Follow-Up, Two Years Later: Where Are We At With Libraries in NL?

What will happen now? It is hard to say. The government made no official statement of support or opposition to the plan when it was revealed, or in the following three months.

Two years after threatened library closures sparked mass protest, and after two hefty reports on addressing systemic problems with NL’s libraries, the library board has tabled on the table for radical change. Yet it arrived with little fanfare, and the government’s reaction has been muted.

The Library Baord Plan calls for an initial 15% rise in the libraries’ budget this year. This would just be the beginning though – it sets out longer term targets based on what other Canadian library systems provide. This would include increased library opening hours, renewal of libraries’ ageing books and other resource collections, better provision of computer and internet access, and other goals which they estimate would require a near-doubling of their annual budget.

The report highlighted a number of areas where our libraries fall short. We have less than a quarter of the budgets per library provided by Nova Scotia and New Brunswick for the purchase of new library resources. Over half of our libraries do not buy new DVDs for example. On average, less than a quarter of our books were purchased within 5 years, although these tend to be the texts most in demand. The report calls for an increase in the budget for books and other materials from less than $1m in 2017 to $2.5m eventually, with an initial boost of $300,000 this year.

The EY Report found that our libraries are open 24% fewer hours than the Canadian average – moreover at the moment, no libraries are open on Sundays, and only 37% are open on Saturdays. The biggest single additional budget expense the board is seeking this year is $535,000 to implement “essential hours” across the province. This would see the AC Hunter open on Sundays, and all St John’s libraries opening 10 am – 5 pm on Saturdays for example.

The proposed reforms are a far cry from what the same board planned just two years earlier. In 2016, on hearing the incoming Liberal government would cut its budget by 8%, the  Provincial Information and Library Resources Board (PILRB) announced a plan to close over half of its libraries, mostly in rural areas, and cut 64 jobs.

This caused a strong reaction both in the province and across Canada, particularly as Newfoundland and Labrador has one of the lowest literacy levels in the country. As a result, the government backed away from the plan and commissioned Ernst and Young (EY) to produce a report.

That report noted our library system receives 42% less money per head than the national average, despite serving a geographically dispersed population. It identified a number of libraries that served low populations and/or are within a 15 or 30 minute drive of each other, but did not make specific recommendations for closures. Indeed, the then-education minister, Dale Kirby, whose initial proposals started the debate, announced after the budget of 2018 that there would not be any branch closures while he was minister.

To address the funding shortfall, the EY report noted that in most of the rest of Canada, libraries are funded by local government rather than the province, and suggested some kind of cost-sharing agreement should be sought. But as we noted at the time, there was little appetite for this among municipalities, which are already facing substantial costs to address other costly, long-neglected issues like wastewater treatment, and it seems the province recognises this as it has done little to push this forward.

A new, library-friendly council in St John’s, and donations of multicultural books, board games, and of musical instruments have been some help in the capital, but there seems little likelihood either charity or municipalities will be able to tackle a gap of this size. The EY report suggested that the libraries set up a fundraising arm, but the library board response indicated the money spent would be better given directly to the libraries, noting that a similar body in New Brunswick spent more than it received in donations in 2015 and 2016.

The vexed issue of finding cost savings by shutting underused libraries or merging libraries that are close to one another, which sparked this series of reports in the first place, seems to have been kicked into the long grass. The only substantive comment from the minister’s office about the PILRB report has been that there’s no plan from them or in the PILRB report to close any libraries. This is true… and yet… The PILRB did ask its staff to come up with a good measure to identify libraries that should be considered for closure. It came up with two criteria –  libraries serving a population under 500 or under 800 if there’s another library a 20 minute drive away, and libraries where the population served is under 3000 with another library ten minutes drive away.

It found a total of 20 libraries that met the criteria to close (there are 94 at present), and estimated that shutting or merging them would cost $200,000. Though, it did not attempt to calculate the annual cost savings that would come with such a change. It nonetheless concluded, “the PILRB accepts the library location standards as presented but will only enforce these location standards if the operating grant can no longer sustain current operations.”

Moreover, although the board’s plan seems ambitious, there are still some options that seem to be missing from its strategic plan so far, or not fully accounted for in the projected budget. There was no mention in the report about the possibility of a return to a downtown library in St John’s, for example, though this has been discussed intermittently in recent years.

Also, although the report calls for improved and consistent standards of library programming (workshops, story times etc), it only allocates an additional $40,000 a year to purchase the equipment needed, but doesn’t cost out the additional training and staff time needed to reach those standards in future years.

What will happen now? It is hard to say. The government made no official statement of support or opposition to the plan when it was revealed, or in the following three months. Neither the minister nor his staff were available to comment, except in a short written statement which indicated, “requests for funding increases will be considered as part of government’s regular budgetary process.”

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