Library system has avoided budget cuts, but stakeholders still worried about future

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by jacques gallant
Times & transcript staff

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Recent news that the City of Toronto is looking at cutting libraries in order to balance its books has made more than one Canadian pause and think about the value of their own local library.

RON WARD/TIMES

For N.B.'s public libraries, it seems the biggest challenge is staying relevant in the face of constantly changing technology.

In New Brunswick, where the Alward government has imposed budget cuts practically across the board to curb the province's deficit, libraries have remained untouched. At least for now.

No staff has been cut, but no staff has been added either, unless you count the employees hired to work in the province's two newest libraries in Rogersville and Cap-Pelé. Funding for collections has remained the same, despite calls for it to be much higher.

While the province may not be able to count on literary powerhouse Margaret Atwood to demand change from the Tories in the same way she has so pointedly voiced her opinion on libraries to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, that doesn't mean there are not devoted people working behind the scenes to speak on behalf of citizens.

One of them is Ray Watson, chairman of the Sussex regional library board and former president of the New Brunswick Library Trustees' Association.

"Libraries are an essential service, they provide services to people who can't afford them, such as those in need of computer access," he said.

In accordance with the New Brunswick Public Libraries Act, the provincial government provides library staff and collections, while the municipality supplies and maintains the facility, as well as ensuring the provision of computers. In some instances, there are also partnerships with the school districts.

In Watson's opinion, the government is not looking at cutting library funding as a cost-saving measure, because things are already "too tight."

"If you're going to cut, you're cutting a whole service. There just isn't any room to cut," he said. "We were very fortunate that the New Brunswick Public Library Service's budget was maintained. But you can't hire staff without provincial approval. And the only time you're going to see an increase in staff is when a new library is built."

This policy has put many libraries in a predicament, said Watson, be they expanding libraries that have trouble doing outreach programs in the community with limited staff, or smaller libraries that have to scale back hours because they only have one employee.

The most recent figures indicate that the province allocated approximately $14 million to the public library system in 2009-2010 to manage 52 libraries, compared to $13.8 million in 2008-2009 when the system was comprised of 50 public libraries. Municipal contributions also jumped from $4.8 million in 2008-2009 to $7.8 million in 2009-2010, with one of the reasons for the difference being the opening of the Rogersville and Cap-Pelé libraries.

Donations, partnerships with organizations and grants for special projects also make up part of a library's monetary resources. The New Brunswick Public Libraries Foundation raised almost $634,000 in 2009-2010 to distribute among the province's five library regions. The provincial government matches all donations made to the library system for a maximum of $200,000, increased from $100,000 last year by the previous Liberal government.

"In New Brunswick, they are (the government) not funding the amount we would like to see, but it's much better than what it used to be," said long-time library trustee Judy Heron, currently chairwoman of the Kennebecasis regional library board.

Heron, a lifetime member of the library trustee association, has also chaired the provincial public libraries board which advises the minister of Post-Secondary Education, Training, and Labour on library issues and policies.

"I would hope they wouldn't want to cut libraries, because it's in times of downturn and stress such as now that libraries are used more, but we're always worried about cuts," she said.

Staffing issues aside, another major sticking point is funding for the collections. The provincial government presently funds 70 cents per capita for library collections, when the national average is much closer to $4.00 per capita.

"The library service would actually like to see the commitment raised from 70 cents to $5, but they're civil servants so they don't want to say that publicly," said Watson. "But as trustees, this is also what we want. And we want to see a budget line that is dedicated to collections."

But for those who may think that there is no use developing the collections due to the advent of computers and the Internet, one has only to look at the numbers.

In 2009-2010, library patrons in New Brunswick borrowed or consulted 4.1 million items either through their public library or the bookmobile that travels to smaller communities that have yet to have their own permanent library. Over three million uses were made of the provincial library system's online services.

The number of library patrons has remained relatively stable. In total, more than 320,000 people were served at a public library in 2009-2010, representing 44 per cent of the province's population, compared to 331,000, or 45.4 per cent, in 2008-2009.

"The number of people coming into the library and the demand in books is not decreasing," said Nora Kennedy, head of reference services at the Moncton Public Library, who is far from worried that the relevance of a public library may be thrown further into doubt as the usage of Internet marvels such as search engines and social media websites continues to grow.

"We are information professionals. We are trained to know an authoritative source. It's just one of the reasons why librarians are still relevant," she said. "The times are changing but we're changing with them. It's part of our jobs as librarians to adapt."

The Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training, and Labour was unable to respond by press time to questions regarding library staffing and collections funding.

 

 

René Frenette, (BBA/BAA)

Acting Development Officer / Agent de développement par intérim

New Brunswick Public Library Service /
Service des bibliothèques publiques du N.-B.
Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour /

Ministère de l'Éducation postsecondaire, de la Formation et du Travail
Telephone / Téléphone: (506) 453-3442
Fax / Télécopieur: (506) 444-4064

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