The Honourable Don Morgan QC has said that combining public libraries and school libraries could be part of the solution to the drastic funding cuts imposed on Saskatchewan public libraries in the recent budget.
But Mr. Morgan must know that, just as all lawyers are not the same, all libraries are also not the same.
In libraryland, we generally group our library specializations into four categories: academic libraries (such as the Law Library Mr. Morgan likely visited as a student), special libraries (such as the Legislative Library he has access to as part of his current role), public libraries and school libraries.
The four types of libraries have many similarities but in just as many ways, they are all different from each other – in what they have in their collections, the user groups they serve, the hours they are open, the policies they have on the books, the way they are funded and so on.
That is not to say that public and school libraries can’t co-exist.
There are many examples of joint public-school libraries in Saskatchewan including Outlook, Tisdale, Warman (I think?), Carnduff and probably others as well. Regina Public Library will be part of a combined school-public library in north central’s Mâmawêyatitân Centre which will be opening next summer and be home to not only a joint public-school library but a number of other community services as well.
These joint use libraries *can* work but there are a few caveats – the biggest one being that they tend to work best if they are planned as shared facilities from the outset rather than being retroactively shoehorned together. This extends to other aspects of running a joint facility – a huge amount of work must be done ahead of time to develop partnership agreements and policies that work for both sides.
- A Solution That Only Addresses 1/3 of the Need Isn’t Really A Solution
The most obvious reason is, by Minister Morgan’s own admission, there are only 90 communities in the entire province of Saskatchewan that have a school with a library and a public library. There are around 300 public libraries in the province so even if every school and public library combined tomorrow, that still leaves over 200 public libraries without access to the same solution.
- Do Those 90 School Libraries Have Space to Absorb A Full Public Library Collection?
School libraries tend to be fairly full as it is so I can’t imagine how they’d easily integrate even a portion of the collection from a public library in the same community (remember, if you’re in one of the 90 communities that’s large enough to have both a public and school library, odds are that you’re in a community that’s large enough to have a fairly substantial public library.)
- Inequity In Partners
Schools (and school divisions) tend to be much larger and have more resources than public libraries (and library regions) so there’s an inherent inequity to any joint solution. At the same time, school *libraries* are often under-resourced so they frequently off-load their needs to the public library system as it is.
- You Might Not Want to Link School and Public Libraries In Case One Fails
It’s no surprise to hear that the trend in rural Saskatchewan is to close schools in communities at an ever-increasing rate. If you combine the school and public library then end up closing the school, you’re making it much more difficult for the public library to continue operating as has been the case in many communities that have lost their schools but at least kept a public library.
- They Have Different Collections
Public libraries have a fundamental commitment to freedom of expression and serving the needs of all patrons including mature adults. School libraries serve younger people who may not be ready for access to more adult materials and take steps to address that. How do you control access in a shared library to materials ranging from Maxim magazine to anime graphic novels to books like “Fifty Shades of Grey” to other adult materials including non-fiction books on topics ranging from sex, drugs, religion and other controversial subjects.
- They Have Different Policies
Public libraries also have a fundamental commitment to equitable access to information without judgement or censorship. School libraries may not follow this same principle because the maturity level of students is different – so school libraries may use filters on their computers or restrict certain collections by age group in a way that public libraries don’t. I don’t know if it’s still the case but this can lead to weird rules such as at the joint school/public library I worked with in Carnduff where they had a strange (and hard to enforce!) rule that students weren’t allowed to go on Facebook during school hours but at 3:31pm, they were able to do so.
- They Have Different Needs in Terms of Staff & Training
People who work in school libraries have a very different knowledge-base and skillset than those who work in public libraries. If you’re trying to find qualified people, especially in rural Saskatchewan where there is already a smaller labour pool, who have the knowledge to work in both types of libraries, that is going to be difficult. This can also lead to increased labour costs, complications if you end up dealing with multiple unions and other related issues.
- Open Hours
Schools are generally open M-F, 8-4pm or so. Public libraries have open hours on evenings, weekends, throughout the summer and other times when schools have holidays to best serve the general public. If you combine the facilities, you are creating all kinds of issues around security, staffing, operational expenses and more.
- Open Hours (Part Deux)
What Minister Morgan might not realise is that many of the libraries serving smaller communities are only open a few hours per week and basically function as an extension of the town administration or another existing service. I’ve seen small town libraries that are literally a room adjoining the town hall, in the town fire hall, under the bleachers in the town rink (hi Midale!), in half of the building that houses the local laundromat, and my personal favourite,in a shared building with the town liquor store (hi Ponteix!). Small towns are incredibly creative and know how to get the most bang for their limited public library funds as it is. Making some of these libraries move into a school library would likely *increase* their cost of operation.
- Regional Libraries Are Already Willing To Do What Needs To Be Done
One of the toughest things I ever did when I worked for Southeast Regional Library was help to close down the underperforming library in one of our smallest communities. Given how tight budgets are, I’m sure every region regularly assesses their branches and, when necessary, takes steps to close down those that are no longer sustainable. *If* the government is focused on reducing inefficiency and cutting costs, *maybe* the regions would have to look at culling some of their weakest branches. But the drastic nature of the cuts that have been implemented means that all branches – big and small, in wealthy and impoverished areas, close and far from larger centres – are all endangered.
- There Are Other Solutions Besides Combining Public and School Libraries
I don’t know about other regions but Southeast Regional had a few “Community Drop-Off” libraries in villages and hamlets that were too small to support even our minimum number of weekly open hours (I think it was eight?). This would be a drop-box in the local town office or another business in town that patrons could take books out, almost on the honour system. Some would have a single computer with Internet access or other minimal services but without the need for staffing, programs or other services of a more full-featured branch.
- Public Libraries Serve The Public; School Libraries Serve Students
It seems self-evident but there are very different user groups that come into each type of library. Public libraries pride themselves on giving equitable access to everyone but the flip side of this is that public libraries can often have some unsavoury characters pass through their doors. Schools (and by extension, school libraries) are very cautious about allowing anyone but students into their halls (many schools require parents to check in every time they enter the building.) The user bases for school and public libraries could clash in ways that are innocuous (a senior lady’s crafting circle that used to meet at the public library on Monday afternoons now tries to meet at the school library where a rowdy class of grade four kids are trying to do group projects together) to potentially dangerous (if someone who’s a pedophile or some other type of criminal is suddenly given easy access to a place where students are, I hate to even think of the potential dangers!)
Although there are a handful of examples across the province where joint public-school libraries exist, those tend to be locations where they are planned for from the outset with clear policies, guidelines and rules for each partner. And even then, there is always tension between the goals and objectives of school divisions, schools and school libraries and those of library regions and their branch libraries.
There are efficiencies and cost-savings to be found in Saskatchewan’s public library system, just as there are in any government agency. But simply trying to retroactively shoehorn school and public libraries together in 33% of Saskatchewan communities that happen to have both, just because they each have “library” in their name, isn’t realistic or feasible at all.