Closing over half of N.L.’s public libraries a.k.a. community hubs will hit rural areas hardest

Daily Brew

[An author reading at Fogo Island Central Public Library/FACEBOOK]

Candice Walsh feels so passionately about the library in her hometown of St. Alban’s on the southern shore of Newfoundland and Labrador that she owns a bracelet engraved with the building’s geographical co-ordinates.

“When I was a kid growing up in rural Newfoundland, my library was my sanctuary,” Walsh tells Yahoo Canada News. “I developed a huge love for reading at a very young age and spent hours at the library every week.”

Now a travel writer living in Berlin, Walsh says she owes her career as a writer to the years she spent in her local library, nurturing her passion for the written word. But in about a year that library will be gone, one of more than 50 that will shut down after significant cuts to the operating budget for public libraries in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The pending closure of more than half of Newfoundland and Labrador’s 95 libraries will have serious consequences for a province that already has the country’s lowest literacy rates, say members of the local literary community. And the 40 per cent of the population that lives in the province’s rural areas will be hit the hardest.

“I think it’s definitely going to have a huge impact in those rural areas, for young children who are going to the public libraries to participate in summer reading programs and learning how to read, to people in midlife who are looking for career changes, to seniors who are going to learn computer skills so they can Skype with their grandkids and just go and be social,” Krista Godfrey, Newfoundland and Labrador Library Association president, tells Yahoo Canada News.

As part of the provincial government’s austerity budget, which passed the House of Assembly Tuesday, $1 million was cut from the annual operating budget of the Newfoundland and Labrador Library Board, leaving just $650,000 remaining. As a result, 54 public libraries will close in the next two years.

Most of the closing libraries are in rural communities, and some are located in the only schools in the town. Godfrey says its currently unclear if the libraries located in schools will stay open for the use of students, and what the hours will be for any that do.

The cuts are unaffordable in a province with an adult literacy rate of lower than that of any other in Canada, says local author and university professor Lisa Moore. It also shows a lack of appreciation for what literacy truly means, she says.

“Literacy is more than being able to sound out words,” Moore says. “It is the ability to see yourself reflected in literature, to see your culture reflected in literature, to have access to your stories and the stories of communities all over the world. We need librarians to bring us those stories, and libraries function in both those ways.“

Rural community hubs

The closures come after the provincial library system has weathered years of budget cuts, says Godfrey. In 2013, for example, the slashing of more than a million dollars from the province’s library budget cut the number of librarians in half, leaving just nine for the entire province.

“We need to increase the funding as a whole,” Godfrey says. “When you look at the statistics of the Canadian Urban Library Council the average per capita expenditure is $50 per person in Canada. It’s about $20 here.”

And though the provincial Liberal government said that 85 per cent of the province’s population will still be within a 30-minute drive to a library, thousands will be left without easy access to what is often a central community hub in small outport towns.

For example, residents of Fogo Island and Change Islands will have to travel about a half hour by ferry to reach a library, and then drive about 50 minutes to the nearest branch in Carmanville or Twillingate. Three of Labrador’s six libraries will close, leaving many towns hundreds of kilometres from a branch.

On the west coast, the library in Woody Point is shutting down — ironic for a town that hosts an annual literary festival that in recent years has drawn starts like Margaret Atwood and Lawrence Hill.

And when Walsh’s local St. Alban’s library closes, users will have to drive more than an hour to Harbour Breton — which will also absorb the patrons of two other nearby branches that will shut down.

The remaining libraries may not be able to provide the same quality of service as they absorb users from towns that have lost their own facilities, Godfrey says.

“We know that they’re serving their communities well now,” she says. “Assuming that other communities are able and willing to get to that library, will they be able to handle that increased usage and programs?“

The closures stand in stark contrast to investments made by other Atlantic provinces in their library systems. New Brunswick is investing $900,000 in expanding library hours as a means to boost literacy rates in the province, for example. And the redesigned central library in Halifax attracted more than double the expected number of visitors in its first year.

‘Places of culture’

And the services provided by the rural libraries go well beyond simply making books available, Moore and Godfrey both say.

Rural libraries often provide a variety of other services in the community, both cultural and practical. The library in Bishop’s Falls, for example, functions as the town’s community centre and hosts events as diverse as art classes and job-skills training.

“When we look at how little it takes to keep the libraries going it’s heartbreaking. It seems to be just a mistake,” Moore says. “I think these politicians didn’t realize how important those places of culture were to people all over the island.”

Libraries are also a key point of Internet access for many in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, where broadband access is far from universal. For those in areas without a physical Employment Assistance office, the Internet is a way to access work opportunities. It also gives people a way to complete their EI reports and check the status of applications — a key service in a province with an unemployment rate over 14 per cent.

And for many people the library serves as a public, indoor gathering place, particularly in rural communities that don’t necessarily have a local coffee shop, an outdoor park or another common meeting place.

The province’s austerity budget came in response to a tough financial situation, Moore says, and most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians understand that. But the cuts to the library system in particular feel like an insult, she says.

“When I’m walking around town or in the supermarket or in the university, all the different places I go in the run of my day, I don’t hear people saying that they don’t want to address the financial concerns,” Moore says. “People are willing to step up but they want to see cuts that don’t affect culture, that don’t affect the weakest people in society.“

Godfrey says the public response — not just in the province but around Canada and even internationally — has been phenomenal. Nearly every library association in the country has now written letters of support to the provincial government opposing the cuts, she says.

“This is unprecedented. We’ve never seen over half of the public libraries close, at least not in my recollection, so people are watching this,” Godfrey says. “This is not something that they want to see happen elsewhere. They don’t want to see it happen here.”