February 19th, 2020

Library Chat: Loss of provincial grant would mean bad things for library

By Ken Feser on August 30, 2019.

There have been recent reports in the media about possible cuts in provincial support of public libraries. Public libraries are a municipal service and the City of Medicine Hat provides most of our funding (about 84% in 2019) but the province supplies us (and all other Alberta public libraries) with a significant operating grant. In 2019 we hope to receive $349,750, the same amount as in 2018. This is a per capita grant and for the record, it has typically lagged behind real population growth and inflation.

The province has announced it will provide 50% of the usual grant to libraries now, which has created the news story. This is actually good news, not a cut (at least at this point). The provincial budget is not due to be released until October and there is an effective freeze in provincial spending until then, which creates cash flow and management problems. It is hard to run a library when you don’t have the money to do so until the year is almost done, and you’re not sure what you’re getting. The 50% helps get us through until the rest of the money (hopefully) arrives.

One reason the province provides funding for libraries, and many other municipal services, is to further its own interests and agenda. For example, the province wants all Albertans to get basic services, so they fund things like interlibrary loan and book delivery that gets materials to rural and isolated areas. Without this support there would be a patchwork system with, for example, people in First Nations communities paying $60 or $80 a year in non-resident fees to use the library in their nearest town (a situation that existed until the province fixed it a couple of years ago.)

Regardless of motive, provincial support makes a huge difference. The province funds regional library systems that allows things like book purchasing to be efficiently centralized. They provide electronic resources like online newspapers and Alberta ebooks. Supernet connections enable high-speed internet access. And the operating grants keep many small town public libraries alive.

Our provincial grant is larger than what I will call our entire discretionary budget. We could refrain from buying a single paperclip, spending only on set costs like payroll, system levy, utilities, and so on, and we still couldn’t save enough to make up for the loss of that grant. If it goes, bad things happen to our library. I hope that our provincial decision makers see the value in the services we provide our community and continue their vital support.

Ken Feser is chief librarian at the Medicine Hat Public Library.

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