The cruelest cut of all

In a budget that already makes little sense, eviscerating public libraries is about the least intelligent thing the Liberals have done yet

Of all the brutal measures featured in the community-killing Liberal austerity budget, some have gripped the public imagination with particular fury.

The Deficit Reduction Levy, a regressive tax on the poor and middle-class brazenly designed to let the wealthy off the hook, is one.

And the cuts to the provincial public library system—amounting to closures of more than half the province’s public libraries—is another. Fifty-four of the province’s 95 libraries will be closing as a result of a nearly $1 million provincial budget cut.

The most astonishing thing about the library cuts is that they will produce tremendous amounts of public damage for fairly little fiscal gain. It’s sort of like hiring someone to weed your garden, and then discovering that they’ve hacked up roses and orchids in equal proportion to weeds. It doesn’t really improve your garden now, does it?

In the face of public outrage, the provincial government is scrambling for excuses, now claiming that somehow the closures will allow the libraries to ‘do more with less’, to spend their money more efficiently — or, as Education Minister Dale Kirby put it, “do something different in an attempt to offer a better service to people.”) This is a standard response of governments to criticism — to suggest that somehow fewer services will be better services. Logically, it’s nonsense.

We need more libraries, not fewer

Every community deserves a library. Let’s make that our baseline, the goal toward which we are striving. We won’t make it overnight, but we should judge government policy by how much closer or further from that goal it takes us. If it brings us closer, it’s good policy. If it drags us further away, it’s bad.

When you’ve got 200 cookies in the cookie jar, and 20 kids, that’s 10 cookies per kid. Taking 100 cookies out of the cookie jar, and then saying that every fourth kid will be given 20 cookies—more than they had before!—doesn’t hide the fact that you’ve removed 100 cookies from the system, and that three out of four kids will wind up with nothing. But that’s the sort of sophistry the government is playing.

Of course, books are not cookies. They’re far more valuable, and the impact of these cuts will be far more serious.

Claims such as “85% of communities will be within 35 minutes drive of a library” amount to a desperate grasping at straws. What about the kid who wants to walk to a library after school, because it’s the only safe place they have? What about the kid who simply wants to go to the library during summer holidays, to read and improve themself instead of going out drinking in the woods? We need libraries that serve as community hubs, not somewhere parents — those who can afford cars and gas — can drive their kids to pick up a quick book every second weekend. That’s the fast-food, drive-thru approach to literacy, and it doesn’t work.

According to a 2013 economic impact study conducted for the Toronto Public Library by the Martin Prosperity Institute, for every dollar invested in that city’s public library system residents of the city received $5.63 in positive economic impact, both from direct benefits as well as the stimulus effect to the city’s economy from direct spending and re-spending. The return on investment in the library is 563 percent. This return on investment is pretty much on par with findings in other North American jurisdictions.

The direct benefits are obvious: purchasing local books, showcasing local authors, employing full- and part-time workers who are able to spend in the local economy. Even infrastructure upkeep and facility acquisition and management benefits workers and the local economy.

But the intangible benefits are the things that generate tremendous value yet are not included in government ledger accounts. Benefits like improved literacy skills for residents, increased employability, and heightened quality of life for the community. The presence of libraries has even been shown to increase business attraction and investment. In Toronto, libraries are more popular than Maple Leafs games, with 25 times more visits by residents. In fact, more people visit public libraries than visit, collectively, 10 of the top entertainment facilities in Toronto every year.

 It bears repeating that shrinking library hours, services and staffing levels has an impact not only on individuals looking for work, but on regional economic growth and productivity.

Research by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) reinforces the importance of public libraries. According to a 2012 report visits to libraries increase during periods of economic downturns, rendering public libraries more vital than ever in this moment of the province’s history. And investment in eBooks and electronic materials is no substitute for the 64 staff positions that have been targeted for cuts. As the CCPA report warns, “These library workers are the key to a high quality public library system: the friendly familiar face who knows the teenagers by name, the literacy programmer who reads to toddlers, the bookmobile and truck drivers who drop off books to seniors around the city and ensure that hold requests are filled.”

The CCPA report catalogues the benefits of public libraries into five categories: “entertainment, cognitive skills development (i.e. literacy), social inclusion, labour market support, and positive health outcomes.”

Again, electronic substitutes are no substitutes. As the CCPA notes, only 56 percent of Canadians earning under $30,000 annually had internet access at home. Isolated, rural communities in an economically depressed province are precisely the ones that need libraries to give their communities greater opportunities and potential. And with unemployment poised to skyrocket in this province, closing libraries is about the least intelligent thing a government can do.

Cue the CCPA: “Library services provide direct support for those trying to make the transition into the labour market. Through free internet access, information on job searches, new careers, and skill development, public libraries are an important bridge back into the labour market, especially during an economic downturn. It bears repeating that shrinking library hours, services and staffing levels has an impact not only on individuals looking for work, but on regional economic growth and productivity.”

And all of this is evidenced quite clearly by library usage statistics, published recently by CBC, which reveal unexpectedly high usage in several rural libraries.

Reduced hours a symptom of cuts, not a reason for them

The Liberal government has pointed to the fact many rural libraries currently operate on limited hours as an excuse for cutting them entirely. The limited hours are not due to lack of demand, but due to previous rounds of short-sighted government cuts. In 2012-13 the Community Access Program (which had supported public access computers throughout the library system) was cancelled, a cut of roughly half a million dollars. A devastating $1.2 million cut in 2013-14 resulted in the loss of 17.5 library staff positions. As a result of these previous cuts, 77 of the 95 libraries were forced to operate with only a single staffperson. Technical positions have also been slashed – after the 2013-14 cuts there were only five technical support staff servicing 96 locations across the province.

Consecutive governments have contributed to slashing and burning the provincial public library system to its current state. And now the provincial Liberals, in direct contradiction to their protests in previous years, are poised to deal the deadliest blow yet. Given all the cruel and regressive money-making schemes in the Liberal budget, shutting down public libraries and ripping the very books out of the hands of children, seniors and communities is nothing short of villainous.

Doing so on top of making this province the only one in Canada to tax books, and on top of the privatization of Adult Basic Education in a province with some of the lowest literacy rates in the country, is sabotaging not only our present but our future.

Framed statement, as picture in the window of Afterwords bookstore downtown St. John's on May 3, 2016. Photo by Greg Bruce.
Spotted in the window of Afterwords Bookstore, downtown St. John’s on May 3, 2016. Photo by Greg Bruce.

It’s also deeply abhorrent that the Minister of Education — a university professor who made his career researching issues pertaining to access to education — has chosen to abandon the principles on which he built his career. Instead of using the opportunity to improve literacy and access to education, he’s set himself up to go down in history as the minister who eviscerated public libraries, ballooned class sizes, and taxed books.

For an elected representative to act with such brazen arrogance against the public interest is sad enough. For an intelligent academic who knows better to act out of political self-interest rather than the public good is unconscionable.

A far better example is Liberal MHA Scott Reid, who has spoken out against his party’s decision and made very sensible comments about the need to keep the libraries open.

“I think we have to ask ourselves, what are the other options and what are the other possibilities?” Reid was quoted as saying on CBC.

“The more I talk with these people and hear of the wonderful work they are doing in their communities, the more I am convinced that the decision to close Libraries [sic] needs to be reviewed.”

Nor does he see any problem with speaking out against his party’s position: “[I]t’s part of the responsibility of an MHA to look at ways to find solutions to issues that face our district,” he told CBC.

How many other Liberal MHAs will have the integrity of Scott Reid?

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