuts to many of Canada’s various other research facilities.

Marshall Library offered decades of painstaking collection of books, journals, studies, maps, charts and more. They’ve since been taken to other libraries, or to dumpsters.

“The problem is once you’ve closed (a research library) and shifted the books, or given half of the materials away, there’s no way to get the library back,” Marshall said.

He doubted anything could resurrect his beloved library.

“It would be virtually impossible,” he said, noting emails and other contacts after feature coverage in the News Leader Pictorial.

“Colleagues say the library staff did great things finding materials they couldn’t find anywhere on their own.”

Past recipients of the Freedom to Read Award have included publisher Patsy Aldana, Book Of Negroes writer Lawrence Hill, lawyer Clayton Ruby, and PEN International president John Ralston Saul.

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