Rural libraries at risk

By Lois Ann Dort    

GUYSBOROUGH – This month an unsettling notice has been posted on the Eastern Counties Regional Library website. It states that inter-library loans will be unavailable from the end of March until the beginning of May due to a staff shortage. Another notice on the webpage asks patrons to contact their MLA to request support -- in the form of dollars, not talk -- for rural libraries which are hardest hit by the current funding formula for this public service. The Journal spoke with ECRL Chief Librarian Laura Emery, Guysborough-Eastern Shore-Tracadie MLA Lloyd Hines and the Department of Communities, Culture & Heritage about library funding and the future of rural libraries.

Funding for rural libraries has been an issue for many years and has resulted in cuts to staff and the possibility, in the near future, of a reduction in hours at some branch locations. The province carries the bulk of the load in regards to funding but parses money out on a per capita basis which is cause for concern in thinly populated areas such as those covered by the ECRL.

Funding also comes from direct fundraising by the ECRL and from municipalities. Further grants have been made available to the ECRL due to the population densities served. “These help us out a bit but we have the largest geographic region in the province. We have some challenges that other libraries in the province don’t,” Emery told The Journal last week.

The population figures for the ECRL coverage area have been frozen for several years at 36,901. If population numbers where adjusted, the ECRL budget stands to lose $73,000. Such uncertainty feeds into the current inter-library loan service suspension; it’s difficult to hire personnel when funding is insecure. “Since they have been freezing the population...each year you don’t know if they are going to maintain the frozen population and maintain your funding,” said Emery. “I don’t want to be in the situation of hiring someone one year and laying them off the next. This is why we have been holding off hiring someone at headquarters and trying to make do, but it’s not working.”

Speaking to the immediate problem of inter-library loan service, Emery said, “It is a fairly complicated job so you can’t have someone jump into it short-term. You need to have someone trained in doing it on a regular basis. For the past two years we have reduced a position at headquarters so that means we have been operating without any redundancy or back up...We need to hire a full time position to help with this.

“With funding uncertainty, we have been reducing and reducing and reducing and now we are at a point where we can’t reduce any more, and to maintain operations, we have to put staffing back. The new position will back up these services that go down when we don’t have staff and cause significant service interruption for people,” said Emery.

Looking beyond the immediate short fall in staffing, Emery is concerned that if the funding trend continues as it has, that front line services will suffer. “We need people to communicate to officials that the library matters and that they should pay attention to this issue...Successive governments have never dealt with this issue. This erosion is occurring and it is going to come to a point where we are going to have to take a location, like Canso for example, down from 25 hours to five.

“The real message here,” said Emery, “is we know there is a problem and we’ve decided to try to fix the problem. We’ve been cautious about fixing the problem because our funding has been a concern.” She notes that ECRL operates at the lowest open hour cost of any library region in the province, there is no wiggle room in budgeting. “This rural decline is starting to catch up with us all.”

MLA Lloyd Hines said that the library has not had any decreases in funding lately and that a top up was in the works but not approved as of yet. “The library needs to be able to operate. I have been making library grants a priority for funding and stopped some of the cuts that have been coming.”

As for any expectations for library funding in the forthcoming provincial budget, Hines wouldn’t speculate.

The Journal contacted the Department of Communities, Culture & Heritage, under whose umbrella libraries fall, and asked about the funding formula for rural libraries. In an email, Lisa Jarrett, a media relations advisor for the Department, stated, “The Province of Nova Scotia makes a significant investment in public libraries – from provision of major operational support to regional library boards, funding of project-based initiatives, and investment in major capital projects.

“As part of our commitment to a strong library system, the province has given Nova Scotia libraries an additional one-time grant of $475,500 to address operational pressures while we work together to develop longer term solutions.

“We recognize the important role of libraries in Nova Scotia. We are committed to working with regional library boards to review the current funding model so we can build a long-term, sustainable funding plan that is not solely per capita based.”