Nick Faris | May 31, 2016
The Fogo Island Public Library has more than 14,000 books. Children go there for homework help, fishermen to download work documents and just about everyone else in town to use the Internet. It hosts card game nights, colouring sessions and Easter egg hunts. It is the only library on the island, an hour’s drive by ferry from the rest of Newfoundland and Labrador.
It is closing on Oct. 31.
The library’s demise is a decision that came down to money, set in motion by a Liberal government elected last fall. Their first budget, unveiled in April, projected a record deficit of $2.2 billion. Soon, taxes will rise. Schools will axe teachers and increase class sizes. The public library system will be trimmed by more than half, as 54 of 95 locations shutter their doors in the next two years.
“We’ve been telling people this will touch every single person in this province,” Finance Minister Cathy Bennett told reporters when the budget was released.
Although there are 2,620 public libraries in Canada, according to a 2014 Royal Society of Canada report, it is possible that the condemned branches of Newfoundland are the most important of all. They are located, mainly, in rural communities and small towns, from 1,000-person Arnold’s Cove to the settlement of Woody Point, tucked deep in the expanse of a 1,800-km national park.
Books are often scarce in these areas — but their libraries, like Fogo’s, are not just repositories of printed words. They make the Internet freely accessible, in places where broadband connectivity is not quite universal. They provide public space where movie theatres and sporting arenas have never been built.
And they mean the world to people like Christine Dwyer.
Dwyer, 68, has been a member of Fogo’s library board for 39 years. Before retiring in 2008, she taught for three-plus decades at the island’s only school: Fogo Island Central Academy, where the library is housed. “The school is like family to us, and the library especially,” she told the National Post.
When Newfoundland’s government announced the library closures, they tried to soften the news through a compromise: 85 per cent of residents would still be within a 30-minute drive of a branch, in what Andrew Hunt, executive director of the Provincial Information and Library Resources Board, called a move to a regional “service-centre approach.”
Fogo’s 2,500 or so townspeople are part of the final 15 per cent. The only way to get to and from the mainland is an hour-long commute by ferry, by way of a wharf called “Farewell.”
“If ours closed down and I were to go to a library, I drive 30 minutes to get to the ferry, I wait for God knows how long, I have one hour on the ferry, and then I have a one-hour drive to see which library I want to go to, whether it be Gander, Lewisporte or Twillingate,” Dwyer said.
“So people are just not going to do it. The residents of Fogo Island are just not going to read as much.”
Literacy will not be the only loss, Dwyer said.
Fogo’s library is the regional site for the Community Access Program, a federal initiative to guarantee affordable Internet access across the country. A few years ago, the province closed Fogo’s Employment Assistance office, meaning fishery workers affected by seasonal layoffs must apply for employment insurance online. Those workers will have to turn somewhere else once again.
“I believe the closures are going to be most heartily felt in the rural areas,” said Krista Godfrey, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Library Association. “Libraries are an outlet for those communities: for social support, for finding government information, for finding jobs, learning how to use a computer, learning how to read.
“Now, these communities have lost this connection, and the communities are quite upset about it.”
The Newfoundland closures will not likely be replicated elsewhere in the near future, according to Paul Takala, the incoming chair of the Canadian Urban Libraries Council. Still, he said, “anytime there’s a cut in libraries, it certainly may create an incentive for others to look at cutting libraries.”
I drive 30 minutes to get to the ferry, I wait for God knows how long, I have one hour on the ferry, and then I have a one-hour drive to see which library I want to go to
And beyond a smidgeon of short-term financial relief, Takala doesn’t see much sense in slimming down. Libraries unite people of different cultural backgrounds, he said, and take on pragmatic importance in tougher economic times.
“(Those) are often the times when public libraries are used the most, because people don’t necessarily have the income that they (usually) do, if they’re underemployed or unemployed,” he said. “Oftentimes, they’re trying to upgrade their skills, or spending time looking for different kinds of work.”
Before announcing the 54 closures publicly, Newfoundland’s library board considered four new models to reduce costs, according to Hunt, the executive director. All four were predicated on closing branches to some degree.
The province will remove $1.7 million from its library funding allocation in the next three years, down from $11.2 million in 2015-16. But the money that remains will be concentrated in the 41 surviving branches, and each will be open at least 30 hours a week, Hunt said, up from a current average of 18.
To help offset the closures, the province intends to expand two niche services — electronic books and books-by-mail orders, currently offered to library users who live 24 km or more from the nearest branch. And even as locations close, their materials may not be lost forever.
“The board is more than willing to discuss with municipalities and school districts of turning over the assets of the libraries that are closing to local community groups and things like that, to keep those libraries operating in those areas that we are ceasing operations,” Hunt said.
For now, it is slim consolation to Fogo — and to Sandra Singh, the president of the Canadian Library Association, who said some cities have recently made “incredible” reinvestments in public libraries.
“These are not just stunning pieces of public architecture,” Singh said, listing new or renovated branches in Halifax, Calgary and Kitchener, Ont. “They’re real statements from these communities that they understand that in order to have a sustainable community, you don’t just invest in hard infrastructure. You invest in infrastructure that supports people’s capacity, their access to learning, their access to knowledge, their access to information and ideas.
“I would never advocate closing a library because they play such important roles in local communities,” she added. “But in a place like rural and remote communities, where there isn’t community infrastructure, it’s even more devastating.”
That is the reality Christine Dwyer faces today, five months from her branch’s expiration date. There has been one public library or another on Fogo Island since the 1930s, she said, and residents are not keen on saying goodbye.
Over 100 people attended a protest at the library one Monday afternoon in May, and several got up to speak — a student, a parent, a town councilor, a former librarian. An online petition has circulated the island, and Dwyer said residents have written letters to Hunt, Bennett, Minister of Education Dale Kirby and Premier Dwight Ball, urging them to reconsider.
Fogo was “blindsided” by the decision to shut their library, Dwyer said — partly because, on its own, it will barely save the province any money. Since the library is inside a school, it does not pay rent, janitorial costs or electricity and hydro bills; its only significant expense is a salary for one librarian, at 23 hours per week.
Even after Oct. 31, the room will stay warm, and the lights will continue to shine. It will be up to the people of Fogo to consider what was lost.
“A lot of rural communities depend on their libraries,” Dwyer said. “Some of them will go to a library within driving distance. For Fogo Island, that’s not going to happen. Just not going to happen.”
To view the whole article, please visit the National Post.