B.C. libraries face looming cuts

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      Vancouver arts groups whose Direct Access gaming grants are frozen until September aren’t the only ones waiting on government money to flow. B.C. libraries are still waiting on $17.7 million in grant money for 2009, and trustees say they have been informed by the Minister of Education Margaret MacDiarmid that cuts are likely.

      “Libraries are getting very jittery right now,” said Andy Ackerman, president of the B.C. Library Trustees Association (BCLTA), who was part of a delegation who met with MacDiarmid July 28. “We’re going into month eight of a 12-month calendar of their [libraries’] business plans. Their budgets were based on the calendar year from January to December, and the budgets were also based on provincial funding of grants....If we lose a significant amount of funding, we’re looking at [cutting] staff, we’re looking at [reducing] hours, we’re looking at [cutting] services.”

      According to Loring Bohach, vice-chair of the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) board and vice-president of the BCLTA, the VPL has only received about 25 percent of the $2 million it normally receives from the government for the year. “The provincial funds are 4.8 percent of the VPL’s budget, so it’s significant,” said Bohach, who took MacDiarmid on a tour of the VPL on July 29, adding: “But there are other, smaller library systems around the province where the provincial percentage is 10 or 15 percent, or perhaps even higher, of their total budget. So there is hardship all around.”

      In a phone call with the Straight, MacDiarmid said information regarding grants will be released by mid-August. “We are reviewing all the grants the Ministry of Education provides,” she said in a phone call with the Straight. “Often everybody would have heard about their grants by this time of year, although it’s not unprecedented....The difference this year is, of course, the election, and the fact that we don’t have a budget. And soon we will.”

      MacDiarmid noted that all provincial ministries have been asked to review their budgets. “We will not be providing every grant that we did in previous years,” she acknowledged. “I can’t give you specifics, and that’s one of the hard things, is that what we do in one area impacts on another area. So we really have to wait until we have it all totally figured out and then we’ll let all of the groups and services that receive grants know exactly what they’ll receive this year.”

      Ackerman said that any level of funding cuts would be a blow: “There is no fat in the library system. Most of our funding comes from local and provincial governments and there’s not a whole lot of room to maneuver.”

      Bohach stressed that support for libraries is particularly crucial at the moment. “What we’ve been seeing since the economic slowdown late last year is that the numbers of people that are accessing services in the public library has gone up significantly,” he said, “particularly in the areas of folks finding employment, learning how to start their own businesses and that sort of thing.”

      According to the BCLTA, 57 percent of British Columbians hold library cards, and another 10 to 15 percent use libraries on a regular basis. Last year, more than 4.6 million items were borrowed in the Lower Mainland by residents of other municipalities, through an open access program supported by provincial funding.