Notes from the RSC Expert Panel on the Future of Libraries

On Friday November 8, 2013 the Royal Society of Canada’s expert panel on the Status and Future of Canada’s Libraries and Archives held a public consultation at Dalhousie University in Halifax. The consultation was well attended by representatives of the library and archives communities of Atlantic Canada, as well as interested faculty from several of our local institutions.

The APLA executive had received no input to the framing questions supplied by the RSC panel from our members. Therefore I made a statement to the panel based on my personal impression of a key issue that underlies all of our advocacy efforts during my time on the executive. That issue is our ineffectiveness in communicating the value of libraries to our communities and to Canadian society as a whole. This is an ideological stance that seems to many in our field to be not well understood by decision-makers and funding agencies. A précis of my statement follows:

We believe that the mere existence of libraries in communities and schools raises the level of literacy in our society, which in turn has many positive social benefits including a higher average standard of living, better average health of citizens, and lower crime rates. The trends in these social benefits as related to literacy have been established since lending libraries became prevalent in the 19th century, specifically in small communities and schools.

Dr. Waters began this public consultation by discussing the ‘reinvention’ of libraries. Certainly our university libraries have been working diligently to reinvent their spaces and services. Urban centers, such as Halifax and Calgary, are moving ahead with new central library projects that are transforming library spaces and services to the public. However the small rural libraries and virtually all of our school libraries have not been offered the opportunity to reinvent themselves. They were given neither the staff nor the resources to try to make changes to spaces and services. Rather, they were summarily closed.

In rural areas of Atlantic Canada where local industries are being forced to evolve and local people are forced to learn new skills, the absence of libraries seems misguided. In schools where early exposure to reading can offer so many positive benefits in later life, closing libraries in favour of unguided internet use seems ill-advised. However the people who are making decisions about cutting these services and spaces do not seem to share this ideological outlook, or are of a different opinion of the value of libraries to society in general.

We need to help those who create policy in this country to connect the dots, and understand the positive benefits of libraries to all in our communities. A literate society is healthier, safer, and more affluent. Can the RSC help us to prove and to communicate this to our policy makers?

Dr. Demers responded with a point about the kinds of evidence that might be effective in communicating the value of libraries. Although I am leaning toward hard empirical evidence showing real causation, Dr. Demers points out that qualitative evidence is perhaps more important. She believes we need stories that help communicate the value of libraries to individuals and to society. Narrative accounts and not just charts and graphs, will help to sway the ideological barometer.

Judith Hare spoke about the planning for the new central library in Halifax, and some of the programs they are supporting to promote libraries to the community, including the support of a documentary project to record people’s stories of the old central library space.

Ken Roberts made a point about the great need for consortia and sharing, where our large libraries are being reinvented but our smaller ones are falling. I replied that Atlantic Canada has a wonderful record of consortia activity, at least within our post-secondary institutions (Novanet, CAUL). We have also seen some success with programs supported by APLA, and in provinces with programs like those that come from LibrariesNS. However we do have room for increased collaboration, especially in collaborations between the dispersed library systems that could work much closer together to show cost-savings to our funding agencies and also better service to our users.

Dr. Ingles closed this portion of the proceedings by posing a question that I might take back to the membership of APLA: We know that we can’t do everything or win every battle. Where should we focus our advocacy efforts? Should we quit on trying to save school libraries and small rural libraries?  Should we focus on building better regional library systems fed from the large centers? Should we promote increased sharing between public, school, university, and special libraries? What exactly do we believe the RSC expert panel report should recommend to policy makers?

Lou Duggan

APLA Past President

Patrick Power Library, Saint Mary's University

923 Robie Street

Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 3C3