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Today in Committee A (which sits simultaneously with the main Chamber), Education Budget Estimates were being addressed. I took the opportunity to ask the Education Minister about funding for public libraries.

As you will see from the exchange (reproduced in text and video below), the BC Liberals cut the budget for public libraries by 20% in 2009. Since 2010, public libraries have received about $14 million from the province on an annual basis. There has been no cost of living adjustment since that time and increasing costs have been downloaded to local governments.

What’s worse is that historically there was a line item in the Budget that noted funding specifically set aside for public libraries. That line item recently disappeared and now Provincial funding is buried within the general education budget.

I was very pleased with the thoughtful responses I received from the Minister of Education.

Video of Exchange

Text of Exchange

A. Weaver: I’m going to switch topics slightly. Oak Bay–Gordon Head is not pressing for the building of new schools. We have thanked the previous government, actually, for the new high school that was built in Oak Bay quite recently.

I’d like to ask a couple of questions on public libraries, if I may. I don’t know whether that requires staff to change. It’ll be a few questions on public libraries. I do apologize for not providing my questions in advance, but it’s been crazy today. I’m actually supposed to be speaking right now in the main House at the same time, but clearly, I’m not. Can I proceed? Thank you.

A number of years ago, back in 2010, public libraries lost about 20 percent of their funds. Public libraries were cut to $14 million provincewide, and it’s remained flat ever since. In previous budgets, there used to be an actual line item that said “Public library funding, $14 million.” Now that line item no longer exists at all.

I’m concerned, in light of the fact that public libraries play such an important role in any democratic institution, that this line item is hidden somewhere, and it may be subject to future cuts. I’m trying to get a sense from the minister whether or not public libraries are protected in this budget update, and I’ll follow up with a couple of questions after that.

Hon. R. Fleming: I thank the member for his question. We haven’t gotten to libraries yet in this set of estimates. He may know that there has been some advocates for library funding for many, many years who have passed resolutions at the Union of B.C. Municipalities and other places specifically asking the library funding to come out of the Ministry of Education.

After I was sworn in, I endeavoured to meet with all of the four major library associations in the province to ask them if that historic position was still, indeed, the case. I’m happy to say they are giving us a chance, as a ministry, to do more with public libraries.

I certainly understand how critically important they are in communities. We’ve heard that loud and clear. I had at least a dozen or a dozen and a half meetings with mayors and councillors at the recent UBCM conference specifically about libraries and how important they are in all communities but rural communities especially.

Their utilization rates are growing all the time. There are a couple of communities — Trail is one that comes to mind — where they’re investing significant capital dollars in state-of-the-art library facilities. So there are good things happening out there.

In specific reference to the member’s question about the cut that the previous government brought in in 2008, when library funding was reduced from $17 million to $14 million, and where it’s at currently. In this budget update, the $14 million is protected. I’ve made that clear to anybody that is working in local government or in the library sector that that is the case.

We’re having some interesting conversations about what a new vision might look like for libraries in B.C. As the member understands, this is the budget update, so it was not a lengthy opportunity to engage in budget-making, but to his question, specifically, the $14 million in funding is protected.

A. Weaver: Thank you, minister. There will be a lot of people very happy to hear that answer on record.

I do recognize, and I have some sympathy, that public libraries are coming out of the Ministry of Education. It’s a difficult jurisdiction for whether it should be advanced ed. You could make the argument that it could be advanced ed, or it could, who knows, span many ministries.

I think the key aspect, though, is the shared importance of protecting these for public good. These are a public resource that is critical to the betterment of society. Many of the municipalities are concerned, as the minister knows, because of the fact that, since the funds have been stalled are at $14 million with no cost of living increase, costs have been downloaded onto municipalities.

The concern is that some of their budgets are going to getting some shocks, pretty soon, when the new public library budget comes in.

My question to the minister. I know this is a budget update. It’s if the minister is thinking — whether it be through his ministry or other ministries — about, perhaps, actually putting the libraries into a base budget somewhere and giving them the opportunity to grow through the provincial funding, whether it be through cost of living or other. Because it’s very difficult to make ends meet with funding that has been frozen for quite a number of years.

Hon. R. Fleming: Thank you to the member for that follow-up question. There has been some contemplation about where libraries might best fit in the structures of government. I think there’s a strong case to be made that the Ministry of Education is the right place for it. We have terrific partnerships all across British Columbia with local libraries. We’ve been asked to look at whether broadband access that we provide to rural and remote schools might be possible for libraries to benefit from. Lots of exciting discussions and literacy programs that happen between our local libraries and school districts.

Having said that, what the issue I think he’s getting at here is, is the frustration from, essentially, the erosion of library funding over the last ten years, nearly, since that cut was introduced to library funding. Then it was frozen against inflation — a bit of a double hit. It has led to a decline in the overall percentage share of provincial contribution to libraries. It’s meant that local governments have faced tax pressure on their ratepayers to make up for that state of affairs.

I heard mayors loud and clear and have been lobbied directly by a lot of city councillors, as well, and regional district directors to look at exactly that. I can say it’s a conversation that’s happening within government. I did not fail to note that the Union of B.C. Municipalities passed a resolution as well.

I think I will just conclude by thanking the member for raising it. It’s an important issue, and I think there’s massive potential for libraries to provide additional life-long learning opportunities, connection to employment and just general resilience and wellbeing of individuals and the communities that they serve.

One Comment

  1. Bruce Heslip-
    October 22, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    Glad someone is giving some thought to funding for public libraries. While I used a local library years ago, my job had frequently seen me in areas where no library was available so for many years I just purchased books. However since retiring back Prince George BC I find myself using libraries more frequently these days. Hard copy books, ebook borrowing, accessible meeting space are all valuable resources offered by libraries. At the very least, funding should at least keep up with inflation above a base budget. The base budget should be funded at a higher level than currently offered. One idea that could be considered for the more rural areas in the province is the travelling library, something that has worked elsewhere in the world. One thing that has always frustrated me is the difficulty in passing on used books so others might enjoy them. People are always trying to pass on used books, something public library’s aren’t necessarily interested in unless they are relatively new. A public library is the obvious choice as a collection point for these free books that could then be redistributed to areas that could use them. I’ve seen a few locations that collect small numbers, the local bank, hospice society, seniors centres, a Rotary Club initiatives for rural schools, but they are all ad hoc and relatively unknown. A regional initiative to collect books for redistribution to more rural areas in need could be undertaken by city libraries at minimal cost. Libraries could even use volunteers for the staffing required. The biggest problem I see is storage of the books, given most libraries suffer from a lack of space over time as communities grow and requirements expand.