Screwing With a Century-Old System: A Brief History of Libraries In Saskatchewan

“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 cut-backs 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, cut-backs of hours of services in libraries, and the reduction of interlibrary loans.” – Saskatchewan government committee meeting, August 6, 1987.

That’s right. 1987.

Saskatchewan NDP Opposition MLA Anne deBlois 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 Ms 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 reason libraries were basically on their way out.

Sound familiar?

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.

In fact, the SaskParty government has really taken things further than Devine’s 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.

I mean, 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.

Over the last decade – even within the last year – the SaskParty government has held up their 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.

Which is why what Finance Minister Kevin Doherty had to say in a recent post-budget committee meeting, unprompted, about the “core function” of government, is just so bizarre:

“…with respect to the funding that goes towards regional libraries in particular, but certainly the libraries in Saskatoon and Regina . . . Is it a core function of the provincial government to be providing that service, or is our core function to ensure that school libraries are fully financed as much as possible, where we have the responsibility for the K to 12 [kindergarten to grade 12] education system?”

Really?

Public libraries vs schools – suddenly this government believes it has the mandate to decide that it’s one or the other, but not both?

Seriously, they’re f**king with a century-old Saskatchewan system; the Public Libraries Act of 1906 was one of the first Bills passed in the province of Saskatchewan. If the provincial government wanted to open this up as an issue, they should have put it forward during their 2016 election campaign.

When pressed on his comments, Doherty backpedalled a bit: “No, I don’t think we should read into that at all that we are saying that’s not a core service.”

And then he immediately reiterates his question.

“But is it a core service of the provincial government, or a core service of the municipal government who charges property taxes for, specifically, libraries on their property tax bills?”

Well Kevin, consider me the Ghost of Core Functions Past – let’s have a look at what your government has had to say about public libraries over the past ten years.

In their very first provincial budget in 2008-09, the SaskParty invested an increased $3 million in provincial libraries, $2 million of which was to migrate all of Saskatchewan’s 300+ 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 the types of investments that are long past due.”

Then-Education Minister Ken Krawetz, a former educator and IMO, one of the best Education Ministers this province has ever had, had this to say about the ideology driving library investments in that first-ever 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,”

and then a few days later, from Education Minister Donna Harpauer:

“We remain committed to highly literate citizens with equal access to information, so libraries will receive a general increase of funding of 1.5 per cent in this budget.”

The trend toward supporting libraries continued through the SaskParty’s second term in government.

After her party’s landslide re-election, Harpauer repeated her talking points from the previous year verbatim said of her government’s 2012-13 budget:

“…we remain committed to high literate citizens with equal access to information, so libraries will also receive an increase in funding of 1.6 per cent in 2012-13.”

After delivering his 2014-15 budget, which included a 1 per cent increase to public libraries, in addition to continued operating commitments for SILS and other services, now Education Minister Don Morgan assured us (in part by recycling the exact  same lines Harpauer used in the years before him) 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 an easy, affordable access to books and resources.”

Finally, the newly re-elected Don Morgan had this to say only a mere ten 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 ten-year commitment to libraries (including the millions of tax dollars invested in SILS, which thanks to last month’s budget cuts is now no longer operational, after only a scant few years of serving the province) – not because it’s painfully out of touch with the electorate and piss-poor broke, but because it had a sudden revelation about its “core function”.

In fact, I don’t believe for a second that this was about anything but saving a few bucks, with absolutely no foresight into how residents of this province would react. Consider what Don Morgan had to say just a few days ago:

“(We) thought that this was something that the municipalities might have some options to deal with this. I don’t think any of us expected the concern that arose from this.”

Let’s recap. For the last ten years and up until just a few months ago, here’s how this government described public libraries, and why it was committed to them:

  • “a love of being involved with books”
  • “one of the most important landmarks in our rural communities”
  • “investment for the future of our children”
  • “a very needed educational tool”
  • “opportunity for people to better themselves”
  • “reading books is very important…the feel of paper”
  • “committed to highly literate citizens”
  • “committed to supporting and developing the literacy skills of all learners”
  • “equal access to information”
  • “access information and resources that they need”
  • “literacy is another priority of our government”
  • “ensuring the residents of Saskatchewan an easy, affordable access to books and resources.”

Now here’s a sample of the government’s spluttering reasons for abruptly cutting library funding in 2017:

  • Saskatchewan has too many libraries
  • increased use of internet
  • libraries should be funded solely by municipalities
  • libraries can just increase their local levy
  • decrease in number of Saskatchewan library cards (this has been at least partially debunked)
  • government’s shouldn’t be in the library business (aka “core function”)
  • libraries shouldn’t be a “sanctuary”

Which brings us back to Finance Minister Kevin Doherty in that committee meeting.

“I accept that people say libraries are absolutely critically important,” he said, hardly one breath after he said that the decision to cut funding simply boiled down to taking $3.5 million from libraries and putting it “somewhere else”… because deficit.

“We agree with that,” Doherty continued, “which is why we fund the education system that we have responsibility for to the tune of over $2 billion.”

Repeat after me: public libraries are not the same as schools.

And it’s disturbing that our Minister of Finance seems to believe they are.

Meanwhile, our Minister of Education says he’s not in the library “business”.

The good news is I suspect that we’re going to see some effort at damage control from the Saskatchewan 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.

For those of you who care, I’m Tammy Robert. I’m a writer, but pay the bills consulting in media and public relations. Email me anytime at tammyrobert@live.ca

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4 comments

  1. As a teacher librarian, I’m scoffing at the notion of more funding for school libraries. In light of our funding shortfalls, many of us will lose much of our library time and budgets.
    There is no money for school libraries either.

    Like

  2. Why is the Wall government doing a total one hundred and eighty degree turn on library system funding? Libraries in Saskatchewan have more than a hundred year record of accomplishments and have been a renowned societal institution since ancient Egyptian times. All modern societies support libraries.

    Normally conservatives believe strongly in traditional social institutions and go out of their way to preserve them. So what’s the rationale?

    Are they defunding libraries because Premier Wall said “everything is on the table”? If so, that’s a very feeble reason.

    Or is the Wall government now abandoning conservatism for a libertarian ideology similar to some Republican states? Trump’s budget proposal also defunds libraries.

    Excellent blog OURSASK.CA

    Like

  3. Thanks for this article. When contrasting this with your earlier article about what WASN’T cut in the budget, it highlights the short-sighted nature on this budget. What is laughable about this decision is that the Ministry of Education has a sectors of ensuring children are ready when they enter school and that they can read proficiently. Cutting funding to libraries to such a level as to essentially decimate them flies counter to these goals. Unfortunately this province has not yet learned that prevention and early intervention services like libraries, parenting programs (which were also cut in the budget) early learning programs, speech language services, etc. help avoid the need for more intensive and costly supports later on.

    Like

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