Cumberland Public Libraries have started a public awareness campaign to get the word out about the funding the library needs to prevent layoffs and library closures in the spring.
The money the libraries need isn’t much: about $179,000 would bring them out of deficit, but the value it would bring to these libraries and librarians is far greater.
Leslie Allen has been the librarian at Advocate Harbour Library for the last four years. She’s the only librarian at this branch, which is located in the bottom of the Fundy Tides Recreation Centre, just up the road from the tiny post office on Highway 209, which runs through the village.
Cumberland’s other libraries are in Amherst, Pugwash, Parrsboro, Oxford, Springhill, and River Hebert. Cumberland Public Libraries employs about 26 staff across those branches.
Allen heard about the potential cuts from her manager, Denise Corey, the director of the Cumberland Public Libraries. Allen said her first reaction to the budget news was one of shock that she might lose her job. But she also wondered what the closure of the library would mean for her clients in Advocate Harbour.
Funding for the libraries come from the province (59%), the Town of Oxford (1%), the Town of Amherst (7%), and the Municipality of Cumberland (14%). The rest of the budget, about 19%, comes from donations, grants, and fundraising. The library’s total revenue is about $1.3 million and it’s running a deficit of $179,000.
Allen thinks this budget news is a test of what libraries — especially those in rural areas — mean to the province.
“In the midst of a giant financial crisis that’s facing all Canadians across the country, are libraries, in our rural communities, worth saving?” she asked the Examiner.
“I really think if this library isn’t here, we’re going to have major issues in sustaining a rural population at all.”
The Examiner visited Allen at her at the library on a Saturday, even though it was a holiday and the branch was officially closed for the day.
Allen invited along three of her regular patrons: Lorna Fletcher from Spencers Island, Paul Callison from Allen Hill, and Jennifer Robarts from Advocate Harbour. They don’t want to see the branch close, so they’ve all been working to get the word out about what the library — and Allen — mean to them.
The population of Advocate Harbour village is about 200 to 300 people, but the library serves communities in the larger corner of Cumberland County, including Shulie, Apple River, Fraserville, New Salem, Port Greville, and Allen Hill. Allen estimates that’s about 1,400 people.
Allen said 364 people used the library last month, but she said the number of people who come through the library’s doors depends on the day and the time of year. In the winter, she may only see a four or five patrons a day.
But those numbers swell in the warmer months when people come to the village to stay in their cottages across Cumberland. So on a typical summer day she could see 100 people, including many parents who bring their children along for library programs and books.
‘I am that one-woman army’
Allen’s job is far more than providing books at this branch. The library has the only public WiFi for about 50 kilometres in any direction. There are computers at the branch that clients can use. Callison, for example, likes to watch rugby games online.
Allen also offers tech support to anyone who needs it. Just last week she helped someone book a flight to Saskatchewan online. And then there are the government online forms locals need to fill out — she helps with those, too.
She brings in information about COVID and rapid tests, which sit on a little cart in front of her desk. Allen said the community is wary about spreading COVID since health care is about a 1.5-hour drive away, and the virus has been making the rounds through the elementary school lately. She refers to herself as a medical secretary in many ways.
“Basically anything you expect a library to do and be a supportive role in, I am that one-woman army who’s doing that for a region that is huge,” Allen said.
Allen does get to work with books, too. She collects books, movies, and DVDs of TV shows that she sends to the local assisted living facility. She even brings titles in from other branches across the country. She once got a book for Callison from a library in Yellowknife. Callison can’t recall the exact title, and only remembers it was a detective mystery.
“That’s probably why the budget is blown,” Callison joked, about the cost of getting the book from Yellowknife to Advocate Harbour.
And this branch has its own specialties. For example, there are four pairs of snowshoes patrons can borrow to hike the nearby Cape Chignecto Trail.
Allen hasn’t always been a librarian. After she completed high school, she joined the military, earned a degree in history, and got married. She and her wife found themselves heading west to Victoria, but like many other young couples they got priced out of big city market, so a little over six years ago they moved back to Nova Scotia. She started working at the library four years ago.
They currently live in Parrsboro with Allen’s father, who works on the oil rigs out west. Allen’s ancestors — the Allens of Allen Hill where Callison lives — came to the Parrsboro shore in the 1700s. Now Allen wants to stay, and would like to move to Advocate Harbour, but that goal is looking impossible.
Homes in the community used to sell for $100,000 or less. That was before COVID, so now homes are selling for almost triple that amount.
“My dreams for living in Advocate Harbour working a job I love for the rest of my days are pretty much non-existent, if my living situation changes at all. I’m just barely scraping above self-sufficiency. If anything happens — my car breaks down — then Advocate goes without service because there’s no backup for me,” Allen said.
“That little bit of money can make all the difference for a community out here, but if we don’t have enough of that money, it can make a difference for all the wrong reasons.”
‘Here we go again’
If the Advocate Harbour Library closed, it wouldn’t be the first cut the community has felt over the years.
While this village is bustling in the summer as cottage owners and tourists arrive to hike the Cape Chignecto trail or dine at the award-winning Wild Caraway, the permanent population has dwindled over the years. It’s a story common in many rural communities.
Right now, there is one store in Advocate Harbour that serves as a grocery, gas station, and NSLC outlet. But Callison said at one time there were a few general stores and gas stations in the village.
The local hospital, Bayview Memorial Health Centre, is only open one day a week now, and there’s no family doctor there. A nurse practitioner is on duty instead. But at one time this hospital even had its own palliative unit. That is long gone, too.
There have been other cuts: to the rail service, to the bus service.
There’s a school, which has students from grade primary to 12, and the community fought hard to keep it.
So when news came that the library might close next spring, it was a familiar story.
“Here we go again,” Callison recalled saying when he heard the news.
“Culture has been underfunded for as long as I’ve been alive. It never comes on the radar until it gets critical, like in this point in time, it’s critical, so it’ll get on the radar and maybe people will do something.”
The library in Advocate Harbour is only in the community because the people built it themselves — Callison helped build the shelves inside. The library has a photo album with pictures of each stage of construction.
The building is operated by the Advocate and District Development Association (ADDA), which hosts community events and weddings in the space upstairs. The building also serves as an emergency centre.
But Allen is the library. She works only 20 hours a week at the library, and Callison said you can’t cut more out of her schedule.
“Even if you cut it a little, Leslie’s not going to be able to afford to travel from Parrsboro. I don’t know how she does it now.”
“I budget a lot and go a little hungry sometimes,” Allen replied.
Allen makes the trip back and forth between Parrsboro and Advocate Harbour four times a week. She’s been through a few cars already, but since she grew up here she knows every twist and turn on the route on Highway 209 that’s sometimes called Nova Scotia’s other Cabot Trail. It’s such a rollercoaster that the hills have their own names — Jim Gunning Hill, Brown Brook Hill, and Pancake Hill.
She travels this route even in the winter, and said she’s learned every bump and turn, and knows where to slow down on the spots that get the iciest.
Robarts believes that having a library makes any community stronger.
“Average folks may not be aware of some of the struggles the people around them are going through, that they’re getting the service here and support for those things,” Robarts said.
“And that’s invaluable.”
Fletcher lives in Spencers Island and grew up in this area. She loves her community, saying, “you can’t beat Advocate Harbour.”
“In the winter, the people who think we don’t need [the library], let them come stay a winter here,” Fletcher said. “We can’t possibly drive to Parrsboro and there’s nowhere in Advocate to buy a book.”
Fletcher said the rent from the library helps fund the ADDA and pays for the building. She said in rural communities like Advocate Harbour, “once you lose something, you don’t get it back.”
“Once they start cutting, they’ll take everything.”
‘We just don’t want to lose her or the library’
Fletcher, Robarts, and Callison speak highly of Allen, and said the library and the community wouldn’t be the same without her.
Fletcher is an avid reader, including novels by romance writer Debbie Macomber. Allen, who Fletcher calls “Miss Leslie,” finds them all for her.
“She goes over and above, and we just don’t want to lose her or the library. She’s so willing to try to do anything for us, which is a great asset for here.”
Robarts, who grew up in Advocate Harbour, said the library gives her a chance to access art, books, and movies.
“If you’re adding up the dollars of the number of items I’ve borrowed in the last year, my salary would not be able to support that, but I do have access to them and that’s wonderful.”
“That means I can stay out here and grow as a person.”
Callison brings in a checklist of books he’d like to read, and Allen said she takes it as a personal challenge to track them down and bring them to Advocate Harbour.
“I do bribe her with cookies,” Callison said.
Allen said the job has its challenges. She’s the only one at the branch and doesn’t have backup. That means if she’s sick or her car breaks down on that commute from Parrsboro, there’s no one to fill in.
She has an emergency alarm button on hand in case anything happens. One press of the button sends a message to 911 dispatch in Amherst, a 1.5-hour drive away.
“I’ve worked all across the country and this is the only job I’ve ever felt proud to work,” Allen said. “At the end of the day, I’m providing a public service that this community so obviously needs.”
She said she can’t recall any government consultations about the library in Advocate Harbour since Bill Casey was the MP, and he resigned his seat in 2009. Robarts said MLA Tory Rushton visits each year for the annual Remembrance Day service.
Callison said rural areas like Advocate Harbour supply resources other areas of the province need. He said there’s fish, lumber, and wild blueberries, for example.
“Are we worth nothing? I mean, we’re feeding people and we’re supplying the stuff you need to build a house. Are we second-class citizens to the people getting those goods? It often seems so,” he said.
‘I don’t have that money to fall back on’
Denise Corey is the chief librarian and director at the Cumberland Public Libraries, and works out of the Amherst branch. Corey said she grew up as a “library kid” and remembers how the bookmobile would stop in front of her house. She’s worked in libraries for the past 25 years, and in her current role for about nine years; she joined Cumberland Public Libraries about 15 years ago.
In an interview with the Examiner, Corey said the library was in “frozen funding for 10 years,” and then in 2020, the province gave them a “substantial increase.”
But, she said, that wasn’t enough.
“So because of years of chronic underfunding, we were so far behind in our staffing, that at the beginning of this year, I gave a 9% increase, and that brought our bottom step on our salary scale to $15 per hour, which is now minimum wage in the province.”
“Because they didn’t give us money for the 10 years before that, this money is not sustaining us,” Corey said.
“It didn’t really catch us up.”
Corey said the libraries are currently in year three of a five-year funding cycle, and each year the deficit has been getting bigger. Last fiscal year that deficit was $67,000. For the current year, it’s $121,000. When she worked out the numbers for the next fiscal year, the deficit came to $179,000.
“I don’t have that in the bank. That money isn’t there. I don’t have that money to fall back on,” Corey said.
“That means coming in April, we’ll be cutting hours in five of our seven branches. That involves staff layoffs, that involves reduction in service, that involves all of those things that come with the fact we simply don’t have the money to pay people. I don’t believe we pay people an adequate amount of money right now for the amount of work that they do.”
It’s not that the libraries aren’t busy. Corey said that in 2022 the seven branches loaned out more than 174,000 items, including books, movies, electronic resources, puzzles, and radon metres. That’s for a population of just over 30,000.
“It was a 59% increase in circulation last year compared to pre-COVID numbers,” Corey said.
She said the librarians at all the branches — like Allen in Advocate Harbour — do far more than what they get paid for. The current living wage in Cumberland County is $24.30/hr.
“If you try to replace what we do with some government department that will be paying government salaries and benefits, they couldn’t afford it,” Corey said.
“If I make the staff take on any more, they’re going to burn out. They’re often here because they care about this, too.”
Corey said Allen and the Advocate Harbour branch are especially important because it’s the only service of its kind without having to drive some distance.
“It might not be that she gets huge numbers of people through the door, but that’s because there aren’t huge numbers that live in Advocate,” Corey said.
“But there is no other service within 45 minutes. If you don’t drive, there is very little you can do. Even if you do drive, driving between Advocate and the next closest village, which is Parrsboro, over twisty roads in the winter is not the funnest thing to do.”
The libraries also serve the county’s most vulnerable. Corey said the housing crisis has hit the rural communities hard, and people who were once inadequately housed may now not have a home at all.
“This is one place where they can use the internet, seek assistance, they can be warm, and if we’re reducing hours, that just gives them not a lot of options,” she said.
Corey will be making a presentation to Amherst Town Council on Monday night. The town is one of the library’s funders. She said she’s hoping for a bit more funding, but she also wants to get the word out to others in the community who have the voice to speak up.
“A lot of the people we serve are vulnerable and often not the people who want to go to the government and make a fuss because of situations within their lives. They’ll be unhappy we reduced hours, but they won’t necessarily feel like they have that ability to go in and speak to the MLA and be heard,” Corey said.
“It’s reliant on some people in the community to step up and say ‘the library is important.’”
Vision for the library
Allen has a vision of what the library can do, and one example has her planning a program around one of Advocate Harbour’s greatest assets: its night sky free of light pollution.
Allen has spent the last year organizing an astronomy event for the library. She’d like to get a really good telescope and a planetarium and host amateur astronomy clubs from across Nova Scotia.
“I’m trying to use the strengths of a rural area and create something unique for us that would be good for our residents and good for our community, but also good for patrons across the province,” Allen said.
“If our funding gets cut, I can’t host this event that I’ve been planning for a year.”
Now she’s on the hunt for grants and other sources of funding.
Fletcher, Robarts, and Callison have their visions for the library, too, but mostly they’d like to at least keep doing what they’ve always done.
Robarts said all they need is for the province to increase funding to match inflation each year.
“That will solve a lot of debt problems of this organization. It is that small of a curve. It’s not asking for a million dollars,” Robarts said.
When asked about his vision for the library, Callison said he’d like a key for the building.
“I keep telling Leslie, but she won’t get me one,” he said.
Response from the minister
The Halifax Examiner contacted the Department of Communities, Culture, Tourism, and Heritage to request an interview with the minister Allan MacMaster. We were told MacMaster was unavailable for an interview, and department spokesperson Susan Mader-Zinck sent a statement.
Mader-Zinck wrote that the province “has provided an annual regional library operating grant for several decades,” adding that spending to libraries increased by $2.1 million in 2020-21 and a new $500,000 development fund was established. That fund included Cumberland Public Libraries.
From the statement:
Specifically, Cumberland Public Libraries received $775,400 in operating funds from the Province for 2023-24. Public libraries manage their own budgets, including wages for staff, and determine the level of service they are able to provide. The Province is reviewing the annual operating formula which expires on March 31, 2025.
You can read the full statement here.
‘There’s a consideration for your humanity here’
In the last four years, Allen has quickly become a crucial resident of Advocate Harbour. She said she loves the community for its kindness.
“I’ve lived across the country and one of the things that constantly surprises me about Advocate is how kind, considerate, and wonderful everyone is to each other,” Allen said.
“Everyone waves to each other as you drive by, whether they know you or not. Everyone knows your business, so to speak.”
“Whether you want them to or not,” Fletcher interjects.
“There’s a consideration for your humanity here,” Allen continues. “I’m a queer person living in a rural area and people don’t give a rat’s ass about it. I’ve been happily accepted here in a way that has been wonderful and I’m very lucky on that front.”
Allen said she goes back and forth on her optimism about the future of the Advocate Harbour Library. She thinks she’s made her case for her job, saying someone will have to “drag me out of here kicking and screaming.”
She knows well what the library means to Advocate Harbour and every patron it serves.
“Everyone deserves access to services, everyone deserves free WiFi, everyone deserves access to free internet, everyone deserves access to knowledge, to opinions, to the world at large. Libraries are a gateway to all of this. And if this library closes for any reason, Advocate Harbour and the larger area we support is going to lose that access. And people don’t reopen libraries. That doesn’t happen,” Allen said.
“We have to ask ourselves if this is worth it, and I think the answer is yes.”