Vancouver Public Library inches closer to reopening while saving many millions of dollars in staff costs

A survey found that 87 percent of users say they miss borrowing printed books the most

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      Even though libraries were included in B.C.'s Phase 2 restart plan beginning on May 19, patrons in Vancouver will have to wait nearly another month before any branches will open.

      In the meantime, the City of Vancouver is expected to save more than $8.4 million in staffing costs as hundreds of library workers continue to be laid off.

      "Starting mid-July, we will be reopening Central Library and four branches (Britannia, Kitsilano, Renfrew and South Hill), offering limited services with strict health and safety measures in place," chief librarian Christina de Castell stated on the VPL's website this week.

      "When we reopen these locations, you will be able to pick up holds, access physical collections in short visits, return materials, and schedule time to use public computers," she continued. "Central Library will reopen services on three levels: the Children’s Library on the Lower Level, Level 2 and public computers on Level 3. We anticipate reopening other areas of Central Library in the fall."

      The library will be encouraging "short visits" to protect the health of patrons and staff.

      "We are not yet able to invite you to stay for long periods of time to read books and newspapers, study, or use our WiFi inside," de Castell noted. "In-person programs for children, teens, and adults will still be suspended, while our digital programming and additional digital support will continue through the summer."

      The VPL's chief librarian, Christina de Castell, says patrons will be able to visit branches in mid-July.

      VPL takeout service overwhelmed by demand

      Takeout services will be offered in mid-July at five branches: Champlain Heights, Dunbar, Firehall, Hastings, and Kensington.

      Last week, VPL spokesperson Scott Fraser told the Straight that when a takeout model was launched in early June, it was overwhelmed with responses. More than 800 orders came in for more than 8,000 items. 

      The VPL suspended accepting new orders to address the backlog.

      In March due to COVID-19, more than 600 of the 750 VPL workers were laid off, according to CUPE 391 president Kari Scott-Whyte.

      "First and foremost, the safety of our members returning and the safety of patrons, of course, is paramount, and that a lot of work—good work—is being done by both the union and administration in ensuring that as the takeout models and openings roll out, that safety is really adhered to," Scott-Whyte told the Straight by phone.

      "Having said that, I would also say that we have concerns around budget implications and the economic landscape that we see ourselves in—and are concerned moving forward what impact that is going to have on the library short- and long-term."

      There were about 500,000 visits per month to VPL branches before the pandemic.

      CUPE B.C. launched a Better Libraries campaign on June 18 to urge municipal politicians to support the "immediate safe reopening of our local public libraries".

      "The closures have highlighted even more glaringly the problems with the current funding model that libraries have been facing for a decade and more," Scott-Whyte wrote in a letter to members.

      A VPL survey of 6,949 library users showed that 87 percent of respondents missed borrowing printed books the most.

      The survey also revealed that 72 percent cited being unable to pick up items on hold as the thing they missed the most.

      CUPE Local 391 president Kari Scott-Whyte and vice president Tanya Ferry believe that the library closures have highlighted long-standing problems with the funding model.
      CUPE B.C.

      Net VPL annual budget down by 12.7 percent

      A report going to the Vancouver Public Library board today states that 13 staff have been recalled to support preparations for reopening and "takeout expansion".

      Approximately 110 additional staff will be recalled "in preparation for Phase 2", the report states, even though the province will likely be well in the midst of Phase 3 by the time branches actually open.

      According to the report, there will be an occupancy limit of one person per five metres of "unencumbered space", with staff monitoring this to ensure that this is not exceeded.

      A revised 2020 forecast shows that the net VPL operating budget will shrink this year from $50.3 million to $43.9 million.

      That's a reduction of 12.7 percent.

      The biggest savings at the VPL will be from reduced salaries and benefits.

      Revenue is expected to fall by more than $2 million. That's due in part to lower amounts collected through fines and by renting and leasing space.

      The City of Vancouver projects an overall revenue shortfall of $136 million in 2020, which is being offset by staffing cutbacks and other measures.

      Meanwhile, the Vancouver police board has spurned council's request to cut its net budget of $314 million.

      Police expenditures account for about 21 percent of the city's overall budget.

      Scott-Whyte emphasized that the library system plays a key role in community building, serving as a central gathering place and a safe place.

      "I would say those kind of services really are crucial for every demographic that we see," she said. "If we loook at the provincial strategy around poverty reduction, [they] play a piece in that as well."

      The closure of libraries and community centres has meant far fewer places are available for homeless people to wash their hands and use the bathroom.

      In Scott-Whyte's experience working in various branches, she's seen people make use the library for a wide range of reasons, including researching career changes and preparing résumés.

      The Straight asked the union president how she felt about the Vancouver police board refusing to cut the VPD's budget by one percent when so many of her members are out of work and library patrons don't even have access to takeout service.

      'The question of the funding for the VPD and the public discourse that's happening is a really complex one," Scott-Whyte replied. "It is a conversation that's happening within our executive as well. And I'd say that I think I'll leave it at that right now."

      These VPL statistics are in a report going to board members today.