Libraries in rural Nova Scotia are struggling to maintain service to sparse and dwindling populations. In HRM the challenge is to keep up with growing demand and expectations. And some say neither urban nor rural libraries are receiving adequate funding.
Shirley McNamara believes that libraries provide an essential service, and that library service eroding in Nova Scotia is cause for concern. McNamara is president of the Library Boards Association of Nova Scotia (LBANS), an organization speaking for the nine regional library boards in Nova Scotia. It is the closest thing to a provincial public library lobby.
“Each person across NS is entitled to quality and equitable library service. Just like you are entitled to food, highways to drive on, or whatever,” says McNamara.
Libraries, be they urban or rural, are certainly wildly popular. Almost one in three Nova Scotians has a library card. Last year they collectively borrowed 7.4 million books, DVDs, e-books, magazines and books on tape.
More than just popular, libraries are a lifeline for people on low income. It's no coincidence that library usage spikes during economic downturns.
However, McNamara says, we may not continue to receive library service as we know it for much longer.
“Libraries are reaching the breaking point pretty well across the province,” says McNamara.
This year's municipal share of the Halifax Public Library budget is set to be decreased by 3.85 per cent. This has to hurt, given that 75 per cent of its budget is municipal money. Last year the library budget was frozen. Meanwhile, membership in HRM continues to grow.
Judith Hare, CEO of the HRM library system, believes that for now the public can be shielded from the cuts.
“The way we tend to handle things is through increased efficiency in the back office, so if we can reduce our cost in that area then we can put more money in public service areas and collection,” says Hare. “Technology is one way we do that.”
The Halifax Public Library is investing $1.2 million this year in sophisticated radio frequency tags that will further automate book returns.
But requests for increased service hours and new library branches in the rural parts of HRM will once again be shelved. An earlier report also notes pressures on building maintenance and acquisition budgets.
If the situation seems difficult in HRM, in rural areas it might be even more so.
Unlike HRM, library boards elsewhere in Nova Scotia receive most of their funding from the province. And over the years that funding has been slowly drying up.
“We've had Liberal governments and Conservative governments, all doing the same thing, so the problems have been snowballing for a long time,” McNamara says, emphasizing that the current government is better attuned to the needs of public libraries than any of its predecessors.
Sparse and dwindling populations, long geographic distances - those are the things that make libraries an expensive proposition anywhere in rural Nova Scotia.
“We have lots of spruce trees and black flies here,” says McNamara. “Having said that, we also have people there who enjoy our service, and they are entitled to it because they are taxpayers in Nova Scotia.”
Laura Emery, chief librarian of the Eastern Counties Regional Library, has been dealing with money problems ever since she arrived on the scene in 2010. Since then, two of the four management positions were eliminated, just so that the book budget and service hours could escape unscathed.
But maybe not for much longer.
“We have a year to two years before we are in a really serious situation, because we have essentially cut everything that we can cut without impacting operations in a real way,” says Emery. “Then we will be reducing opening hours and reducing our book budget to a point where we become ineffective." She also raises the spectre of lay-offs and branch closings.
Emery believes that there is an unspoken expectation that staff continue to make sacrifices to shield users from the money problems.
“There is a bit of the niceness, the female make-up of the workforce, the community-minded person who is attracted to library service; that is what kept it going but now that is getting burnt out," she says.
In an email to the Halifax Media Co-op dated March 8, Glenn Friel, speaking on behalf of the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, points to a 15 per cent increase in funding for public libraries between 2009 and 2011. As well, keeping this year's funding at the same level as last year must be seen as a small victory, “given the priority for government to live within its means,” Friel writes.
Library people like Emery, McNamara and Hare eloquently make the case for much needed support by municipal and provincial governments. But getting through to those in power is hardly easy.
“It’s a delicate balance” when dealing with government, Hare says: 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,” says Hare. “The best way to influence politics is for citizens to speak.”