It has been an unexpectedly dramatic season for the Public Libraries of Saskatchewan. In the provincial budget in March the government unexpectedly announced that $4.8 million in library funded was being cut from funding.
The government said they were eliminating all provincial funding, $1.3 million, for the public libraries in the major centres of Saskatoon and Regina.
The balance of $3.5 million was being cut from the regional library system. It meant the regional libraries were to receive 58% less money.
Funding for northern libraries was not directly affected.
The Saskatchewan Party, the governing party, is facing a $1 billion plus deficit and was looking to a combination of spending cuts and tax increases to address the deficit.
I have been a member of the Melfort Public Library for almost 40 years. It was a shock to hear the government was planning such devastating cuts to the funding of provincial libraries. There had been no consultations with library boards and library staffs.
Going into the budget announcement everyone in the province knew there would be cuts in government spending but I could not believe libraries were targeted with such extreme cuts.
Saskatchewan has a wonderful integrated library system where any library card holder can access books and material from any library in the province. There is a daily flow of library items around the province.
Starting in our part of the province in 1950 regional libraries were developed that now cover the whole province. Each regional library has a central headquarters which organizes materials and provides much of the library administration for the region.
Most recently a provincial library card system was established that allows a card holder to walk into any public library in the province and borrow from that library.
The proposed cuts would have effectively ended the provincial library system. It would have been impossible to carry on the provincial wide system. We would have returned to a fragmented system of individual community libraries.
The primary government rationale was that the number of items checked out of libraries had declined by 1.7 million items in the last 10 years and that there were 175,000 fewer library card holders.
Both justifications were flawed. Checking out books has declined but usage of electronic services, such as e-books, has increased dramatically. On card holders the decrease took place during the conversion to the one card system. Before the new system many Saskatchewan citizens, including myself had at least 2 library cards. I had cards for both Melfort and Saskatoon. After the change everyone has only one card.
I could not believe that the Party I supported would propose a fundamental re-structuring of a pivotal information service for the province even without consulting the public and libraries. I was dismayed when our local MLA, Kevin Phillips, raised the question of whether libraries were a core service. It appeared to me that the government no longer valued libraries.
Negative reaction was swift and widespread across the province. Defenders of public libraries appeared in every community.
Well known mystery author, Gail Bowen, was among the most public protesters.
While I was in Florida read-in protests were held in 70 communities including Melfort. In our city of 6,000 over 200 people came for a read-in outside Kevin’s office. I would have been there had I been in Melfort.
With protests continuing and the proposed library cuts eroding support the Government abruptly announced at the end of April that all the library funding cuts were reversed. Education Minister, Don Morgan, said the government was not afraid to admit it made a mistake.
There will now be a consultation process on the future for libraries in Saskatchewan. It remains a puzzle to me why the government ever embarked on the budget cuts for libraries. There was no movement in Saskatchewan that funding for libraries should be slashed. I do wonder what will be next for our libraries. I will be doing my best to convince the government they are at the core of learning and information in Saskatchewan.