Eganville – To say the board and staff of the Bonnechere Union Public Library were not impressed with the Municipal Government Wayfinders report which recommended Bonnechere Valley could save some money by dramatically cutting library hours is a severe understatement.
“We received a report with big conclusions backed by limited and often inaccurate data that demonstrates little understanding of library operations,” BUPL Librarian Nikolina Likarevic told Bonnechere Valley council via a ZOOM meeting on Wednesday.
Since the report came out several months ago there was a long rebuttal letter by the board to the findings of the consultants, but Wednesday was the first time the public was able to hear the librarian answer some of the statements from the consultants. She said following the report and an article in the Leader in which the consultants recommended reducing library hours to save costs and showed BUPL as having much higher costs than comparator libraries, many patrons were very upset.
“People panicked about what would happen to their library,” she said.
While she noted she understood the consultants were hired to find efficiencies, she said their conclusions about the library were wrong.
“One of the biggest errors in the review is the emphasis on the library as an economic driver,” she said. “Libraries are part of healthy communities.”
Ms. Likarevic pointed out the data used by the consultants was a bit misrepresentative. She noted while the consultants acknowledged the library is a union library between BV and North Algona Wilberforce, the way they interpreted the agreement “was a bit problematic.” She said they looked at the 20 hours listed for the library in the agreement, but this was a hold-over from when the agreement was signed in the early 1990s. She said the board looks at community needs and this is one of the reasons the hours have increased since then.
Her major argument against the recommendations to reduce hours was the consultants did not use proper comparables when analyzing the library. They used the population of BV as a population comparator number, but in reality, the population is much larger since it includes not only BV but also NAW and a few other residents from both Killaloe, Hagarty and Richards and Admaston/Bromley who use the library.
Ms. Likarevic said the library also has many more patrons in the summer with seasonal residents.
“The survey doesn’t capture our seasonal residents,” she said. “The population should be 6,589 so that is why the figures look skewed with other libraries because they are not our comparators.”
Figures from the consultants show the library is open 48 hours with a cost of $209,179 in salaries, $73,437 in materials and a grant of $167,499. In contrast, the Madawaska Valley Library has a population of 4,123 and salaries of $135,718, materials of $55,330 and grants of $142,395.
She pointed out the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries has placed BUPL in a category with libraries that serve a population base between 5,000 and 15,000 and in that comparator the library is right in the average in terms of expenditures. Comparators included Muskoka Lakes at $485,098 and Sioux Lookout at $374,934. One of the comparators on that list in Renfrew County was Whitewater Region where the salaries are $96,411 for a population of over 7,000. BV is $276,070, the librarian said.
“All in all, we are doing well with our library comparators,” she said.
Another issue was the number of residents surveyed. She said 625 people answered the survey which is only about nine per cent of the population the library serves.
“How many times people visited the library is not a useful statistic,” she added.
As well, one question about reducing library hours to save money was a misleading question with a misunderstanding of staff hours.
“Our patrons use our services in a variety of ways,” she pointed out.
Some use e-resources and many rely on the library for audiobooks and e-books. There are also people who rely on the library to get something faxed or scanned.
“Looking at just library visits does not give you a good picture of how the library is doing,” she said.
In terms of salaries, open hours do not determine staff hours, she added. Staff work on preparing programing and that involves work outside opening hours.
“Ultimately, when it comes down to it public libraries are a service industry,” she said. “We are people serving people.”
In all libraries it is common to see a big line for staff salaries and benefits, she said.
“It is people putting books on the shelf, programing, answering questions,” she said. “That is part of our charm. People enjoy talking to our staff.”
Libraries save patrons money by allowing them to borrow materials they would normally have to purchase, she pointed out.
“What people would have to spend to get the resources they could get free at the library, it can go to groceries or increase disposable income,” she said.
One of the recommendations from the consultants was to cut hours. Because of COVID-19 the library has been forced to reduce hours and she said while the library has slowly been increasing hours, this has meant a reduction in opening hours already.
“While we remain in Stage 3, we know we will not be open 48 hours a week,” she said. “We hope we can increase our hours in the next month.”
The library has slowly increased hours in July, October, and November since re-opening.
As another impact from COVID-19 the library has not filled a 30-hour full-time position and instead gone to two part-time positions for cost savings. By taking away the more technical aspects of the job it means the part-time positions are not as advanced. One issue is this is putting more pressure on other staff.
“This will result in savings for 2021 but won’t sustain community needs for 2022,” she said.
As far as future operational hours, the board is considering what the staffing capacity is now. As part of this a community/patron survey will be conducted in 2021. One item for consideration is whether the library will be closed on Mondays.
In her presentation Ms. Likarevic said there is a daily log which tracks usage at the library. Councillor Brent Patrick questioned if this could be made available to council.
“How do you use volunteers right now?” he asked. “Do you have a demand for more?”
The librarian said they have volunteers which deliver books to Fairfields, but this has not happened since the pandemic began. Other volunteers come and go more, she said.
“We are hoping to revitalize and speak to our Friend Group,” she added.
Council accepted the information with little comment.
“It’s nice to have this information so close to our budget coming up,” Councillor Tim Schison said.
Coun. Patrick said he was looking forward to working with the library in the coming year and having a positive relationship.
Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader