By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
Reductions to Cobourg Public Library staff in recent years have brought it to the point where the work done by two staffers who were cut is being done during the odd free moment by staff at the library’s three service desks.
The information came from Chief Executive Officer Tammy Robinson, presenting the library’s 2023 budget to a special council meeting on Wednesday.
It’s important to be clear on this, Robinson said, because 80.49% of the library’s budget goes to salaries, wages and benefits.
According to Ontario Public Library Guidelines, she said, they would need 108 additional hours of staff time to meet minimum standards of service.
Instead, over the past five years, they have scrambled to make every possible efficiency to ensure the most responsible use of public funds.
Work once done by staff – she chose program planning and implementation as an example – is now done by staff at the three service desks (downstairs at the entrance, downstairs in the children’s library and one upstairs) in their occasional free moments.
And when it comes time for actually offering and staffing the program, Robinson continued, the desk staffer does that, with someone from management reporting to the desk to take up that particular duty.
“There are no further efficiencies to be made without directly impacting services,” she declared.
And this comes at a time when the library is growing. Of the 10,000 active library-card holders, Robinson said, more than 10% took out their library membership in 2022.
That year saw – just to cite a few of the figures she shared – 135,854 physical items checked out (and 44,881 e-book, audiobook and other downloads) , 14,990 patrons attending 493 programs, 65,210 visits, 8,369 reference questions answered, and 7.076 in-house internet sessions. They average 422 visitors a day.
All this, she said, in a year when the library is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. A typical year could be expected to have even higher numbers.
And the service they provide is especially important for the large portion of Cobourg’s older population. It offers a place for social interaction, a means of combating isolation and loneliness, both through programming and from the chance to drop in, browse and have a chat at check-out. And for those who come for help to learn to use the computer facilities, there’s the bonus of staying in touch with loved ones and enjoying family photos on Facebook.
“It’s proven that communities with a well-supported and visible library have lower crime rates and a higher rate of access to necessary services,” Robinson said.
With so many services now on-line, she continued, one-third of the adults the library serves do not have computers or proper Internet (either they can’t afford it, she explained, or they don’t have access to the necessary high-speed connections).
In a town that has gone to on-line voting in the last two municipal elections, library staff were sworn in as election officers and helped people who have difficulty with computers to cast their ballots.’
While Robinson’s figures are for the Cobourg branch only, she noted that the Hamilton Township branches in Gore’s Landing and Bewdley also contribute to the budget to the point that their support actually brings down the cost to Cobourg taxpayers. Councillor Aaron Burchat confirmed this, noting that, on its own, the Cobourg library costs taxpayers $52.81 per person. Factor in the population and revenues from Hamilton Township, and that figure goes down to $47.81 per person.
The library is requesting a budget of $982,094 from the town for library services and $44,705 under a memorandum of agreement to cover work necessary to the physical library building. This includes an increase over last year of $59,585 or 6.16%.
Robinson estimates the economic impact to the town from the library at $15,620,263.54, or an 843% return on investment. Basically, for every dollar invested in the library, each resident receives $16.86 in benefits.
Mayor Lucas Cleveland questioned Robinson’s internet information, quoting Statistics Canada figures that say 94% of all Canadian households have Internet access. That may be true for Canada, Robinson said, but she is getting a different story locally from community members who have only the most basic of Internet services or live in dead zones.
Cleveland insisted that he’s a strong library supporter, but zeroed in the claim Robinson made twice – that there can be no further savings without service cuts.
“Are there no ways of lean-management principles that can be completed, no way management can improve processes, no way management can improve operational effectiveness? Are you or your staff fully trained in management principles that could allow for savings to be found?” he asked.
“We have undergone three complete staff restructurings in the last two years,” Robinson replied. At the same time, the work done by those lost staffers has continued to be done by those remaining.
Councillor Miriam Mutton noted the designation of the library as a warming centre, and asked if that was affecting library operations. In fact, Robinson mentioned that her staff have regularly received Homelessness in the Library training for the past four years to meet the challenges they are facing on a growing scale, at a very affordable cost of $700 for all their staff – “ to help our staff, and empower our staff to help those in different situations.”
Their most recent challenge has been the closure of the downtown washrooms at the Albert Street bus terminal, while washrooms at the library remain open.
“Library staff are dealing with situations we were never trained for,” she said, listing such issues as mental health and homelessness.
“The library is a place for a lot of these people to go, and we are dealing with that situation.”
The mayor wondered if offering these services – and even expanding them, like the recent addition of the Community Fridge – is only increasing the numbers of visitors for them to deal with.
Robinson said she was happy to have the Community Fridge installed as part of the work of Local Food For Local Good, but any increase they are seeing just now is most likely from the closed washrooms. What the fridge – and staff efforts – accomplish is to serve the large numbers who are already there.
“The library is a place for everyone, one of the few places everyone can go to without fear of being judged, being kicked out.”
And the library being designated as a warming and cooling centre was a call made by the town, she pointed out.
Councillor Adam Bureau noted that the library staff are unionized. Is there any way to bypass the union and lower wages, he wondered.
“In short, the answer is no,” Robinson said.
“Our staff are part of CUPE and, in fact, they are a chapter of the Town of Cobourg. If we were to dismiss everyone and get rid of the union, I think you would have every CUPE member in the province of Ontario wired to strike and come after the library.”
An older man from the gallery had his own suggestion – couldn’t volunteers augment the work of the staff. Administrative Co-ordinator Jocelyn Gard said that they already do. The 150 volunteers they have contribute 1,200 hours of work a year.
“And we are always increasing that – every day, we are taking in new volunteers,” Gard said.
A younger man who also spoke said that his father and older brother had died while homeless in Aurora.
“Both relied heavily on Internet, public services, washrooms at the library. I would hate to see anything cut at the library,” he said.
In fact, the mayor had kudos of his own to offer, stating that – based on input from the Engage Cobourg site – “the library team is the single most-thanked service.”
Councillor Mutton agreed.
“My favourite people on the planet are librarians,” she said.
“I have been in total awe of librarians and the service of a library to the community.”