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New West to urge province to better fund B.C.'s public libraries

“Libraries are so much more than books, and books are so much already.”
New Westminster public library
Council has approved a motion from the library board to urge the province to provide more long-term sustainable funding to public libraries.

New Westminster wants the province to support facilities that are considered by many to be the “heart and soul” of communities across the province.

Representatives from the New Westminster library board – accompanied by some of the younger visitors to the city’s library – asked council to support a motion urging the provincial government to provide long-term sustainable funding for public libraries in B.C. and to ensure that B.C. libraries receive regular increases to provincial government funding in subsequent years.

Brow of the Hill resident Vanessa Woznow said her two-year-old daughter Eleanor met one of her best friends Mina at the uptown branch of the library.

“Mina is, of course, a mouse. A mouse who lives in a book. A book called Mina,” she told council June 13. “Mina, like my daughter, loves to read, and it’s her love of books that saves her and her father from being eaten by the cats that her dad keeps bringing home as pets.”

Woznow, a member of the New Westminster Library Board, relayed the story of Mina, saying it’s not the first or last time that someone, fictional or not, had their life saved because of a book. She said libraries are places where people go to make friends, to go with their family, to build family, to sit and dream, to learn new languages, to find a job, to get or give support, or to take out a DVD.

“Libraries are so much more than books, and books are so much already. They are so much the things,” she said. “It’s my dream that as we work together as a library board and as city and as a community, we have the resources to do better by books, by stories and their storytellers; to continue beyond the boundaries that have for so long defined what we know as stories and who can tell them. And how we tell them. So that everyone has safe, equitable and guaranteed access to stories that can change and save their lives.”

Sapperton resident Elaine Su, accompanied by son Ellis – who asked council to ensure the library stocks all of the books in the Claude series, said she was on the library board last year when it developed its new strategic plan.

“Our staff are so incredible and do some much work. But we have given them a really ambitious strategic plan that really strives to meet the needs of some of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized people. That’s a role that we know and seriously believe that the library plays, but that work requires funds,” said Su, vice-chair of the library board. “And we currently do not have the funds to meet everything that we wish to do as a library and so we are asking for more – and more Claude books.”

Norah Andrew, library board chair, said a recent article in the New York Times said libraries are havens – and she couldn’t agree more.

“People come in to read the papers, get books, cool off if it’s too hot and just maybe sit for a while,” she said. “But one of the other things they do is, if they are students, they do their homework because their apartments or houses are too crowded or too noisy. They also use the internet because they don’t have an internet outlet. These are things that we provide for them, because we are libraries and we can. And that’s one of the reasons that we want to make sure that this motion gets accepted and passed, and in fact has some action.”

Funding flat-lined

According to the New Westminster library board, provincial funding to public libraries has been frozen at $14 million since 2009. While some one-time funding has been approved for specific initiatives, the board states there has been no ongoing increase to funding.

In May, the library board approved a motion that the City of New Westminster submit a motion to the Union of B.C. Municipalities calling for increased funding for libraries in B.C. and that the motion be forwarded to other B.C. municipalities.

“One of the things that we have found is that there have been recommendations several times that the grants be increased. It’s never happened because they are flat-lined,” Andrew told council. “And I think it’s because some people don’t understand the role that libraries play in the community. They are community hubs, and that’s where life happens.”

Council unanimously approved the library board’s motion.

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said libraries are the heart of the community.

“We do know that it is the most welcoming place in our community where people actually do feel comfortable. We know that during the climate events it became a cooling centre for people who are at risk of overheating and dying in our community,” she said. “We ask libraries to punch way above their weight. They do so much in a community. They are not just a place that houses books, and haven’t been for a really long time.”

Coun. Chinu Das said surveys done in New Westminster have shown that the library is a lifeline for a lot of newcomers to the city, as it’s a source of information and connection.

“It’s the heart and soul of the city,” she said. “So many people feel safe there.”

Mayor Jonathan Cote said the library board has developed a strategic plan that maps out a bold vision for the future of the library.

“I think the plan really sets forward a new path forward that really tries to take the library into some really important spaces,” he said. “But I think we recognize it’s not a plan that’s going to become a reality unless it’s funded, unless it gets support, unless it gets resources.”

Cote believes there’s a strong case to be made for increased provincial funding of libraries.

“This is something that would not only benefit New Westminster but libraries across our province,” he said. “I think this is an important motion to put forward, but I also think we need to look inward at ourselves here. The reality is the city is a major funder of libraries, and if we truly want to be behind the library’s strategic plan, I think we need to be having those conversations in our budget processes as well.”

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus

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