Sunday, October 17, 2021

Outrage grows over library cutbacks

Former N.S. information watchdog terms move ‘mean-spirited’

  • April 21 2021
  • By Alec Bruce    

ST. MARY’S – Riding a crest of local outrage, Nova Scotia’s former privacy and information watchdog Dulcie McCallum is calling major cutbacks to Sherbrooke Library’s opening times nothing less than “an attack on children and poor people.”

The St. Mary’s and Halifax resident, who was the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection and Privacy Officer between 2007 and 2014, says the Eastern Counties Regional Library’s (ECRL’s) decision last month to slash operations in Sherbrooke from 25 to 15 hours a week (no evenings or weekends), “Shows that they are not in tune with how we use our library.”

Across the district, the public backlash against ECRL – an organization that many now believe is tone deaf and dismissive – has become downright furious.

“You take away a library and you take away part of the soul of the community,” says Heritage Goldenville Society Chairman and community activist Neil Black.

Retired school teacher and poet Deborah Banks adds: “I just don’t get it; it feels like the death of a thousand cuts.”

ECRL sparked controversy last month after it announced that a “funding alignment” required it to chop public hours at both Sherbrooke and Guysborough branches, unless local government partners there paid as much as 60 per cent more per year. For the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s that would mean topping up its current $16,927 annual contribution by $10,531.

Both St. Mary’s council and its counterpart at the Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG) – noting the lack of precedent for the policy change – have sought clarification and guidance from Communities, Culture and Heritage Minister Suzanne Lohnes-Croft. Still, the new operational framework at the libraries has been implemented, and it’s not yet clear whether the provincial government will intervene.

In a statement to The Journal last month, Communities, Culture and Heritage said: “Funding of regional libraries is determined by a shared ratio that is a combination of provincial, municipal and board contributions… Ultimately, library boards are tasked with providing an equitable level of service across the region they serve. Municipalities must work collegially and productively with their library board to determine distribution and service levels that are acceptable to all municipal funders.”

But, according to McCallum, who is also a former Ombudsman of British Columbia and a special advisor to the UN Convention on The Rights of People with Disabilities, Sherbrooke Library is more than a book repository and St. Mary’s is far from a deadbeat jurisdiction.

“There are children [who are] reading,” she says, “The library is also the only access to the Internet for some people. If you shut that library, people will literally not have access to the Internet. The CRTC has guaranteed that access to the Internet is a right … At the same time, our municipality has never pled poverty. We’ve kept the bank account in good order. So, to suddenly punish a community that has really maintained its own wellbeing with little help from the province… It’s just so incongruous. It’s so mean spirited.”

Adds Black: “The importance of accessibility goes way beyond through-put numbers [ECRL] may use to justify the operating budgets they allow for our rural facilities. The minds of the people of rural Nova Scotia are the dividends of this province and need to continue to flourish. Our local library board needs to ask the premier to stop this erosion of our intellectual life-blood-line in rural Nova Scotia.”

All of which underscores the library’s historic role and value as a social hub, Banks says. “It is Sherbrooke’s community centre, and it has been for years. Prior to the pandemic, it was the home of the book club and meditation. We had guest speakers. We had films. We had workshops. And the Internet access, of course, for the seniors in our community who can’t afford a computer. That was their only access point.”

In a letter she sent last week to Lohnes-Croft, she elaborated: “Our library, in its present incarnation, is a shadow of its former self, its viability profoundly compromised by decision-makers at ECRL who have no vision of what this institution means to our community. The District of St. Mary’s has renovated and maintained the building that houses the library at the expense of its citizens and taxpayers, yet those very taxpayers are denied access to this important community resource.”

What’s more, she wrote: “Given that the Sherbrooke area will soon be the site of the world’s first whale sanctuary attracting more visitors to our area and placing us in the international spotlight, given that we have a growing population of seniors in our area, given that more people are choosing to move into our region from other parts of the country, and given that literacy levels in Guysborough County are in decline, it is bewildering that the direction of the ECRL management is dismantling what was the hub of activity in our small village. After over a year into the pandemic, the doors of our library are still locked to the public, with ‘by appointment only’ visits permitted, further crippling the viability of this beloved institution and the people who support it.”

Asked to respond to complaints about its cutbacks in Sherbrooke and Guysborough and the characterization of these as “an attack on the poor and children,” Emery replied in an email:

“We’re encouraged to hear that people care about library service and would like to see the service restored. We hope that concerned individuals will speak with their councillors to support increased municipal funding for library service. We encourage anyone in need of books or other library materials, regardless of their age or socioeconomic situation, to call our toll-free number 1-855-787-7323 for assistance. We want to help as many people as we can despite this difficult funding situation.”

She added: “The impact of our funding alignment is also complicated by the pandemic conditions. We’re required to maintain social distancing, quarantine returned materials, and maintain a capacity of four people, including staff, at the Sherbrooke Library. These public health restrictions mean that we’re unable to offer programming or allow the community to gather in the small space at the Sherbrooke Library for the foreseeable future. This is an added frustration. All we can do is continue to share information with the public and encourage them to support a municipal increase in library funding.”

ECRL operates nine branches in eastern mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton under the terms of the Nova Scotia Libraries Act. Its board includes members from six municipalities: Town of Mulgrave; the Municipality of the District of Guysborough, the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s, the Town of Port Hawkesbury, Inverness County, and Richmond County. Roughly 80 per cent of its annual $1.2 spending budget comes from the Nova Scotia Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage. About 18 per cent per cent comes from the participating municipalities. The balance stems from other funding-raising activities.