Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Public libraries left alone in the proposed budget — but here's why that's not as good as it sounds

Same ol' operating budget, same ol' problems, writes Stephanie Tobin.

Same ol' operating budget, same ol' problems

How are young nerds gonna become adult nerds if they don't have a library where they can channel their inner Hermione Granger? (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

The concept of "no news is good news" is a double-edged sword when it comes to public libraries, as far as I'm concerned.

In this year's proposed budget, the Liberals maintained $11.3 million in funding for the Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries.

There will be no branch closures — assuming, of course, this is the budget that gets passed after the election — meaning all 94 locations will keep their doors open. Whenever their doors are actually open, that is.

Parents and children sign a petition to keep the Fogo Island Public Library open, after the 2016 budget. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

That's good news, I guess, when you compare it to a couple of years ago, when the Liberals were planning to close more than half of the locations and cut funding.

I remember sitting in last year's budget lock-in for the media when then-education minister Dale Kirby said there would be no cuts or closures to the libraries after all.

He said that was a decision that had been released months prior (it wasn't) and the libraries already knew about it (they didn't).

And while $11.3 million for public libraries might sound like a lot of money … it isn't.

It was standing room only back in 2016 at the Fogo Island Public Library, where people rallied to keep the location open. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Where does the money come from?

According to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, the operating budget for libraries has been about $11 million since 2015-16.

That figure makes up 95 per cent of the total funding — more than twice the national average, the department says.

And when I asked where else money would come from, the department said in other jurisdictions, libraries are largely funded by municipalities. Here, that figure is 92 per cent below the national average, apparently.

The Bishop's Falls library had to be closed due to safety reasons, so obviously libraries aren't getting enough money for maintenance. (Martin Jones/CBC)

I guess that's a tricky thing to change.

Some of the communities where libraries were slated for closure two years ago, for example, are small, isolated and don't have a lot of money to spare as it is.

When it comes to setting priorities, libraries seem to be low on the proverbial food chain.

How can we change that? There isn't any easy solution, when you consider things like roads, ferries, aging infrastructure, not to mention a certain multi-billion-dollar muskrat-shaped elephant in the province's living room.

The Halifax Central Library is a beautiful place to spend a few hours, getting lost in a book. (Submitted by Halifax Central Library)

Any money generated by library late fines or donated directly to the library stays within the library system.

But for an institution used mainly by people who couldn't afford to purchase all the books they read in the first place, and with a $5 maximum late fine, we can't really expect a whole lot generated there.

By contrast: Halifax

Anecdotally, I've heard from plenty of people who wish St. John's could have a sparkly new library like Halifax's, which has been open for a few years.

In 2014, when the Halifax Central Library opened, CBC News reported that more than 10,000 people walked through the doors on the official grand opening.

It is so hot in the A.C. Hunter Library in the summer. I feel bad for the staff. (Stephanie Tobin/CBC)

The federal government contributed up to $18.3 million and the Nova Scotia government $13 million toward the cost of the project, with the remainder being funded through the municipality and a public funding campaign.

When I worked in Halifax one summer, I spent hour after hour at the Halifax Central Library, and I can tell you first-hand that it's a delight.

In contrast, the A.C. Hunter Library in St. John's, the biggest in the province, is inside the Arts & Culture Centre.

A couple of people perusing the shelves at the Michael Donovan Public Library in St. John's. (Stephanie Tobin/CBC)

During the hot and humid summer season, you'll find librarians sweating behind their desks with the doors wide open, just hoping for a breeze in a building where there doesn't appear to be any functioning air conditioning

That heat and damp can't be good for the books, let alone anyone trying to sit in there for more than, say, 20 minutes. It's one of the only times in Newfoundland that I've wished for a classic island breeze.

Rich book lovers, where are you?

Maybe there are some literary lovers out there who have also won the lottery and would want to contribute to a new library fund? Or set up a library fund?

Or like, pay for air conditioning? Rent? 

The library has to pay for new books — paperback, hardcover, audio, large print, e-books — as well as music, DVDs, comics, children's books, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, etc.

Even little Scarlett Pauley, 10 months old here, has a library card. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

They have librarians, technicians and archivists to pay; they offer a slew of free programs; provide community spaces; offer English as a second language supports — the list goes on.

And like any bureaucratic entity, the library board is directed to look for efficiencies and more cost-effective ways to deliver services.

How the heck can they accomplish all of these things, with no new money from government?

The fire that razed the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris devastated France, and prompted some of the country's richest people to come out and offer millions of dollars to rebuild.

People with a lot of money probably can afford books and therefore don't use the public library, I guess. (Stephanie Kinsella/CBC)

I'm not saying we should burn down a library. That's blasphemy to me.

But maybe it could be a call to action for people who are fortunate enough to be in a position to help to do so.

Because if not us, for our own good, then who?

Layla Budden intently reading a book at the AC Hunter Public Library in St. John's. (Stephanie Tobin/CBC)

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About the Author

Stephanie Tobin is a journalist in the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador office in St. John's.

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