Good news, bad news as libraries remain open but underfunded, say librarians

"I don't think that message actually really was out there," says the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Library Association.

N.L. Library Association says statement by minister on budget day was not expected

The Newfoundland and Labrador Library Association was surprised, but pleased, with a government announcement that no branches would close. (Stephanie Tobin/CBC)

A budget announcement that not a single branch of the public libraries would be closed was welcome, albeit surprising, news for Newfoundland and Labrador librarians.

But allocating $11.3 million for the next year means libraries are still underfunded, says Kate Shore, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Library Association.

This was great news to hear that it's officially off the table now.- Kate Shore

"We were not expecting that," Shore said of Education Minister Dale Kirby's announcement that no libraries would close.

At the budget lock-in last week, Kirby said everything would be "status quo" for the province's public libraries. In 2016, the Liberal government announced it would be closing 54 branches.

After public outcry, the province put a hold on that plan in favour of a consultant's review by EY, which was completed in 2017 and recommended some branches close, others be consolidated, and a system of regional boards be put in place to run them.

Kirby said at the 2018 budget announcement that the report was shelved and the operating budget for the provincial libraries would stay the same.

Education Minister Dale Kirby says no public library branch will be closing. (CBC)

But Shore said that doesn't necessarily take into account the changing costs of library materials.

"When he says status quo, it's back to its pre-2016 budget. But when you take inflation it's not really any kind of increase and you can see that we're definitely still in need of more money," she told CBC's On The Go.

For example, Shore pointed to the fluctuating American exchange rate.

A number of groups who were actively fighting library closures were pleasantly surprised when the education minister announced that none would be closing. (Stephanie Tobin/CBC)

"We buy books, that's one of the things that happens with operating budgets, and if you're talking about major change, books are gonna be more expensive so it means less bang for your buck, really," she said.

"Luckily we no longer have the 10 per cent extra tax on books, so that's one of the greatest things that did come out this year. But those kinds of things really do take a toll on the budget, where that money could be appropriated in other places."

Librarians not only ones surprised

Despite Kirby calling library closures a "dead issue," Shore said none of the librarians and library staff she's spoken to, herself included, knew about this announcement in advance.

"I don't think that message actually really was out there because the message last year after it (the report) came out was they kept saying, we'll wait until the review to see what happens," Shore said.

Libraries are about more than just books and reading, says Kate Shore, and serve as community hubs of activity. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

"We assumed that those kind of changes would take over a gradual amount of time, because it does take planning, so we just assumed, OK, well, we're gonna hear more. But we never did."

CBC News has asked Kirby's department for comment.

Shore and the Newfoundland and Labrador Libraries Association weren't the only ones surprised by Kirby's announcement.

The Writers' Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador in a release last week said things were "ominously quiet" after the EY review was done.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees' Dawn Lahey said in a release that it was wonderful news to hear no branches would close, but added "members have been working in a very difficult situation, wondering every day whether or not they will have a job tomorrow."

A row of books at the library.
At the A.C. Hunter Library in St. John's, there are sections dedicated to Newfoundland and Labrador books. (Stephanie Tobin/CBC)

"It's unfortunate that it took so long for the government to make it clear that they are committed to library services for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador," Lahey said in a release.

All of those groups were, however, happy with the announcement overall.

"It was great to hear officially that the 54 libraries are not gonna be closed," said Shore, who feels it will eliminate uncertainty for library workers and patrons.

"This was great news to hear that it's officially off the table now."

With files from On The Go