featured Libraries

More cuts for HRM Public Libraries

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The budget of our 14 Halifax library branches is being cut once again.

The draft budget submitted last week  to Council by Asa Kachan, Chief Librarian and CEO of the Halifax Public Libraries, calls for a municipal contribution of $19.4 million. That’s slightly less than last year.  Meanwhile, a provincial grant covering about 20% of the overall budget hasn’t increased for ages.

Not a single councilor thought these cuts were a bad idea. Yet, libraries are expected to do more. A lot more.

Visits to library branches, for example, will increase by an amazing 27 percent this year. That amounts to well over 3.5 million local library branch visits.  Circulation will be up by 10 percent.

It’s the beautiful new Spring Garden Road library creating all the buzz, for sure. But it’s just as much a tribute to the vital work that occurs at local branches in shall we say less vibrant places like Lower Sackville, North Dartmouth, North End Halifax, and so on.

In fact, you haven’t really seen a public library until you visit one of those local branches.

Books are the obvious draw. But there is so much more on offer at the library.

Many people can’t afford computers and internet access and check their email at the library, sometimes more than once a day.  

Libraries offer a welcoming and safe place for kids hang out after school. It’s where they can do their homework undisturbed.  It’s where community members meet, to chat or use a meeting room for a more formal gathering. It’s where you get help with your income tax forms, where immigrants learn english, where you take your toddler for a puppet show. Where a homeless person can find shelter.   

It’s all free. It’s all ours.

But it’s not getting the funding it needs.  Council has forked out less money year after year to the 14 local branches, with only a one-time spike to accommodate the new Central Library.

For years now the people who manage the Halifax library have been forced to do more with less. Library workers as well go way beyond the call of duty. Together the two groups have done an admirable job shielding the public from the many budget pressures.  

But you have to wonder for how long that can continue.

As early as in 2012 a budget document raised the alarm about shortfalls in its library materials and technology budgets. Repairs and renovations of an aging infrastructure at that time faced a projected gap in funding of $350,000 each year. Staff training budgets were getting squeezed.

At that time the Alternative Municipal Budget for HRM by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS) deemed the situation sufficiently urgent to call for an immediate funding increase of 10%, or $2.3 million.   

Since 2007-08 the size of the collection has continued to decrease,” states the most recent performance update, blaming budget constraints and higher costs of items among other factors.

Rural parts of the municipality are hit hardest. We often forget, but vast parts of HRM are mostly trees and swamps, with small communities sprinkled throughout. Sheet Harbour. Upper Musquodoboit. Tangier…

Isolation is a major challenge for people trying to  survive on social assistance or minimum wage in rural HRM. Public libraries could do so much to counteract that isolation. But libraries anywhere in rural Nova Scotia are not able to provide relief to the fullest extent, and the Halifax Public Library system is no exception.

Bookmobile service was eliminated in 2011 to cut costs.  Branches in Sheet Harbour and Musquodoboit Harbour are closed on Sundays and offer fewer service hours during weekdays. Other areas of rural HRM are not served at all.

New initiatives like the establishment of a library community office in Middle Musquodoboit, and an outreach program in the Prestons and Cherry Brook communities cannot even begin to address the real needs in these areas.

It’s time for Halifax and HRM residents to speak up.

Services can only decrease so far until a Rob Ford comes along and starts shutting down branches “because nobody is using them”.  A new Central Library, no matter how beautiful and world class, by itself is not an indicator for the overall health of our public library system.

Management no doubt makes that case behind the scenes. To expect them to speak out publicly is asking for too much.

“It’s a delicate balance” when dealing with government, former Halifax Library CEO Judith Hare told me for a story I wrote in 2013. “It’s not always possible to be as vocal as one might like. I am a pretty strong advocate, but there is a point where I obviously can’t speak because we all need to work together.”

“People don’t realize that they need to be advocates for the services that they care about,” said Hare.  “The best way to influence politics is for citizens to speak.”

Hare is right. A municipal election year is the perfect time to raise the issue with your councilor or whoever wants to take her place.

Beyond that, unionized library workers, members of the Nova Scotia Union of Public and Private Employees  (NSUPE) Local 14, should consider taking on more of a political advocacy role.

The shining example of such activism is provided by the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, CUPE Local 4948. Just check out their website.  Vancouver workers organized in CUPE Local 391 also know how to keep up the pressure.

You snooze, you loose. It’s time to wake up.