Budget 2018 included $11.3 million in operating grant funding for the Provincial Information and Library Resources Board, responsible for public libraries in the province.
The funding was highlighted in budget documents, and Education Minister Dale Kirby told reporters it means no public library closures — that closures are a “dead issue.”
But the information provided doesn’t answer the questions remaining about the province’s response to the EY review of the public library system, and the libraries’ long-term success.
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In April 2016, a post-budget day news release issued by the Provincial Information and Library Resources Board and the provincial Department of Education and Early Childhood Development set out a plan to close 54 libraries over two years. The move was to be combined with new minimum operating hours, plus enhanced eBook and book-by-mail services. Municipalities would be offered the opportunity to assume responsibility for libraries in municipal buildings.
Public backlash led to a provincially funded review of the library system by consultants EY.
EY’s report showed this province’s system was not keeping up with the rest of Canada, with funding being “very low” when compared to other provinces. Total funding stood at $22.67 per capita — 42 per cent below the national average of $39.21 per capita.
Budget 2018 noted the amount the provincial government is providing to libraries today is more than twice the national average.
But the funding from towns and cities for Newfoundland public libraries is 92 per cent below the national average. The EY report gave the example of $17.7 million per year, over a three-year period, offered by the Halifax Regional Municipality to the library system in that city, compared to the $70,700 in cash and $1 million of in-kind contributions from all the municipalities in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2015-16.
In provinces where libraries have become popular stops for tourists and locals, it is often municipalities and regional governments making the success possible.
In the release of the budget, Kirby was asked if the latest funding afforded by the province determines the final fate of public libraries.
“That has been decided,” he said. “Back in 2016, it was shelved. That’s the end of that.
“When I was asked about this the last time, I said we’re opening new libraries, not closing any, so that’s a dead issue, in my opinion.”
The minister said the operating grant is “status quo.” The $11,292,500 is down slightly from the $11,372,600 spent in the last year.
Kirby said there would be no library closures, at least, “Not while I’m minister of education.”
But the EY review raised important questions: is the system here getting the money it needs? Is the financing model the right one to assure long-term sustainability and avoid the threat of sudden closures in the future?
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) had been part of public objection to any library cuts. CUPE represents many of the province’s library workers, who faced job losses as a result of the province’s financial situation and planned cuts.
The union was celebrating after Kirby’s commitment to keeping libraries open.
“It’s such wonderful news. Our members have been working in a very difficult situation, wondering every day whether or not they will have a job tomorrow,” Dawn Lahey, president of CUPE Local 2329, said in a budget week statement. “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.”
But it was CUPE that also pointed to larger issues facing the library system back when the EY report was released in May 2017. The union expressed disappointment in the review process, but also stated, on May 23, 2017: “The (EY) report recognizes that the system is drastically underfunded and understaffed.”
Statements in support of this feeling had been offered during a public consultation session in St. John’s attended by The Telegram, prior to the release of the EY report.
The Newfoundland and Labrador Libraries Association (NLLA) has also been among those congratulating the government for rethinking a decrease in funding that would result in closures.
NLLA president Kate Shore told The Telegram the association is hopeful. She said the association is aware of work underway to develop a multi-year strategy for the library system, incorporating EY’s findings.
“The system as a whole is broken and it needs to be repaired,” Shore said, referring to library funding.
“We do know it’s being talked about. It’s not (left) on the backburner.”
Shore said the association has no issue with the Provincial Information and Library Resources Board taking more time for planning. She said a reimagining of the system in order to come to a viable solution is a significant challenge.
Shore said it’s not as simple as demanding more from the municipal level, given how many municipalities the province has and how any given approach could negatively affect services.
The Telegram contacted Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador, which had previously spoken about the financial hurdles facing towns and cities in trying to offer additional funding for libraries.
President Tony Keats said — like others — he hasn’t heard much on the subject since the EY report was released.
“To be honest with you, we haven’t heard anything from the councils since last budget about the libraries,” he said.
Keats said some communities are making efforts to contribute more — directly or in-kind — in their area. But, he added, core budget challenges (clean drinking water, regulating wastewater and safe roads) are filling council agendas and tapping out budgets.
Provincial legislation states only that municipalities “may” contribute toward a public library, as opposed to “shall” or “must,” even if they do take the lead in some other provinces.
Whether it’s staffing, keeping resources up to date or setting operating hours, Independent MHA Paul Lane said there’s been public silence for too long on the EY report, and the provincial government has a role to play, still, in addressing the health of the library system.
The Telegram contacted the Department of Education for an interview, but received no response by deadline.
Plan in works
Andrew Hunt, executive director of the Provincial Information and Library Resources Board, confirmed the developing plan for public libraries, saying it’s something that will be available in the near future, but he couldn’t put a specific date on the work.
In terms of literacy, the provincial government has signalled it plans to fund a new, concerted effort to improve child literacy rates this year, in response to the recommendations of a task force review of the K-12 education system. There will be additional resources for teacher assistants, teacher librarians and new reading specialists, plus additional literacy intervention kits and other items.