Brilla Larce flips through one of the many children's books available at the North Nanaimo branch of the Vancouver Island Regional Library.

Brilla Larce flips through one of the many children's books available at the North Nanaimo branch of the Vancouver Island Regional Library.

Vancouver Island library system hits the midway point of $43 million improvement plan

Book it: Twenty-one communities targeted for new or improved branches in order to bring them up to a consistent standard

Book sales are in a downward spiral that has been ongoing for a decade.

Looking for information on any given topic? Chances are good you will spend an hour asking Google for help before the thought of visiting your local librarian even enters your mind.

Yet even as the traditional reasons for a library’s existence appear to be fading away, Vancouver Island library spending is poised to climb nearly 50 per cent over an eight-year period.

Supporters say there are good reasons for the investment.

Within the past five years, the Vancouver Island Regional Library has opened new or renovated facilities in Cumberland, Quadra Island, Lake Cowichan, Gabriola Island, Bella Coola, Cortes Island, North Nanaimo, Port Renfrew, and Nanaimo Harbourfront.

More improvements are underway, or planned, for Ladysmith, Courtenay, Tahsis, Port Hardy, Cowichan, Nanaimo Wellington, Sointula and Woss.

Within the next five years, Campbell River, Sooke, Chemainus and Sidney/North Saanich are expected to get new or expanded libraries, worth between $2.2 and $6 million apiece.

It’s all part of a 10-year plan adopted in 2009 aimed at making the system up-to-date and relevant in an increasingly modern information world.

“The goal over a number of years is to get the libraries up to a certain standard,” said Mary Beil, Parksville’s representative on the Vancouver Island Regional Library board. “There were libraries that were operating in appalling conditions.”

logoVIRL’s facilities master plan sets a standard in terms of size, services, hours of availability and equipment based on the population of each community it serves, as well as direction for ensuring each branch meets those expectations.

“We needed a standard of service that is consistent across the board,” VIRL communications officer Natasha Bartlett said.

According to the plan, facilities should be flexible, functional, attractive and adaptable. Factors taken into consideration include collection size, deployment of technology, adult and children’s programming, lounge seating, study space and multipurpose meeting space.

It’s an ambitious project and not cheap. In order to help fund an estimated $43 million in capital improvements over the course of the plan, VIRL’s annual tax requisition is expected to grow from a total of about $16.5 million in 2012 to about $23.6 million in 2020. A big chunk of that hike is a pair of levies: an equipment levy that will compound from one to 10 per cent over the 10-year term and a facilities levy that compounds from 1.25 per cent to 12.5 per cent. Bartlett described the average increase as about a cup of coffee per person per year.

VIRL adopted the levy plan as a better way for communities to  spread out the burden of growth.

“Instead of peaks and troughs, it’s basically the same increase to the levy each year,” Bartlett said.

Each taxpayer within the VIRL catchment area — which includes 39 Island and coastal communities stretching from Sooke to Haida Gwaii — shares the burden of every project roughly equally, half on a per capita basis, half as a percentage of their property assessment.

Most politicians have no problem buying into the all-for-one mentality. Others, struggling to hold the line on costs at home, are having difficulty justifying ballooning library requisitions to their taxpayers.

In Port Alberni, Mayor Mike Ruttan said the city’s library expense is expected to jump from $650,000 to $820,000 from 2016 to 2018, without any corresponding increase in local service.

“The problem is that these costs are going up way more than other costs,” he said. “We are paying between four and eight per cent and it keeps going up. As a community we are really working hard at keeping our costs under control. Is there some way to separate the real estate part from the operating part?”

He acknowledges libraries continue to provide value, but is unsure if all this growth is necessary in the internet age. There are numbers to support that position.

The number of items checked out of Vancouver Island libraries last year dropped from 5.3 million in 2014 to five million. That includes both paper and electronic borrowing, with the latter comprising about 20 per cent of the total.

However, even as borrowing drops, other services continue to grow. The number of branch visits in a system that serves 415,000 people jumped from just over two million in 2014 to nearly 2.5 million last year. And the number of people using library programs grew from 82,700 to 102,000.

booksSupporters say it is a mistake to consider libraries simply as book repositories. Rather, they fall somewhere between community centres and universities — places where people connect to gather and share knowledge. A library’s job is to help provide its citizens with the skills and tools to access that knowledge, no matter what the platform.

Bartlett is not surprised misperceptions exist among non-users.

“When I was hired, I doubt I had been to a library since I was six years old and my mother dragged me there,” she said. “Our mandate is literacy, and it’s improving and strengthening communities.”

That means providing meeting rooms, study and gathering spaces, and access to computer services. It means early learning for kids, training for adults and a place to hang out for teens. It means a chance to watch films on the Netflix-like movie service Hoopla, and listen to music or audiobooks.

In the Creativity Commons in the Nanaimo Harbourfront branch it means opportunities to produce digital content (including the use of a green screen), or to design and print your own books, posters and fliers. It means being able to experiment with technology and gadgets, turn VHS into DVD, and research your family history.

Smaller branches may not have as many bells and whistles, but they often play an even bigger role in a community, particularly in remote places like Gold River.

“In small, isolated communities, the library is the community hub,” Beil said. “There are still a number of Canadians who do not have access to the internet.”

According to Beil, it’s a myth that the internet is some kind of cost-free service. Between cell plans, home service providers and the cost of the computers, phones and tablets, the online-at-will experience is not something that everyone can afford. The library provides free access.

“I don’t have to spend $1,000 at home in order to access the internet,” Beil said.

At the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities conference in April, delegates roundly rejected a Port Alberni resolution aimed at restraining library spending.

Beil said it was a vote of confidence the library board is on the right path.

“No doubt there is a notable cost to communities,” she said. “At the library board level, the budget was passed with 98 per cent in favour.

“It’s an opportunity for building community. It strengthens and supports democracy. It’s bridging the gap between people who are comfortable and people who are on the margins.”

Follow me on Twitter @JohnMcKinleyBP

browse

Just Posted

Map of the site of a proposed 60-unit building project in French Creek. (RDN map)
Legal counsel wants board to award development permit for French Creek project

Issue is on agenda for RDN board meeting on June 22

The Arrowsmith Search and Rescue Society has outgrown its home at the Coombs-Hilliers Fire Department and will soon move to its new operations hall at the Qualicum Beach Airport. (PQB News file photo)
The Qualicum Beach Farmers Market is one of the organizations approved for a grant-in-aid by the Town of Qualicum Beach. (PQB News file photo)
COVID-19: Town of Qualicum Beach awards $80K in relief funds to community groups

Pandemic has put a financial strain on many organizations

The remains of the Mid-Island Co-op in Whiskey Creek along the Alberni Highway on Friday, June 18, after a blaze the day before devastated the gas station. (Michael Briones photo)
VIDEO: Whiskey Creek gas station destroyed by fire after camper van explosion

Nine fire departments responded to the incident, no injuries reported

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, 75% with one dose: data

Earlier projections for reopening at this milestone didn’t include Delta variant

This undated file photo provided by Ernie Carswell & Partners shows the home featured in the opening and closing scenes of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles. Do you know the occupation of Mike Brady, the father in this show about a blended family? (Anthony Barcelo/Ernie Carswell & Partners via AP, File)
QUIZ: A celebration of dad on Father’s Day

How much do you know about famous fathers?

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Most Read