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Libraries, an investment in the future of B.C.

It probably isn’t among the list of jobs the Liberals have promised to take care of in their first 90 days in office, but the new government – and all of B.C.

It probably isn’t among the list of jobs the Liberals have promised to take care of in their first 90 days in office, but the new government – and all of B.C. – would be well served by taking another look at funding for public libraries.

Libraries haven’t had the profile of health care and education during funding debates, but a case could be made that libraries are as important to the long-term, overall health and prosperity of the province as the Big Two, which soak up about 80 per cent of the provincial budget.

Public libraries are one of the items provincial governments have, over the last 25 years, downloaded on to municipalities. British Columbia governments have been particularly enthusiastic about downloading, to the point where provincial funding per capita is half of what it is in Manitoba. B.C. provides $2.32 per capita, Manitoba $4.64, Alberta $4.89, and Saskatchewan $6.09 per capita. As a percentage of public library income, provincial grants have declined from 13 per cent in 1984 to 7 per cent in 1999. Provincial funding for libraries has remained frozen since 1993, despite an average annual increase in the cost of books of 5 per cent.

Local governments have largely been responsible for keeping libraries afloat, although libraries have become pretty good fund-raisers themselves. On average, local governments in B.C. provide 83 per cent of a public library’s income.

In Whistler, where the library only came under municipal control a couple of years ago, the municipality provided 74 per cent of revenues – $264,000 – in 2000. Based on an estimated population of 9,600, that’s $27.55 per capita. The SLRD chipped in 1 per cent, the library raised $58,000, or 16 per cent of revenues, and the province came through with $31,000, or 9 per cent of revenues.

What libraries across B.C. are asking the new Liberal government for is another $2 per capita, or $8 million in total, to put per capita funding on par with Manitoba. And they can make a compelling case for increased funding.

To start with, borrowing and visits per capita are higher in B.C. than in any other province. One factor contributing to that statistic may be students’ increased reliance on public libraries, as school libraries haven’t been provided with the funds to keep pace with student needs.

The roles that a library plays in a community have also expanded substantially in the last decade. The number of people for whom English is a second language has grown tremendously in recent years. Libraries play an important role in serving this group, but ESL materials cost money.

Seventy per cent of British Columbians classify themselves as "connected" and part of the new information age politicians of all stripes are advocating. Many are "connected" through their public library, where Internet services are now as fundamental as books.

Libraries also have an important role to play in the development of reading skills among young children. And a literate population is something that pays huge benefits for the province for years to come.

Interestingly, while provincial governments have cut back on operating funds for libraries, grants for capital expenditures have been less of a problem.

The new provincial government will no doubt find that it has more funding needs than funds at hand. But it would do well to look at increased funding for public libraries as an investment in the future of the province.