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More than half of N.L. libraries closing in wake of budget cuts

Library board chair says it's going to have a 'major impact' on the 64 people losing their jobs

Corner Brook Public Library

It was announced Wednesday that 54 library branches in the province will close and 41 will remain open after the changes are in place. (CBC)

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The library board in Newfoundland and Labrador announced sweeping changes to its services Wednesday, adopting a regional library model which will see 54 branches close in the next two years.

The board met Tuesday to discuss how best to deal with a $1-million loss in its annual budget, a cut announced in the provincial budget.

"It's tough on everybody," said chair Calvin Taylor.  

He said the board is just doing its part to help reduce the province's deficit.

"And also in the long run, to improve the library services in Newfoundland by going with a regional library-type [of] system."

Promising improved services

Taylor said 41 libraries will remain open, and be better serviced with the $650,000 left to run the library system. 

"Where money was very scarce before, we now have a little money to do something with," he said. 

Taylor promised enhancements to programs at remaining libraries, e-books and books-by-mail services.

He said 85 per cent of residents in the province should be within a 30-minute drive of a remaining branch — which will be open a minimum of 30 hours a week — and available to people in a service area where they go for groceries or to do their banking. 

The locations of the affected libraries have not yet been released, as the board is still notifying employees.

Taylor said it's going to have a "major impact" on the 64 people losing their jobs.

'Something had to change'

Education Minister Dale Kirby said few people were using the libraries that are being closed.

"The ones that are going to be closing are open on average only 18 hours a week," he said. "And they have low levels of usage,well, because they're not open very often.  So clearly something had to change."

When reminded of comments he made in 2013 as a New Democrat, before joining the Liberal Party, calling library cuts "an attack on literacy," Kirby said he now has a new perspective.

"It's pretty easy to sit in the opposition benches and criticize the activities of government without having all the information," Kirby told reporters at the House of Assembly on Wednesday.

"It was certainly unknown to me at the time that the public libraries board themselves were advocating for government to either increase investment or to close some of these libraries that had very limited hours of service."

Both Kirby and the library board have said that communities which house their libraries in municipal buildings will be given the opportunity to take them over, if they can afford to.

Budget 2016 has also been criticized for bringing in a 10 per cent book tax, which makes Newfoundland and Labrador the only province in Canada to tax books.

Publishers and writers have called that a blow in a province with some of the lowest literacy scores in the country.

Taylor said that tax does not apply to books the library purchases.

He said literacy rates were low 25 years ago when the province had more than 100 libraries. 

He's hoping that fewer libraries, with longer hours and better resources, "will actually be able to make a contribution towards reducing illiteracy."   

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