Monday, May 25, 2009

Defending a free public library service

Universal access to information is a premise dating from the Victorian era, and a founding principle for New Zealand society. Access to information and education is not just for the wealthy classes, but for all.

Public Libraries evolved during this era, and were quickly established in every small, medium and large community throughout the land. Levin's first real public library was funded by Andrew Carnegie on condition that it was free for all.

A free public library is a long established, ethical, socially responsible and much loved service throughout New Zealand. Horowhenua is a socially and economically ‘deprived’ community in terms of the Deprivation Index. The libraries in Horowhenua have never, ever, experienced higher numbers of visitors and usage than in the last year. As this recession bites, that trend will only continue, stretching a system struggling to cope on existing budgets, staffing and space.

Horowhenua District Council is one of very few Councils in New Zealand to insist that library users raise 15% of their operating expenditure. That has been achieved historically, but only through the goodwill and donated labour of library staff and Friends of the Library who have fundraised the difference between the 8% raised through user charges and the 15% currently raised.

The proposed change whereby the library will have to raise up to 25% of operating expenditure is an outrage against the principles of universal access to information for all. Additionally, and what makes it even worse, is that according to the wording of the LTCCP, the entire amount must be raised through user charges alone. While fundraising for new services and special projects is possible, fundraising for core operating expenses like power and phone is not.

Two new, much needed, community centres are being planned for Levin and Foxton. No other community in New Zealand has been charged with fundraising to such an extent, in order to build public library buildings. Public libraries are core council business, and it is no wonder that charities and grant boards are finding it hard to fund the new libraries. Income previously raised locally through fundraising and grant applications to prop up library operating costs will need to be diverted towards funding the new community centres.

This year, a new targeted library rate has been established, and I applaud that move. The cost of providing a library service, around $1.70 a week per SUIP, is now transparent and can be recognized as the value that it is.

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