Contributed by David Brake.
Newfoundland made national headlines in April last year when the province proposed to cut $1m from the libraries’ $12m budget (which has not kept pace with inflation since 2011) and in response the library board suggested closing more than half of the smaller libraries across the province (though none in St John’s). Public outrage was such that an independent report was commissioned and public consultations were held. The report revealed that libraries in the province receive 42% less per head than the national average, even though by some measures NL has the country’s lowest levels of literacy. It noted however that more than 80% of library funding across Canada comes from municipalities, while here municipal contributions (across the whole province) are about 8%.
The St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, home to the A.C. Hunter Public Library.
Province vs municipality
Libraries in Newfoundland and Labrador are a provincial responsibility but the province will be negotiating with the municipalities to change this as part of plans for a comprehensive review of cities’ powers and responsibilities. Municipalities NL says cities are presently not allowed to fund day to day running of libraries, though they do give space in their buildings and support special library programs. Many cities outside of the NE Avalon peninsula will also be facing significant future bills to pay for long-neglected wastewater treatment, and they will be reluctant to take on partial or complete funding responsibility for libraries.
Nonetheless, the Friends of the St John’s Library and the St John’s library board are calling on the city to do just that. The city already provides occasional ad-hoc funding for library activities but these groups say the city should allocate consistent ‘line item’ funding to the library system in its budget with a view to raising funding for the libraries here to the national average. This would cost St John’s around $1.6m a year (if the province does not itself raise the library budget) – to put this in perspective, the city spent $302m in 2016.
The Athenaeum, an early downtown library lost to the fire of 1892.
A new central library for St John’s?
In 2014 Halifax opened a $57m central library downtown including an auditorium, coffee shop and music studio. Inspired by the success of that building and other new libraries that have been built across the country, a group of citizens has formed to campaign for a library in downtown St John’s as well, and the library board and friends of the library both call for this. Several candidates, including incumbent council members have endorsed the idea in principle. A third of the cost of Halifax’s library was paid by the federal government and 22% by the province – it is not clear who would foot the bill for a central library here.
Friends of the St John’s Public Library is hosting a ‘meet the candidates’ event at 13:00 on Saturday 16th at the A C Hunter library where candidates will talk about their vision of the city’s role in public libraries. It is one of the few public events remaining where a large number of ward and at large candidates as well as mayoral candidates will be attending.