Library lovers in St John’s have had some good news in the last year or so. Many of the new city councillors have voiced strong support for libraries, and there was even some discussion about the possibility of a new downtown library, inspired by the success of Halifax’s. The city has also recently given the St John’s Library Board a $50,000 grant to pay for half of the cost of a “bookmobile” – the largest capital sum ever given by the city to the library system.
Nearly all library funding comes from the province, and two years after half the libraries across Newfoundland and Labrador were threatened with closure (though none in St John’s), the Education Minister Dale Kirby told reporters that library closures are a “dead issue.” The provincial government would like you to think things are looking up. In the recent budget, they pointed out that their grant to libraries is more than twice the national average.
And yet, dig a little deeper and the overall situation remains pretty bleak. The 2017 Ernst and Young report into the state of the province’s library system pointed out it is one of the worst-funded in the country, with 42% less money spent per head than the national average. We are one of the only provinces where municipalities don’t pay most of the cost of their libraries, and the report’s first recommendation was that the province and municipalities develop a shared funding model.
Municipalities NL has little appetite for that, with significant future costs to pay for neglected wastewater treatment infrastructure among other issues. Tony Keats, its president, says that the province has not started any negotiations about such a change, nor has it been raised as part of updates to the Municipalities Act due next year.
Meanwhile, the $11.3m the province allocated to libraries in the 2018 budget is around $100,000 lower than it was last year when the report revealed the extent of our crisis. Tellingly, in March, when the province announced a plan to develop adult literacy, the word “library” was nowhere in the briefing documents. And here in St John’s, the momentum for a central downtown library seems to be stalling.
The groundswell of popular support for libraries shown in 2016 and the consultants’ report should have spurred a thorough re-examination of the state of the library system in the province. Bringing spending on the library system in Newfoundland and Labrador up to the level of the national average would cost the government around $8.8m a year – about 1% of provincial expenditure. Elsewhere in Canada, a city like St John’s would have real power to improve its library system, but if that were to work here, they would need to be given the mandate and a greater ability to raise funds to support such work. As things stand, however, the “good news” is that a system limping along with inadequate resources will not get much worse off.