[Ed. note: Many of you will have heard about the proposed cuts to public libraries in Newfoundland and Labrador. Our colleagues at the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians/l’Association canadienne des bibliothécaires académiques professionnels have recently released a letter on the issue. ACCUTE member Danine Farquharson (MUN) has written the following piece for our blog. This post is offered as part of our ongoing series of opinion pieces. ACCUTE members may propose opinion pieces for the blog, provided they engage issues of interest to the broader ACCUTE membership; if accepted, they are subject to editing for length and other matters. This and other such opinion pieces reflect the author’s own views, and do not necessarily represent the opinion of ACCUTE or its membership; they are offered in hopes of generating discussion among our members.]
Fifteen years ago, Prince gave the Louisville Free Public Library’s Western branch $12,000. It’s a lovely moment of celebrity philanthropy. The Western Branch Library was “the first full-service free public library in the United States open to African-Americans” — and staffed entirely by African-Americans (Chipman, “Prince made secret donation,” Insider Louisville 21 April 2016). And while I want to celebrate his gesture as a testament to how important our public libraries are and how valuable their safe and open spaces can be to so many people, what really strikes to the bone with this story is that libraries need the support of Princes, because they are never that safe. In Newfoundland and Labrador they are being gutted. And so, many of us write letters of protest and tweet screeds against the provincial Liberals and paint our signs for this protest march and the next one.
Libraries may well flourish in fruitful periods, but they’ve always needed protection. What’s happening in NL is part of a larger contemporary phenomenon resulting from economic ‘austerity’: cutting funding to public services. It is our responsibility to recognize that they’re always fragile and need champions — and that we must be those champions. We should always be advocating for more funding and more resources for our public libraries. While the crisis is acute and many-headed in Newfoundland and Labrador (don’t get me started on the book tax), none of us can afford to be complacent about our libraries. None of us can rest on comfortable assumptions that the importance of access to knowledge and safe public spaces is a value universally held.
We should remember that closing libraries (with reports of documents being burned) happened at the federal level: “The library and scientific professions were taken by surprise by the Harper government in late 2013 when it shuttered seven out of eleven Fisheries and Oceans Canada libraries, consigning much of these collections to dumpsters.” (Dudley, “The Federal Library Closures and the Harper Government’s “Monoculture of the Mind”). Recent funding cuts have caused the closure of hundreds of libraries in the United Kingdom. The title of Matthew Battles’ 2004 Library: An Unquiet History says it all. Libraries are as much living monuments to knowledge and learning as they are the sites of deliberate burnings and destruction.
The Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal government proposes to close 54 out of 95 public libraries, all of them in rural locations. These public libraries have been sadly underfunded for some time. The Canadian national average for annual library funding at the provincial level is approximately $104 per person; before these cuts, Newfoundland and Labrador spent between $1 and $6 per person (Hurley, “Save the libraries campaign,” Western Star 05 May 2016). Despite this relative parsimony, usage statistics show that the libraries were still fulfilling their mission. As reported by Meghan McCabe for the CBC (“Closing libraries have heavy use,” 29 April 2016), usage statistics released from the Newfoundland and Labrador Library Association show that one library on the government’s hit list, the Fogo Island Central Library (yes, of the now famously spectacular Fogo Island) saw “more than 13,000 wi-fi sessions in 2015-2016” for a population of about 2,500 people. Likewise, she notes that “the library in Lark Harbour, which is also closing, had more than 4,000 books borrowed” and saw 3,856 computer sessions: the population there “is about 500.” For a Lark Harbour resident, then, 8 books and 8 computer sessions. Newfoundland and Labrador has seemed for a long time to recognize that the path out of poverty is education, but preserving the low tuition rates at Memorial University, as important as that is, isn’t worth as much if Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in rural communities don’t have access to libraries in their childhood.
Libraries are already severely underfunded. Libraries always need our help and our support. Voices of ACCUTE members – teachers of English and cultural critics dedicated to student success – should never tire of speaking out to save libraries, to ensure their funding and resources are robust. If you’d like to comment on the current situation in Newfoundland and Labrador, go to Save NL Public Libraries. Don’t stop there. Keep up the support. Because libraries are never safe.
–Danine Farquharson (MUN)