Evidence and Community Save Libraries

by Cara Bradley, Teaching and Learning Librarian
University of Regina Library

March 22, 2017 was a dark day for Saskatchewan’s libraries. The Government of Saskatchewan released an austerity budget that decimated the province’s public library system. Almost $5 million was cut from public library budgets, with $1.3 million cut from libraries in the province’s two largest cities, and another $3.5 million cut from the regional libraries that provide services to smaller communities and rural areas of the province (http://saskatoon.ctvnews.ca/budget-stops-provincial-funding-for-saskatoon-regina-libraries-1.3337911). These numbers might appear small to larger library systems across the country, but they represented more than half of the library budgets of the regional libraries, and so spelled the end of an interlibrary cooperation system for which the province is famous and the closure of libraries in many communities across the province. The impact was to be nothing short of devastating.

Within days of the budget announcement, an active SaveSaskLibraries campaign was launched. Library users across the province mobilized, and after a campaign that included letter-writing, petitions, social media groups, and protests, the Government of Saskatchewan reversed its decision on April 24, 2017 and reinstated library funding to previous levels (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/sask-libraries-budget-reversal-1.4082965).

I’ve thought a lot about the whole series of events, as well as what lessons I (and our library community writ large) might learn from this experience. Here are a couple of my takeaways:

1) Evidence matters. Evidence saved these libraries. Most importantly, it was evidence that these libraries mattered a great deal to the people of Saskatchewan. This evidence took a lot of forms, and included letter-writing campaigns, petitions, and “Drop Everything and Read” protests at 85 locations around the province. The “evidence assault” also included op-eds, media releases, and handouts that corrected the inaccuracies offered by the government as rationale for the decision to drastically cut library budgets. I attended a protest at which a politician was given a document that, point-by-point, refuted the misinformation that had led to the decision. As protest leaders reviewed that document with the politician, I saw a wavering, an uncertainty. The evidence was making a difference.

I have a long-standing interest in evidence based librarianship, but this was the clearest example I have seen of evidence making a difference for libraries. It was powerful.

2) Local community matters. I can’t pretend to speak for all academic librarians, but I think that we tend to find our community with academic library colleagues across the country. Our research tends to be either narrow in focus (our institution) or sector-specific (academic libraries across a wider geographical range). Relatively little of our attention, both research and service-wise, focuses on our local communities. It was this local community—public librarians, library staff, and many, many library supporters–who stepped forward and saved Saskatchewan’s public library system.

We’re missing out. My community is filled with smart, compassionate, library- loving people. I need to learn from them and give back to them. Most of all, I want them on my side when my back is against the wall.

Politics undoubtedly shaped how this all played out—both the decision to cut and the decision to reinstate library funding—but I won’t soon forget the role of evidence and community in saving Saskatchewan’s libraries.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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