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Central Newfoundland’s libraries hang in the balance

Karla Reardon, a patron of the Gander Public Library, picks out a book for her daughter.
Karla Reardon, a patron of the Gander Public Library, picks out a book for her daughter.

GANDER, N.L. - EY’s report on Newfoundland and Labrador’s public libraries took almost a year to complete and cost a quarter of a million dollars — and the future of rural libraries is still as ambiguous as ever.

Christine Dwyer, secretary-treasurer of the Fogo Island Public Library Board, said she hoped the review would provide some clarity but found little help in the report.

“We’re in a state of limbo, we really don’t know (what’s next) but we’re hoping for the best,” said Dwyer. “There wasn’t one thing in the report that applied to Fogo Island.”

Previously, the Liberal government had slated 54 public libraries –roughly half of those in the province – to close, mostly in rural communities.

The government suspended any closures in favour of a full review, which was launched by EY in June 2016.

The report is truly the first comprehensive document on the province’s library system, outlining staff, alternative models and details about per capita funding with direct comparisons to public library systems in other provinces.

Provincial NDP Leader Earle McCurdy said the report offered no new information.

“Government has spent a quarter of a million dollars to find out what we already know: that libraries in this province are vastly underfunded and that we need a solid plan to build for the future,” McCurdy said via press release.

He also highlighted that the report didn’t outline if the closures would proceed as originally planned.

“Let’s hope government will not cherry-pick from this report to justify proceeding with the original plan of depriving people of the libraries that are so vital to their small communities,” said McCurdy.

The numbers don't lie

Compared to the other provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador is the second lowest in per capita funding for public libraries, trumping only Prince Edward Island; the government spends a paltry $22.67 per capita.

The province spends 42 per cent less than the national average, which sits at approximately $39.21 per capita.

The Liberal government had slated 54 public libraries – roughly half of those in the province – to close, mostly in rural communities.

The report makes several suggestions, including paying less for rent, doing away with local boards and hiring more professional librarians.

Dwyer, who has been a board volunteer for 40 years, said the report’s suggestions are shortsighted.

“The local boards are the people who support the librarian, they fundraise, and are the eyes and ears for the regional and provincial board,” she said. “It’s a cost-free thing because local boards are all volunteers.”

Dawn Learning, the national representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), said that there are statements in the report that are incorrect.

She said that professional libraries don’t offer any frontline service to the public, as insinuated by the report.

“We’re talking about jobs in communities where roughly 95 per cent of the workers are rural women,” said Learning. “If any of those libraries do close, the impact on those communities will be huge.”

At the heart of communities

For many communities, public libraries are the sole source of services and information.

“They didn’t consider that a lot of rural libraries are the hubs of their communities. They’re not just places for taking out books,” said Dwyer.

The Fogo Island Public Library offers paint nights, crafts and free-Wi-Fi that otherwise might not be available, she said.

Karla Reardon, a patron of the Gander Public Library, said she values the services a library provides for her daughter.

“It gives my daughter the chance to learn and explore. I do think it’s really important,” said Reardon.

The Provincial Information and Library Resources Board (PILRB) are currently considering the report’s recommendations.

“Over the next months, the board will get together and come up with an action plan,” said Andrew Hunt, the board’s executive director.

When asked when rural libraries could expect to learn about closures, Hunt said that it was presumptuous to assume the closure of libraries at this time.

“The loss of any library is of concern. It’s a loss to the community of their library, and in some cases, their community centers,” he said.

“These recommendations will inform the next steps in the decision making process.”

Dwyer said she is eager to learn the fate of her library but that it is out of her hands.

“I’ve seen the libraries go through a lot of change but not as much turmoil as I’ve seen in the last year,” she said. “We want our library to stay.”

Twitter: @joshrjjealey

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