Libraries offer an amazing array of services across our communities. Though mostly associated with books and other written materials, libraries offer multimedia resources, and access to computer and other technology. Libraries provide programs for kids, services for seniors, support literacy among those of all ages, help those looking for employment, support language and reading groups, and help new residents with citizenship test preparation. Libraries also provide open access to the internet, and in many communities are the only option for low-income citizens to access online services.
Libraries are also important safe spaces in our communities. Libraries are places where everyone is welcome, including marginalized and vulnerable populations, and those struggling with mental health and addiction issues. Libraries stand in contrast to the many private spaces, like malls, that dominate our neighbourhoods, because they are truly public venues, promoting the democratic principles of equity, accessibility, and inclusion.
Canada’s public libraries log 100 million visits and lend 2.1 million books every year. Nearly two-thirds of Canadians have a library card.
Evolution of Community Libraries
The breadth of library services available today represents a substantial evolution in the role of libraries in our communities and in the lives of citizens. Some of this growth is natural, the outcome of an increasingly digital world where resources, information and written materials live online. Other changes have come as the result of downloaded responsibility for public services by senior governments.
Funding cuts to social services, like those experienced in British Columbia under the 16 years of BC Liberal governments, has resulted in numerous Canadians turning to their local libraries for help to find social supports. The demand for information about immigration and job search assistance has increased. The need for access to computers, online services, and community resources has driven a much-expanded role for libraries as community service centres. This evolution has put substantial strain on library funding models, and has greatly impacted library workers struggling to keep up with community demand.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many of the struggles of our libraries and their workers, and exacerbated the ongoing challenges in the sector. At a time when communities needed additional support and resources, many of British Columbia’s community libraries remained closed—some far after the status of the pandemic required. Library workers were concerned that employers were using the pandemic as an opportunity to permanently layoff staff and reduce, restructure, and privatize services.
Simultaneously, demand for library services during the pandemic was large. British Columbians turned to libraries to connected with each other and their communities while other avenues of interaction were limited. Libraries moved many services and programming online to keep patrons and staff safe, and library workers reached out to marginalized and vulnerable populations, set up food banks, and delivered books and other library materials to childcare centres and other care facilities.
Provincial Library Funding
Despite the much-expanded role of libraries and importance of the public services they provide, the sector remains woefully underfunded. Both libraries and their workers struggle without sufficient resources to meet their needs.
The majority of funding for public libraries comes from each community via their respective local government. Though there is provincial funding for local libraries in B.C., this is limited, and has failed to keep pace with the expanded role of libraires in our communities.
CUPE BC continues to advocate for increased funding for public libraries across the province, and did so most recently in its submission to the 2023 BC Budget consultation process. More funding for libraries overall, and additional funding to support small, rural and remote libraries, were recommended as the key strategy for the government of BC to help our libraries better respond to increasing service demands.
Support for rural and remote library funding is a key point given British Columbia’s commitment to reconciliation. An overreliance on community funding has meant that public library services are insufficient or completely lacking in small, rural, and remote Indigenous communities. Many communities have no access to properly funded public libraries, especially those on reserves or in remote regions. There is a lack of materials produced and published in Indigenous languages. CUPE BC is among many advocacy groups have called on senior governments to provide more funding.
Fair Treatment for Library Workers
Library workers bare the brunt of sector underfunding. This is chiefly in the form of unfair wages, that are often far below those of municipal workers providing similar services in the same community. Other impacts of underfunding include the extensive use of precarious workers by library employers, the inability of library employers to provide safe workplaces, and the lack of standard supports, benefits and pensions for library workers.
Library workers also face the threat of privatization and de-staffing, from the contracting out of services and technology to the introduction of self-service checkout and book returns. As underfunding grips libraries, staff positions are reduced, leading to a decrease in the valued front-line service culture.
The height of this threat is the growth in staffless libraries in communities across the country. A staffless library is just that—a library with no on-site staff during extended hours. They mean fewer jobs, fewer programs for the public, reduced access for vulnerable communities, and increased risks to public safety.
A Brighter Future for Libraries and Library Workers
Libraries are more than buildings and books. They are about the people who use them and work in them. Libraries are a vital part of our communities, providing services, resources and safe spaces to everyone, equally.
The National Union’s campaign, Library Workers Bring Your Library to Life!, is a key tool in advancing our collective advocacy to increase support for libraries and library workers. Please take the time to sign the pledge found at https://cupe.ca/sign-pledge-i-support-my-library-i-support-my-library-workers
Together, we can build a brighter future for libraries, library workers, and the communities they serve.