a large glass building is seen from a low angle at night. There's a bicycle locked up in the foreground, and the lights in the building's upper floors are on.
Halifax Central Library. Photo: Zane Woodford

Councillors are looking at increasing the Halifax Public Libraries budget to pay for more e-books, early literacy programming, and rural service.

Halifax regional council’s budget committee debated the libraries budget from CEO and chief librarian Åsa Kachan during virtual meetings on Wednesday and Friday.

Finance staff gave each municipal department a target to hit for fiscal 2022-2023, and for the libraries, that was $23,050,000 — a reduction of $430,000 from 2021-2022. To make the cut, Kachan budgeted for “reductions to extra hours funding and [an] increase in vacancy management,” meaning leaving vacant positions unfilled.

But Kachan presented councillors with a series of options to increase the budget, and they voted to consider each of those options later on in their budget-building process.

First was an extra $300,000 for electronic resources, including e-books and audio books. Demand was up before, but has exploded during the pandemic, and the libraries have been unable to keep up. They’re also more expensive.

Kachan brought councillors an example: a November 2021 pick from Reese Witherspoon’s book club, The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak.

“The print copy, it’s $21 in hardcover, $15 in paperback. The e-book, so the book that you would read on a device is $80 and the audiobook is $193,” Kachan said.

“It’s a format that the public loves. It’s a pricing structure, particularly when the demand is going up, that is really, really impacting our ability to to continue to serve.”

As Kachan told councillors last year, when they added $100,000 to the collection budget, Halifax Public Libraries’ general collection per capita is less than that of other Canadian cities while its usage is higher. That means there are long waitlists for e-books, Kachan said, because they can’t buy more copies due to the cost.

Kachan said an extra $6 million annually would fix the issue, but $300,000 will help them start to keep up with that demand.

Coun. Patty Cuttell asked whether the post-pandemic easing of restrictions would lessen the demand for e-books, but Kachan expects it will stay strong.

“People get into the habit of that use, and it the convenience of that use, and I don’t foresee that number going down,” she said.

Councillors also voted to add money to the budget for two items billed as COVID-19 recovery.

The first is “Additional programming focusing on early literacy and social development of young children” for $130,000. Kachan said the libraries are concerned about children’s language and social development.

“It is well documented and it is most profound when children are living in poverty,” Kachan said. “Those are the children who are least likely to have a shelf of books at home or may not be in in a childcare or preschool setting where they have the opportunity to connect with other children.”

The money, a one-time expenditure, would be used to create learning and play spaces inside branches to help kids interact with each other and introduce them to books.

“We have resources to provide children’s services. This is the money to do more of that: imaginative play, literacy improvement, improving the confidence of caregivers. This really is an investment in the life outcomes of these children.”

The second post-pandemic investment is in programming for adults, “focused on drawing our community together to rebuild community connections and our capacity to overcome differences,” for $120,000, also a one-time expenditure. Kachan argued “democracy has suffered over the past few years.”

“It’s the impact of loneliness and isolation on the mental health of our community. It’s also as people limit their social circles, they tend to limit them to people who … have a life that is not unlike their own. They spend time with people who are like them who share a similar perspective,” Kachan said.

“You throw internet search algorithms on top of that, and the beliefs and perspectives that somebody holds are reflected back to them. We need to be very intentional about drawing our community back together, inviting people to spend time with individuals who have different perspectives, identify what we share in common, look one another in the eye, participate in conversations around a range of issues.”

The programming could include speakers or other events designed to introduce people from different walks of life.

And the third bundle of extras councillors voted to consider would improve the libraries’ reach into rural areas of the municipality, what Kachan described as “geographical equity.” Those include: more mail order service at an ongoing cost of $68,000; the addition of library kiosks and WiFi hotspots in two unidentified rural locations for $130,000; and the expansion of rural libraries’ hours by 20% for an ongoing cost of $102,000.

Those extras total $1.4 million, and would mark an increase to the libraries’ budget over 2021-2022 of $970,000, or 4%.

Councillors will debate each of the three groups of over budget options at their budget committee meeting on March 24. That list now tops $19.5 million, by the Halifax Examiner’s count. The final vote on the whole budget is scheduled for early April.

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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