The city’s chief librarian, Sandra Singh, is happy to discuss some of the financial challenges facing her organization.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, she said there are increasing demands on the Vancouver Public Library as the public’s expectations are changing.
“What we’ve been dealing with in the last five or six years is the increasing popularity of digital content,” Singh said. “We don’t just buy the print version of the book—we have to buy the e-version of the book and probably the downloadable audio version of the book from the same budget.”
She pointed out that large multinational publishers are charging “extraordinarily high prices to public libraries, much higher than consumer prices for digital books”.
As an example, she cited the bestseller Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling. According to Singh, a consumer would pay $15 but a library would have to fork over $85.
“The Canadian independent publishers are generally publishing their ebook versions for libraries at the same price as for the consumer,” Singh noted. “Those local publishers are really reasonable and we really value the relationship with them.”
In 2014, the library spent $4.35 million on books and materials. The same amount isn’t going as far this year because of the falling Canadian dollar in comparison to the U.S. greenback.
“The exchange rate erodes our buying power,” Singh said.
At the same time, the chief librarian praised the City of Vancouver for its “strong support”. And she refused to be drawn into a discussion about whether or not the VPL has been shortchanged in comparison to other city departments.
The city’s budget data suggests that the library hasn’t been at the top of city council’s priority list.
From 2011 to 2015, the net operating budget (excluding revenues) for the Vancouver Police Department rose 29.56 percent. Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services saw a 19.89-percent hike over the same period. Council’s grant to the VPL rose only 12.7 percent from 2011 to 2015.
This year, city council increased the VPL’s operating grant by 1.8 percent. Overall city spending was forecast to increase by 3.66 percent.
This means that the library’s increase was less than half the spending increase allocated for the city as a whole.
One thing is clear: the VPL still manages to attract more patronage than other systems across the country.
According to Singh, the VPL’s visits per capita last year exceeded those of library systems in Greater Victoria, Edmonton, Calgary, Hamilton, Toronto, Mississauga, and Ottawa. Vancouver residents borrowed more materials than residents of all those cities except for Greater Victoria.
“Sixty percent of the community used the library last year,” Singh said. “That’s extraordinary.”
The city has an online budget survey that asks about the most important local issues facing residents in the coming year.
There are 12 choices, including city finances, cost of living, education, housing, health care, social issues, and development. Nowhere is the library mentioned.
Next, the survey asks residents about the importance of various civic services, including a question about the library.
This information will be forwarded to city council when it votes on next year’s budget.