By Denise Leduc
Rankandfile.ca’s Prairies correspondent
At the end of April, the Newfoundland and Labrador library board announced that they would be closing 54 library branches in the next two years after a $1 million cut to their annual budget. These closures will impact 64 workers who will lose their jobs. These workers are mostly women living in rural areas.
The board chair, Calvin Taylor has said that 85 per cent of residents will be within a 30 minute drive of the remaining branches. Education Minister, Dale Kirby has since stated that he will be looking at ways for continued access to some of these libraries, possibly with the use of volunteers.
$14.43 per hour
These comments have been met with a range of feedback, from the union representing these workers calling it a ‘slap in the face’, to those who have anti-union sentiments cheering this idea and supporting a plan of volunteers over what they call overpaid, lazy union workers.
Nobody really likes to publicly state what they earn for an hour’s work, but I find myself in the unique position to share some realities of small-town and rural libraries. I am a small-town librarian in western Canada where I work part-time at 20 hours per week. With this position I am member of CUPE. I make $14.43 per hour. Contrary to what some might think, I never work or get paid for over-time. I do however find myself volunteering between five and ten hours of my time each week to keep things running smoothly.
Far beyond books
Some people may think that all a librarian does is check out books and read stories to little children. While that is definitely part of the job, that is actually only a very small part of the job. In the digital age libraries have been working hard to stay relevant into the future. One way we do that is by offering a wide range of programming for various ages. In the past year my small-town library has offered story times, art classes, teen drop-ins, book clubs, study groups, computer training, crafts, social events, and educational presentations for adults.
During Christmas and spring breaks we run activities for kids while they are out of school. Unlike cities, small towns have few if any of these opportunities for children and youth. This summer we will have gardening and environmental activities, and physical fitness opportunities for all ages. Every year libraries in my area participate in the TD Summer Reading Program to encourage kids to stay reading throughout their summer break. In many small towns where opportunities are limited the library becomes the social and recreational hub of a community.
The duties of a small-town librarian also include accounting, communications, marketing, volunteer recruitment and coordination, and keeping statistics for the government. When I started working at the library I was shocked by the amount of paperwork and reports we are required to do. Additionally, a large part of the job is applying for grants and doing fundraising.
Volunteer-run libraries are already the reality
While it has been suggested that Mr. Kirby might think libraries can be run by volunteers I question if that is realistic.
The truth is small-town libraries already rely heavily on volunteers. We have a library board made up of eight volunteers from the community. With only one paid staff we need volunteers to help ensure the proper delivery of the level of programming we strive for. Fundraising requires huge efforts from volunteers as well as the involvement of the entire community. Most of my volunteers volunteer for several different groups in town. Small-town volunteers are already investing a lot of time, energy and money into their communities.
Mr. Kirby claims libraries should be ‘given back to communities’ yet fails to realize the reality that small-town libraries are already community driven.
What’s left after the cuts?
I must also question the residents that will be left behind in Newfoundland by these branch closures. By their own admission fifteen per cent of residents won’t have a library within a 30 minute drive. I also wonder about the many residents who won’t be able to do the 30 minute drive-whether children, teenagers, the elderly or individuals without access to a vehicle. A large percentage of my patrons are seniors who no longer drive on highways. Some of my patrons who are seniors no longer don’t drive at all and I deliver their books to them.
One of the most important roles a librarian can have is the relationships they build with the community. I work hard to earn the respect and trust of the people I serve. My regular patrons see me weekly and share the stories of their days and their families. They also share their concerns and discuss with me issues they may be struggling with. Often, they come to me to find out about other resources that may be available to them in areas such as education, mental health, family and relationship issues, healthcare and job skills training.
While critics may dismiss librarians as overpaid union workers I am certainly not getting rich with this job. In fact, with the hourly wage and part-time hours it is only because my husband has a good job that I can afford do this job. Instead, I do this job because I am passionate about literacy and education.
I do this job because I believe that rural residents should have access to some of the same educational, recreational and social opportunities urban residents have. Finally, I do this job because I love working with and getting to know the people in the community.