Closing The Books on Libraries

The current climate in local government, and the fate of libraries

by Gordon Campbell.

In Kaitaia and Kaikohe, residents must pay $15 in a “membership fee” to be able to use their public library. In Matamata, borrowers have to pay $1 a week to rent ordinary non-bestseller books. In Dannevirke and Pahiatua, library users over 18 have to pay $10 a year as a ‘borrowing card fee’ to rent books. In the Wairarapa, Tasman, Buller Westland/Hokitika. Selwyn and Gore regions, various charges apply for ordinary stock on the shelves. In Tauranga, the local council is reportedly aiming to recoup up to $430,000 via library charges over the next three years, by introducing a user-pays regime for free adult fiction and non-fiction – initially at the rate of 50 cents a book, rising to 80 cents and then one dollar in a year’s time. It also proposes to cut seven equivalent full time library staff positions and reduce library stocks by 30,000 items.

This crackdown on libraries is becoming a familiar theme, around the country. Membership fees, rental charges, access fees, overdue fines and other cost barriers are going up. Simultaneously, the funds for new stock, for library staff numbers and opening hours, and for digital access are being squeezed – except on items or services where there is a robust regime of cost recovery. What the plight of libraries signals is the erosion of free access to even the basic forms of knowledge that they hold. Ironically, libraries are coming under siege in the wake of the economic recession – just as citizens are using them more and more for knowledge access, for entertainment and as a community meeting ground.

The crisis in library funding does not seem to be a reflection of an absolute scarcity in the ratepayer funds available to councils. All around New Zealand, councils are still readily finding funds for Rugby World Cup promotions – or to underwrite sporting and entertainment events whose main rewards are captured by a narrow stream of corporate interests in the bar, restaurant and accommodation sector. In the process, public libraries used annually by hundreds of thousands more users than a rugby stadium or a sporting arena, are being starved for funds to replenish their stock – not to mention keeping their services up to date, and affordable to all.

In Wellington, the crunch facing library branches and library services is looking particularly severe. As library researcher Marie Russell has pointed out from council documents, the Long Term Council Community Plan ( LTCCP) for 2009/2019 had forecast (p 125) a library operational budget for the current financial year of $23, 356,000. However, the Draft Annual Plan (DAP) for 2011/11 now forecasts ( p 119) the operational expenditure for libraries will be only $21,551,000.

Not only is this new DAP figure barely $8,000 above the 2008/09 libraries operational figure – it is, obviously far, far below the LTCCP figure and constitutes a projected cut in funding for the Wellington library service of $1,805,000. As Russell says, a shortfall of that magnitude can only imply that the Council is either contemplating the closure of some branch libraries in the near future, or a significant reduction in library services.

Since Russell made her figures known, a number of Wellington city councillors and council bureaucrats have denied that library branches in Wellington will be closed, or library services downgraded. At a public meeting on April 22, councillors and officials assured the audience that all parts of council were being asked to cut back because of the recession, and that this partially explained the discrepancy between the projected budget in the LTCCP, and the figures in the Draft Annual Plan.

In fact, this is not the case. Even at the same meeting, when asked if all sectors of council spending were being cut back to the same extent as libraries, council officials conceded that some sectors – they cited the cleaning of public toilets – would not be cut back, or as much. You bet. As Russell has since been able to demonstrate by comparing the LTCCP with the Draft Annual Plan, the Tourism Promotion budget is actually up by 10.8% and the Events Attraction and Support budget is up by 6.8%. Interestingly, for all the talk about tightening belts, the budget for City governance and Engagement is up by 7.11 %. On the other hand, the funding for city galleries and museums is down by 1.64%.

More to the point though, the funding for libraries is down by a whopping 7.73%. The pattern seems obvious. Those activities that entail delivery of benefits for the private sector are being supported by council, while those facilities used by the general public face funding cuts. Nor are the cuts to library services really the product of prudent management, as the councillors also tried to tell the April 22 meeting.

One can reasonably gauge for instance, the claimed savings in the library area that are being made. According to the council, this consists of savings on community computing ($100,000 at most, to be generous) a $400,000 saving over the last two years from self service options, and unspecified amounts from depreciation and new technology systems and computers. Even the most optimistic estimates of such items then, would still leave Wellington a long way short of bridging a $1.8 million library funding shortfall.

Down at Parliament, the fate of public libraries rarely gets onto the Beltway radar, aside from the recent cutbacks in the renovation plans for the National Library. Gareth Hughes, the new Greens MP and party spokesman on libraries is an exception to the rule. Within weeks of being in the House, he waded into the Tauranga council’s plans to impose a rental fee for general books, and to lay off staff.

Is this merely a local concern in Tauranga, or is it a reflection of what is happening nationwide? Hughes estimates about a quarter of the country’s library districts now have a system of charging for basic stock. “It is mostly in the smaller centres at the moment. But I think when you get it into bigger centres like Tauranga, this could be taken as having set a precedent, and it will happen more widely.”

Shouldn’t all sectors though, be taking their share of the cost cutting burden at the moment? “Some sectors are obviously not facing the same cost-cutting as libraries,” Hughes replies. “The fact is, libraries are a core public benefit. They should be funded from core council budgets. They are vital to communities as community hubs, and as places for people to meet – as well as in terms of their direct service to the community, which is as a provider of books, internet access and information.”

This is after all, he continues, Unesco’s Literacy Decade. “We have a growing literacy problem in New Zealand, and this is the wrong time to decrease access to libraries. The people that are going to be hit are the low paid, the elderly and young mums. It is also going to hit new migrants. This is just another barrier to getting access to information.”

Most libraries of course, already charge a nominal access fee for the library card, and there seems to be reasonably wide public acceptance for charging for CD.s DVDs and best sellers. Plainly, some forms of cost recovery are fair, and some aren’t – so, on what basis would Hughes draw the line? “ I think there’s a common public expectation that with DVDs best seller books, magazines – these are high demand items that date quite fast and entail a high capital cost for the library – that its reasonable to pay a small fee. But general items make up the bulk of the library’s stocks, and these should be free. For everyone.”

Logically, the emphasis on cost recovery could well be inducing libraries to buy more CDs, DVDs, magazines etc and to spend proportionately less on their core stock. “I don’t have any figures on that, but it seems a reasonable assumption. In Tauranga, they’re proposing to cut 30,000 books from [the four local libraries] stock. And they’re going to be reducing seven equivalent staff positions. So what you’re seeing is a decline in service, and a charging of higher fees for it.”

As mentioned, the demand for library services is – if anything- on the increase. Even so, is there evidence as to whether, as the library service becomes more expensive, this causes a drop in patronage? Historically speaking, Hughes indicates, Ashburton is still the main relevant example, Some years ago, he says, patronage dropped by around 40% when a fee for general books. was introduced. “They’ve subsequently gone back to a free book system.”

Given the rash of local government reform since the change of government, a conflict is emerging within councils, between public service delivery on the one hand, and a growing preference for funding the kind of activities believed to generate economic gains for the region. Or, at least, gains for the firms involved. Does Hughes see this being played in the funding problems facing public libraries ?

“ Yes, You are seeing that,” he says. “Tauranga again, is an example I am familiar with. They’re looking for $430,000 in fees from the local library system.” Problem being, central government has recently decided to allow heavier trucks on the nation’s roads – a decision that will have considerable financial repercussions on local councils in terms of paying for the wear and tear on local roads and bridges.” Regardless, the mayor of Tauranga has said he was happy and comfortable with the policy, even if this meant extra costs for the council. “So what you’re seeing is that its fine if the spending supports productivity gains for private companies – but if involves a public benefit, then the library is going to have to hunt for the money.”

In any provincial town around New Zealand, the public library is usually an imposing looking building. A sign of times past perhaps, when there was collective pride within communities, at possessing such an obviously beneficial asset. Even today, isn’t there a residual affection for libraries within the community that councils should be wary of violating?

“Absolutely,” Hughes agrees. “Walk into any library around the country and they’re packed with people doing a whole variety of things – reading magazines, working on their laptops, using library computers, students doing research, Even homeless people using the warmth and shelter of the library. Its not just about books or services, either. It is also a place for people to get together, to have coffee, for young mums to take their kids, for people to have Internet access that they can’t afford at home.

This happens to be local body election year. Why then, do budding councillors seem to be misreading the mood of their communities so badly on this issue ? To Hughes, libraries are but one front in a wider battle being waged around the country right now, one that is questioning the role of what a council does. “Are [councils] there just to facilitate corporate transfers of wealth – or are they there to provide services for the public? Because I think there is a right wing ideology that says councils should stick to collecting the rates, paving the roads and providing footpaths and lights.” For people who believe in that agenda, he points out, community parks, libraries, and museums should all be treated as private goods, and paid for on a user pays model.

Or paid for by charity? “ Or by charity. And that is what we’re seeing in Tauranga, with the seven equivalent staff that are being lost. They’re expecting to take up the slack with voluntary positions.”

From the vantage point of middle class privilege, everyone now has the internet. Libraries – do they still exist ? – are seen as receptacles for fusty books on dusty old shelves. In reality, libraries are more relevant now than ever, as a means of bridging the digital divide so that those who cannot privately afford the internet can access it publically, at reasonable cost. This is the same role that libraries have been performing for over a century, with digital access being merely the latest technology on the block. Libraries have always provided easy access to information – and with it, social participation – to those otherwise unable to afford the price tab,

Pool people together in a library and the access cost to knowledge, information and entertainment – for a book, magazine, CD or DVD – comes down, to within reasonable reach of everyone. Right now, that entire process of empowerment is under threat – for example, from the fee hikes being levied on individual users. Hughes, to his credit, is not just sending out warnings and issuing complaints about this trend. Later this year he will be promoting either a supplementary order paper or a private member’s bill that would prohibit councils from charging for the general stock on library shelves.

“At the moment as I understand it,” Hughes concludes, “ the Local Government Act enshrines a ratepayers’ right to free access to a library. That means free membership. Some libraries do charge for the plastic – but the membership is free. So what I’m investigating is whether we can amend the Local Government Act, in order to make [the stock of general] books free as well.”

By and large, library defenders tend to frame their case on the role of libraries as social and recreational assets, which indeed they are. Yet in the process, the economic benefits that libraries also bring to the retail sectors of the cities in which they are sited, tend to be overlooked. In Wellington for instance, the expenditure on libraries is located in council plans within the same silo as parks and swimming pools. Libraries could just as credibly be situated in the economics section of council budgets and plans.

Reason being, libraries generate more foot traffic annually for a wider range of retail businesses in most cities, than the multi-million sports stadiums tend to deliver. Most of the major event council spending serves to benefit relatively few firms in the hospitality and retail sector, who enjoy most cof the financial gains from the large amounts of ratepayer monies lavished by councils on the building and maintenance of sporting arenas.

The key term here is “footfall.” Library visits and shopping commonly go hand in hand. In this study of the economic contribution made by libraries to the city centres in which they are sited, the authors conclude that libraries increase the foot traffic for retail outlets, but libraries and councils have been slow to market the economic benefits that result :

The greatest benefit of the presence of a public library in retail centres is increased footfall. Shopping centre locations also benefit the library, and this is often perceived as being more significant than the library’s impact on the shops. Recommendations are made as to how libraries could maximise the awareness of their value and the benefits they provide.

An extensive store of information on the economic value of libraries to retailers, and to the wider goal of urban renewal can be found in this Sheffield University study However, few councils (or councillors) bother to promote the economic benefits that libraries bring to the retail life of the city, or the role that they play in regenerating the urban core. Instead, libraries are treated almost exclusively as a cost burden. Plainly, similar disciplines are not evident when councils sink ratepayer funds into their dealings with some elements in the private sector. In Wellington, the case of the $2 million in business rates reportedly owed to the council by the entrepreneur Terry Serepisos is seen by some as merely the tip of the iceberg.

Meanwhile, property investor Richard Burrell has criticised Wellington City Council for not pursuing rates debts – and claimed defaulters are using the council as a cheap source of finance.
“The easiest way for a commercial ratepayer to get a loan in this town is to simply not pay the rates. The council does virtually nothing to collect them. It is the loan you can get without even making an application.”

This is not an isolated example. Lindsay Shelton has pointed out on his Scoop blog, that Wellington councillors have indicated an interest in spending an unbudgetted $2.4 million to create a temporary “tensile fabric structure”on the eastern side of Te Papa. Bizarrely, the same council seems to be simultaneously exploring the feasibility of constructing (on the same site) a building that won a design competition for the location back in 2005.

Money again, does not seem to be a problem. Similarly, every few months, the Wellington City Council issues a newsletter detailing its plans for the Rugby World Cup celebrations. While the capital’s share of the RWC bounty extends to a miserly hosting of only five first round games and two quarterfinals, the November 2009 council newsletter (named “Absolutely Positively Right By Your Side”) revealed that council CEO Garry Poole and other top council officers had been meeting with local retailers to discuss ways to enhance “ the cleanliness of the city, parking enforcement and public transport.” All agreed that the RWC is.”an opportunity for Wellington to demonstrate and display a unique and high quality retail experience.” Yep, that sounds like core council business.

To that end, scarce council funds have stretched to providing new artificial surfaces on the city’s sportsfields, to ensure that our rugby visitors get to train on only the finest of facilities, that “comply with best practice at the time of the Tournament.” In addition, the newsletters reveals that council funds will also be found for this RWC-related shebang :

[RWC] plans include a major festival in the city for all to enjoy. “We’ll be pulling out all the stops to ensure this is a month-long celebration that everyone feels part of,” says the council’s RWC 2011 Director, Derek Fry. “That’s what will make RWC 2011 so memorable.”

Wellington is not the only city that is feeling giddy about the Rugby World Cup. Similar signs of largesse are evident around the country. Community facilities stand to be the loser in the rush to underwrite a rugby party that will deliver most of its rewards to the private sector, while the rest of the community inherits the hangover.

What Rugby World Cup fever exemplifies (more than anything) is the mindset in which sport is considered not trivial (by men) but reading (an activity associated mainly with women) certainly is. Years ago in A Room Of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf put her finger on the common double bind whereby women are first assigned a restricted place, and then ridiculed for occupying it :“Speaking crudely, football and sport are important, the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes, trivial, and these values are transferred from life to fiction.” And back again. A few years ago, then-Wellington city councillor Chris Parkin insisted (City Voice, May 1, 1997) that libraries were even then, an anachronism : “The single largest group of users were white middle class, middle-aged women borrowing lascivious pot-boilers.”

These days, the same sentiments tend to be wrapped in economic jargon, and in the rationales for cost recovery. To be fair, the question of free borrowing from New Zealand libraries is not an entirely new one. In the early decades of the 20th century for instance, not all the 18 libraries that the billionaire US philanthropist Andrew Carnegie built in New Zealand stuck to his explicit desire that borrowing, and not just admission, should always be free. Until recently though, most councils did strive to meet Carnegie’s ideal.

Not for much longer, perhaps. The outlook for community facilities seems bleak, if the Rodney Hide local government reforms are allowed to roll on through council structures. In future, library users will need to fight to protect the good things that public libraries provide for the many – as opposed to the economic benefits that Hide is seeking to deliver, to the few.

FOOTNOTE: Hat tip for the Virginia Woolf quote to US film theorist Tania Modleski and her 1988 essay on Rear Window.