What inadequate budgets mean for Halifax libraries now, and in the future

Public libraries in HRM are a lot like public transit: publicly owned, awfully handy, and a lifeline if you're not rich. Unfortunately this is not where the comparison ends. Year after year, our public libraries are underfunded.

These are not the blatant in-your-face cuts seen in Toronto, and branches aren’t threatened with closure here. But in HRM, both city council and the provincial government apply the kinds of funding constraints you don't really notice — until it's too late, that is.

Haligonians love their libraries. Almost half of HRM residents have a library card — and we use that library card a lot.: The city’s 14 library branches were visited 2.3 million times last year. That's someone walking into a library every minute. And every year, these visitors borrow more materials, more frequently.

It's not just books that draw them in. Free access to computers, the Internet, WI-FI, community meeting rooms, and programs for preschoolers, seniors and everybody in between are also part of the package.

The situation isn’t as cheery in the library coffers as it is in the stacks. The recently released Alternative Municipal Budget for HRM by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS) notes that the approved HRM 2012–13 budget provides for only a 0.4% increase in funding for the regional library system. The province, responsibe for the remaining roughly 25% portion of the library budget, has frozen its contribution at the previous year's level. It has done that even though the HRM population continues to grow and library usage continues to increase.  As a remedy, the alternative budget suggests an immediate funding increase of 10%, or $2.3 million.

The budget, as it currently stands, without growth, raises some questions: How does the library system manage to deliver under such circumstances? How does its management decide where to put the money when there isn't enough to do it all? How long can it sustain these budget pressures until they begin to show and users turn elsewhere?

These are not questions the libraries are eager to discuss. Management and spokespeople were unable to accommodate the Halifax Media Co-op’s requests for an interview. Paula Saulnier, director of corporate services, did provide us with a written statement on Sept. 28.  In it she recognizes that although the libraries’ budget increased slightly in 2012/2013, this effectively represents an overall decrease. To deal with these tough times the libraries are simply “doing more with less” through strategies such as bulk purchasing and re-negotiated service contracts, and pursuing grants and corporate sponsorships.

There is, however, a 2012/13 budget document that provides further details on how the budget pressures manifest and how the library system is coping.

First of all, the library is buying fewer new materials. Pressure caused by higher overhead costs and decreased funds means that library materials make up a smaller and shrinking percentage of the library’s overall budget.

Repairs and renovations of an aging infrastructure face a gap in funding of $350,000 each year as well. Keeping up with changing technologies is becoming more and more difficult.

The rural communities of Musquodoboit Harbour, Sheet Harbour and Hubbards continue to request expanded hours at their branches, as existing budgets permit only half of the hours of service at suburban and urban branches. The libraries cannot respond to these ongoing petitions for more hours of service at existing locations and requests for system expansion and new services.

Staff training budgets and succession planning are also impacted.

A long-time library worker active in NSUPE Local 14, who wished to remain anonymous, emphasized that both library administration and workers are doing an admirable job. The many loyal library users are evidence of that. Shrinking budgets may make running a library more difficult but its negative effects are absorbed and libraries remain a great place to visit. And, after all, a brand new downtown library will be in place by 2014.

Maureen O’Reilly warns against viewing this new addition to the HRM library system with rose-coloured glasses. As the president of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, she sees worrisome parallels between Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's library budget-slashing and the ‘less precarious’ situation in Halifax.

“In Toronto we have seen an erosion of political support for over 20 years. Operational budgets would not keep pace with the needs of library users. Surprisingly, at the same time, we continued to see the opening of new facilities and major renovations of existing buildings,” she says.

Just as in HRM, although there was money for these larger projects, budgets for basic repairs and acquisition of materials continued to decrease. “Toronto library workers actually conducted a campaign under the motto 'A library is more than a building,' to make the point that new libraries are a good thing, but of not much use without books on their shelves and workers at the information desks.”

Back in the HRM, council is allocating lots of money to the widening of Bayers Road while freezing the library budget. In doing so, it is making a statement about where its sympathies lie. By slowly eroding the library system’s ability to do its job, council may be paving the way for a future Halifax Rob Ford to make the case for branch closure and privatization. The Toronto experience shows that simply pointing to the new downtown library is maybe not as reassuring as you would like to think. Maybe it is time to start paying more attention.

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