Bigger budget for Halifax libraries would add e-books, post-COVID programs and rural services

Halifax Central Library. Photo: Zane Woodford

Councilors are considering increasing the budget for Halifax Public Libraries to pay for more e-books, early literacy programs and rural services.

Halifax Regional Council’s budget committee debated CEO and Chief Librarian Åsa Kachan’s library budget in virtual meetings on Wednesday and Friday.

Finance staff gave each city department a goal to hit for the 2022-23 fiscal year, and for libraries it was $23,050,000 — a reduction of $430,000 from 2021-22. To make the cut, Kachan budgeted for “overtime funding cuts and [an] increasing vacancy management”, i.e. leaving vacancies unfilled.

But Kachan presented councilors with a series of options for increasing the budget, and they voted to consider each of those options later in their budget-making process.

The first was a $300,000 supplement for e-resources, including e-books and audiobooks. Demand was on the rise before, but exploded during the pandemic, and libraries couldn’t keep up. They are also more expensive.

Kachan gave advisers an example: a November 2021 pick from Reese Witherspoon’s book club, Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees.

“The print copy is $21 in hardcover, $15 in paperback. The e-book, so the book you would read on a device is $80 and the audiobook is $193, Kachan said.

“It’s a format that the public loves. It’s a pricing structure, particularly when demand increases, that really, really impacts our ability to continue to serve.

As Kachan told councilors last year, when they added $100,000 to the collection budget, Halifax’s general public library per capita collection is lower than other Canadian cities while its use is higher. That means there are long waiting lists for e-books, Kachan said, because they can’t buy more copies because of the cost.

Kachan said an additional $6 million a year would solve the problem, but $300,000 will help them start meeting that demand.

Com. Patty Cuttell asked if the easing of restrictions after the pandemic would reduce demand for e-books, but Kachan expects it to remain strong.

“People are getting used to this usage, and it’s the convenience of this usage, and I don’t anticipate that number going down,” she said.

Councilors also voted to add money to the budget for two items billed as COVID-19 recovery.

The first is “Additional Programs Focused on Early Literacy and Social Development of Young Children” for $130,000. Kachan said libraries are concerned with children’s language and social development.

“It’s well documented and it’s deeper when children live in poverty,” Kachan said. “These are the kids who are least likely to have a shelf of books at home or who may not be in daycare or preschool where they have the opportunity to connect with other kids. “

The money, a one-time expense, would be used to create learning and play spaces inside the branches to help children interact with each other and introduce them to books.

“We have resources to provide services to children. It’s the money to do more of that: imaginative play, improving literacy, improving caregiver confidence. It is truly an investment in the life outcomes of these children.

The second post-pandemic investment is for adult programs, “focused on bringing our community together to rebuild community bonds and our ability to overcome differences,” for $120,000, also a one-time expense. Kachan argued that “democracy has suffered in recent years”.

“It’s the impact of loneliness and isolation on the mental health of our community. It’s also like people limit their social circles, they tend to limit them to people who… have a life that’s no different from theirs. They hang out with like-minded people who share a similar perspective,” Kachan said.

“You add search algorithms to the internet, and someone’s beliefs and perspectives are fed back to them. We need to be very intentional about bringing our community together, inviting people to hang out with people who have different perspectives, identify what we share in common, look each other in the eye, engage in conversations across a range of questions.

Programming could include speakers or other events designed to feature people from different walks of life.

And the third group of extras councilors voted to improve the reach of libraries in rural areas of the municipality, which Kachan described as “geographic equity.” These include: more mail-order service at an ongoing cost of $68,000; adding library kiosks and Wi-Fi hotspots in two unidentified rural locations for $130,000; and increasing rural library hours by 20% at an ongoing cost of $102,000.

These extras total $1.4 million and would mark an increase to the library budget in 2021-22 of $970,000, or 4%.

Councilors will debate each of the three groups of overbudget options at their budget committee meeting on March 24. That list now exceeds $19.5 million, according to the Halifax Examiner’s tally. The final vote on the entire budget is scheduled for early April.

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