Brilla Larce flips through one of the many children's books available at the North Nanaimo branch of the Vancouver Island Regional Library.

Vancouver Island library system hits the midway point of $43 million improvement plan

Book it: Twenty-one communities targeted for new or improved branches in order to bring them up to a consistent standard

Book sales are in a downward spiral that has been ongoing for a decade.

Looking for information on any given topic? Chances are good you will spend an hour asking Google for help before the thought of visiting your local librarian even enters your mind.

Yet even as the traditional reasons for a library’s existence appear to be fading away, Vancouver Island library spending is poised to climb nearly 50 per cent over an eight-year period.

Supporters say there are good reasons for the investment.

Within the past five years, the Vancouver Island Regional Library has opened new or renovated facilities in Cumberland, Quadra Island, Lake Cowichan, Gabriola Island, Bella Coola, Cortes Island, North Nanaimo, Port Renfrew, and Nanaimo Harbourfront.

More improvements are underway, or planned, for Ladysmith, Courtenay, Tahsis, Port Hardy, Cowichan, Nanaimo Wellington, Sointula and Woss.

Within the next five years, Campbell River, Sooke, Chemainus and Sidney/North Saanich are expected to get new or expanded libraries, worth between $2.2 and $6 million apiece.

It’s all part of a 10-year plan adopted in 2009 aimed at making the system up-to-date and relevant in an increasingly modern information world.

“The goal over a number of years is to get the libraries up to a certain standard,” said Mary Beil, Parksville’s representative on the Vancouver Island Regional Library board. “There were libraries that were operating in appalling conditions.”

logoVIRL’s facilities master plan sets a standard in terms of size, services, hours of availability and equipment based on the population of each community it serves, as well as direction for ensuring each branch meets those expectations.

“We needed a standard of service that is consistent across the board,” VIRL communications officer Natasha Bartlett said.

According to the plan, facilities should be flexible, functional, attractive and adaptable. Factors taken into consideration include collection size, deployment of technology, adult and children’s programming, lounge seating, study space and multipurpose meeting space.

It’s an ambitious project and not cheap. In order to help fund an estimated $43 million in capital improvements over the course of the plan, VIRL’s annual tax requisition is expected to grow from a total of about $16.5 million in 2012 to about $23.6 million in 2020. A big chunk of that hike is a pair of levies: an equipment levy that will compound from one to 10 per cent over the 10-year term and a facilities levy that compounds from 1.25 per cent to 12.5 per cent. Bartlett described the average increase as about a cup of coffee per person per year.

VIRL adopted the levy plan as a better way for communities to  spread out the burden of growth.

“Instead of peaks and troughs, it’s basically the same increase to the levy each year,” Bartlett said.

Each taxpayer within the VIRL catchment area — which includes 39 Island and coastal communities stretching from Sooke to Haida Gwaii — shares the burden of every project roughly equally, half on a per capita basis, half as a percentage of their property assessment.

Most politicians have no problem buying into the all-for-one mentality. Others, struggling to hold the line on costs at home, are having difficulty justifying ballooning library requisitions to their taxpayers.

In Port Alberni, Mayor Mike Ruttan said the city’s library expense is expected to jump from $650,000 to $820,000 from 2016 to 2018, without any corresponding increase in local service.

“The problem is that these costs are going up way more than other costs,” he said. “We are paying between four and eight per cent and it keeps going up. As a community we are really working hard at keeping our costs under control. Is there some way to separate the real estate part from the operating part?”

He acknowledges libraries continue to provide value, but is unsure if all this growth is necessary in the internet age. There are numbers to support that position.

The number of items checked out of Vancouver Island libraries last year dropped from 5.3 million in 2014 to five million. That includes both paper and electronic borrowing, with the latter comprising about 20 per cent of the total.

However, even as borrowing drops, other services continue to grow. The number of branch visits in a system that serves 415,000 people jumped from just over two million in 2014 to nearly 2.5 million last year. And the number of people using library programs grew from 82,700 to 102,000.

booksSupporters say it is a mistake to consider libraries simply as book repositories. Rather, they fall somewhere between community centres and universities — places where people connect to gather and share knowledge. A library’s job is to help provide its citizens with the skills and tools to access that knowledge, no matter what the platform.

Bartlett is not surprised misperceptions exist among non-users.

“When I was hired, I doubt I had been to a library since I was six years old and my mother dragged me there,” she said. “Our mandate is literacy, and it’s improving and strengthening communities.”

That means providing meeting rooms, study and gathering spaces, and access to computer services. It means early learning for kids, training for adults and a place to hang out for teens. It means a chance to watch films on the Netflix-like movie service Hoopla, and listen to music or audiobooks.

In the Creativity Commons in the Nanaimo Harbourfront branch it means opportunities to produce digital content (including the use of a green screen), or to design and print your own books, posters and fliers. It means being able to experiment with technology and gadgets, turn VHS into DVD, and research your family history.

Smaller branches may not have as many bells and whistles, but they often play an even bigger role in a community, particularly in remote places like Gold River.

“In small, isolated communities, the library is the community hub,” Beil said. “There are still a number of Canadians who do not have access to the internet.”

According to Beil, it’s a myth that the internet is some kind of cost-free service. Between cell plans, home service providers and the cost of the computers, phones and tablets, the online-at-will experience is not something that everyone can afford. The library provides free access.

“I don’t have to spend $1,000 at home in order to access the internet,” Beil said.

At the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities conference in April, delegates roundly rejected a Port Alberni resolution aimed at restraining library spending.

Beil said it was a vote of confidence the library board is on the right path.

“No doubt there is a notable cost to communities,” she said. “At the library board level, the budget was passed with 98 per cent in favour.

“It’s an opportunity for building community. It strengthens and supports democracy. It’s bridging the gap between people who are comfortable and people who are on the margins.”

Follow me on Twitter @JohnMcKinleyBP

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