Nfld. & Labrador

'What do you want to be here for?': Bell Island library users worry for future

When the Bell Library closes in the next two years, many of the people who rely on the library for internet access will be left behind.

Locals worry about internet access, future of tourism business

The Bell Island Public Library is one of 54 libraries in Newfoundland and Labrador slated to close down in the next two years. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

On an overcast day in early May, the Bell Island Public Library was quiet.

It was business as usual, but there was a note of tension in the air: the library won't be around much longer.

Reading between the lines: Bell Island prepares for the loss of its library. 5:47

The building is one of 54 public libraries slated to close in the next two years.

Inside, a woman with three children in tow looked for a book to read, while a few patrons sat in front of computers busily typing away

They were doing what many people often take for granted in the comfort of their homes: browsing the internet, conducting research, and chatting with family and friends online.

For many children, seniors and lower-income residents on Bell Island, the public library is the only place on the island that provides free internet access,

Rhonda Coady, an avid user of the library, says that if it shuts down, many people on Bell Island won't have anywhere else to go. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Rhonda Coady, who visits the library every week, said it's a necessary fixture in the community.

"I use the internet and I order books and I take out some of the books here and I socialize," she said.

Many residents say there can be a two year wait to have internet access installed on the island, and Coady said the library is one of the only ways for people to stay connected.

"You shut that down, it's going to be difficult for a lot of people," she said.

​When the library cuts were first announced, Newfoundland and Labrador Public Library Board chair Calvin Taylor said that 85 per cent of the people affected by the closures would be within a 30-minute drive of the next library.

But Coady isn't buying that. 

"That's a dream," she said.

"On a good day, you're probably waiting an hour in the lineup to get on the ferry and then 20 minutes to get to Portugal Cove and then by the time you probably get to the library, it might be closed."

When the Bell Island library closes, the next closest one will be a boat and taxi ride away. 

Tourism bureau operates from library 

Jim George, pictured here with a tourism brochure he produced, worries he will have no choice but to shut down his Bell Island tourism business. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

One of the people who will be gutted by the loss of the library is Jim George. 

He runs a Bell Island tourism bureau and makes brochures, maps, and maintains a website using the building's computer and printing services.

There's nothing easy about living on an island, and now they're making it even harder.-Jim George

When George found out the library had been slated for closure, his first response was denial.

"They couldn't be closing us, because we live on an island. There's no way that they could close us," he said.

"There's nothing easy about living on an island, and now they're making it even harder."

George left Bell Island with his family just before the mine closed in the 1960s, and after working and travelling all over Canada, the United States and Europe, he decided to come back to retire 14 years ago.

"Whenever I land in a new area, the first thing I seek out is a library," he said.

"The libraries always give me the information I need as to who's who and what's what in that community."

He said visiting Lois Clark, the head librarian, helped him reconnect with many of the people he had left behind years ago. 

"The fact [is] that our librarian has been here I think 17 or 18 years, and she's lived here all her life — she knows everyone," said George

"All you have to do is mention the name and a small description of the person and she can tell you, oh yes, that's so and so, she married so and so, and that is the way of life."

Business will shut down if library closes

With the library as his community hub, George said he's been able to successfully run his small tourism enterprise. 

"Here we have anything and everything that's of interest to tourists," he said as he showcased last year's brochure. 

If I have to leave the island to get my printing and whatnot, I won't be able to stay in business.- Jim George

"When you land here at Bell Island at number 1 — that's down at the beach — you just follow this map in sequence and it will take you around the entire island. You'll miss nothing."

But if the library gets put out to pasture, he said his business won't be able to continue running. 

"The little project that I'm in with marketing and promoting tourism to Bell Island now is done out of my own pocket," he said.

"If I have to leave the island to get my printing and whatnot, I won't be able to stay in business. I'd have to bring in my shingle."

George said he doesn't own a vehicle, and the typical cost of leaving the island for him is approximately $30 per trip. 

Not giving up without a fight

A bristol-board collage at the Bell Island Public Library in the kids' section shows many of the activities held at the library over the years. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

But it's not just George and Coady who will be lost when the Bell Island library closes.

A quick glance around the building shows visual monuments to the good times that have been had there over the years.

There are hand-drawn portraits on the walls drawn by children who have spent time at the library, and photo collages of activities held inside.

The memories paint a picture of a place that has been well loved by its community, and Wabana Mayor Gary Gosine said he's not ready to give up just yet.

He said he's exploring the possibility of setting up a Wi-Fi hotspot for residents once the library shuts down. 

A change.org petition to save the library currently has more than 100 signatures, and a handwritten petition to save the building is circulating across Bell Island. 

But if the library closes as planned, George wonders what might become of seniors and others on the island. 

"We're not going to get folks coming back to retire if we don't have any services," he said.

"We find out we don't have a bank, our boat system leaves a lot to be desired, and now to think we're going to lose our library... well, what do you want to be here for?"

But even though the odds are stacked against the library, George said he's not ready to let it go without a fight. 

"As a retired person that don't mean I'm ready to lay down," he said.

"I still have a lot of work to do."

About the Author

Andrew Sampson is a journalist with CBC News in St. John's.