Monday, February 6, 2017

The Hamiton Spectator: Hamilton Coun. Donna Skelly won’t back down on library budget brouhaha

Margaret Atwood weighs in on social media uproar against councillor

Councillor Donna Skelly comments on library funding draw fire.

By Matthew Van Dongen

Coun. Donna Skelly won't back down in the face of growing public criticism over her questioning of the cost and validity of Hamilton library services.

The agency's own statistics, however, show the library is pinching pennies while managing to lure more visitors and expand programming.

Karoline Reape and her daughters Rayna, 3, and one-year-old Selena spend some time in the children's department at the downtown branch of the Hamilton Public Library. The library was the perfect retreat on a dull, damp, January day

The Mountain councillor spurred online outrage Friday when she questioned a would-be $518,000 budget hike for the library, which has 22 branches and two bookmobiles.

"I'm concerned we're almost coming up with ways to validate the existence of our libraries in their current form and the $30-million budget," Skelly said, later arguing technology is changing the role of libraries and most students no longer need them to do physical research. "They're on Google."

The comments spurred an immediate flurry of online declarations of support for the library, including a tweet from Mayor Fred Eisenberger calling the agency "a model of innovation and collaboration in a changing digital society and economy." By the end of the weekend, worried library fans even prompted a Twitter query about the ruckus from celebrated Canadian author and library champion Margaret Atwood ("What can be done? Is there a plan?")

In a Monday interview, Skelly rejected media reports and online accusations that she was questioning the need to fund libraries. "I never suggested for a minute that we defund libraries," she said. "But we can't be afraid to even ask a question when (an agency) comes forward with a request to increase their budget."

Skelly said she opposes the library's request for an extra $518,000 this year, given the city's struggle to whittle down a prospective 5 per cent average tax hike.

The councillor argued library circulation and physical visits are trending down, so she is interested in learning if the "evolving" library is making the best use of existing space or taking on educational programming "better funded by the province."

Councillors have "every right to question our budget," said chief librarian Paul Takala, who will make a formal 2017 budget pitch Thursday. But he noted library visits were actually up dramatically last year, with a nearly 13 per cent jump to 3.95 million.

Overall circulation of material was down 1.7 per cent, but use of computers, library Internet access and program attendance increased.

At the same time, the library has cut staff via attrition by four employees since 2015 and is down by 15 full-time equivalents since amalgamation.

By contrast, council is struggling to rein in yearly staff growth that prompted a three-hour closed-door session Friday about potential cuts or hiring freezes.

Most of the library's requested budget bump — more than $400,000 — is due to a mandatory requirement to match the city's own cost-of-living wage hike for its employees, Takala added. Even so, the library managed to meet the 1.8 per cent maximum budget increase requested by council.

Takala said as use of digital material increases and physical book collections shrink, the library is "reprogramming" space for digital media labs, new programs and the cost-cutting relocation of its technical services department.

He also pointed to the library's focus on helping parents "grow the next generation of readers," adding Google doesn't teach kids to read.

"It's true that the use of the library, our learning programs, is evolving," he said, acknowledging the online tributes to children's programming and public Internet access. "I'm glad to see there is support out there."

Source: The Hamilton Spectator

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