New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador take vastly different approaches to library funding

In 2015, New Brunswick announced a new literacy secretariat, with a mandate to make recommendations on a literacy strategy. Libraries are “one of the key pieces” in that strategy.
Buchans Public Library is one of 54 that could be closed

Newfoundland and Labrador ponders closing rural libraries; New Brunswick extends library hours

Sarah Payne was devastated when she heard her local library, in Cow Head, Newfoundland, was slated to close. In early 2016, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador brought in a budget that cut $1 million of library funding and introduced a provincial sales tax on books.

To deal with the loss of revenue, the Provincial Information and Library Resources Board decided to close 54 of the 95 libraries in the province – mostly in small communities.

“They picked on all the smaller libraries and they said if they saved money and put it into bigger libraries, people would use them instead,” says Payne, who has volunteered at the local library for 33 years and is currently on the board.

The next nearest library is half an hour away. And Payne says, “A lot of our patrons are seniors and small children who would not be able to get there.”

“Of course we were shocked,” says Krista Godfrey, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Library Association – a library advocacy group. “We had expected cuts given the lead-up to the budget, but we certainly weren’t expecting that they would be cutting over half the libraries in the province. Usually if they talk about closing one library there’s an outcry. Talking about closing half [of them] is unimaginable.”

The government’s decisions to tax books and cut libraries has left many in the province with the lowest literacy rate in Canada shaking their heads.

Bookseller Matthew Howse runs Broken Books in St. John’s. “It’s just a double whammy between the closure of libraries and a book tax … It would be one thing if they were apathetic, but they seem to be against reading and literacy.”

Howse says, “We know the average household in the province spends $118 a year on books. There’s a recession, people are being laid off, so you can’t expect a household to spend more than $118 – so instead of six books a year, they’re going to get five.”

Meanwhile, New Brunswick is taking a different approach. In April, the provincial government announced it was adding $900,000 to its $14.5 million in library funding, with the money going to keeping five libraries open seven days a week. Fines on overdue books for children under 12 were also eliminated.

Literacy minister Cathy Rogers says, “It’s looking very successful. People love the extended hours and it’s getting more [library] cards into the hands of children.”

Between November 2015 and September 2016, the number of new cards issued to children and youths increased by 60 percent.

In 2015, New Brunswick announced a new literacy secretariat, with a mandate to make recommendations on a literacy strategy. Rogers sees libraries as “one of the key pieces” in that strategy.

Julia Stewart, director of the Fredericton Public Library, says the effect of eliminating fines for children has been striking. “Often when their cards are blocked they just won’t come to the library anymore. They’re embarrassed and apprehensive, especially if they don’t have the money to pay the fines.”

Stewart’s colleague Nancy Edgar, head of children’s services at the library, points to a family whose library books never got returned in the months that followed the children’s mother passing away. “The father had lots that was going on, and the children’s books had not been returned and had fines accrued. All of the children had been blocked and stopped using the library – and when this change came into effect they were thrilled.”

Returning to Newfoundland and Labrador, the libraries have received a reprieve. In the face of a loud and continuous outcry, the province suspended the closures and put a review board in place to “undertake a complete organizational and service review of libraries.”

The steering committee leading the review is made up of three provincial government representatives and three members of the Provincial Information and Library Resources Board, which, in consultation with the province, came up with the plan to shutter the 54 libraries in the first place.

Like many in the province, Krista Godfrey of the library association was relieved that the cuts were suspended, but she has concerns about the review process – for instance, the public consultation schedule was announced September 30, with the first meeting to be held only five days later.

“I’m glad they are finally doing the consultations. I think it’s important that they’re going to get feedback from the people using the library,” Godfrey says.

But she is disappointed with the short lead-time and says, “It’s also disappointing to see none of the consultations are being held in the towns with the proposed library closures. We think it’s important that those communities have a chance to voice their concern and support for their libraries in person.”

In Cow Head, Sarah Payne says the community is “not sitting comfortably yet. If they try to take the library again we’ll just have to fight.”

Written By

Philip Moscovitch is a writer and radio documentary maker living near Halifax. Follow him on Twitter @PhilMoscovitch.

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