“In times of economic hardship such as we’re going through right now, libraries are used even more by people than they are in good times . . . with the cutbacks that the libraries have suffered, library boards have had to reduce the service that they’ve been able to provide to people.
“They’ve had to reduce their material budgets; they’ve had cuts in salaries and hiring freezes; they’ve had the reduction of maintenance and other services, cutbacks of hours of services in libraries, and the reduction of inter-library loans.” — Saskatchewan government committee meeting, Aug. 6, 1987.
That’s right. 1987.
Saskatchewan NDP Opposition MLA Anne Smart was responding to the Devine government’s decision to abolish the Saskatchewan Library, reassigning oversight of public libraries to the Ministry of Education, while simultaneously cutting funding to regional libraries by 10 per cent and city libraries by 30 per cent.
Then-Education Minister Lorne Hepworth countered Smart by first citing how much money libraries had received from his government in the past, and then pointing to the modernization of library systems, including “microfiche and microfilm and all those kinds of things, and computerized access systems . . . of the information age,” as the reason libraries were basically on their way out.
In defending his 2017 budget cuts to libraries, which have already laid off employees and shut down an important province-wide sharing service, Education Minister Don Morgan has been all over the map, using the same talking points as his predecessor of three decades earlier, and then some.
However, he also took things further than Devine ever did, by suggesting that it isn’t the role of the provincial government to be involved in the library “business.”
Perhaps, like me, you’ve been wondering how you missed a massive ideological shift in the way the Saskatchewan government views libraries.
A significant change to an important system that impacts virtually every resident of the province in some form or another wouldn’t happen overnight, would it?
I think it did, actually.
During the last decade – even within the last year – the Sask. Party government has held up its support for Saskatchewan libraries as a shining example of their commitment to bettering this province. And to be fair, they have put a decent amount of money into libraries since they formed government.
• In their first budget in 2008-09, the Sask. Party invested an increase of $3 million into provincial libraries, $2 million of which was to migrate all of Saskatchewan’s 300-plus libraries onto a single integrated library system (SILS), ensuring anyone in Saskatchewan could borrow a book from any library in Saskatchewan.
The creation of SILS was especially important and beneficial for rural or remote library users, who could now access the entire province’s collection of books and information, as opposed to only what was available at their local branch.
In a post-budget committee meeting in 2008, the newly-minted NDP Opposition praised the move, one they hadn’t made themselves when they were in government, stating “provincial library funding is long past due.”
Then-Education Minister Ken Krawetz, a former educator and one of the best education ministers this province has ever had, had this to say about the ideology driving library investments in that first budget:
“. . . there is a love of being involved with books and being involved with all the features and all of the resources that libraries provide.”
• The following year, during one of those long-winded budget speeches delivered after the 2009-10 budget was released, which included $12.3 million for public libraries, Saskatchewan Rivers MLA Nadine Wilson declared:
“. . . libraries are one of the most important landmarks in our rural communities and are an investment for the future of our children.”
• The 2011-12 budget also contained a library funding increase. Right after the budget was released, MLA Dan D’Autremont said libraries were:
“. . . something that we continue to recognize is a very needed educational tool and an opportunity for people to better themselves and for entertainment in reading books. Reading books is very important . . . I still like the feel of paper when I’m reading a book.”
• The trend toward supporting libraries continued through the Sask. Party’s second term.
After delivering his 2014-15 budget, which included a one per cent increase to public libraries, in addition to continued operating commitments for SILS and other services, Morgan assured us that his government remained “committed to highly literate citizens and the important role public libraries have in supporting student success. . . . This funding will ensure that the people of Saskatchewan can continue to access information and resources that they need through their public libraries.”
Regarding SILS, Morgan said:
“Literacy is another priority of our government. At the heart of this is ensuring the residents of Saskatchewan have an easy, affordable access to books and resources.”
• Finally, the newly re-elected Don Morgan had this to say only a mere 10 months ago, regarding his ministry’s commitment to public library funding in the 2016-17 budget, which remained unchanged from the previous year at $11 million:
“(We) remain committed to supporting and developing the literacy skills of all learners in our province and recognize the role public libraries have in supporting that. . . . This funding will ensure that the people of Saskatchewan can continue to access information and resources they need through their public libraries.”
So forgive me if I’m not buying that the Saskatchewan government has turned its back on its 10-year commitment to libraries, not because it’s broke, but because it had a sudden revelation about its role within the library “business.”
The good news is I suspect we’re going to see some effort at damage control from the government, restoring that $3.5 million library funding, at least in part, in the near future.
Not because it’s the right thing to do, mind you.
No, rather because in no world does it make any sense for a political party to continue to inflict this kind of damage on itself over $3.5 million.