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TheRockies.Life Staff

Rural Libraries: The Cornerstones of Our Communities, Now on Shaky Ground

As costs soar, many rural libraries are being forced to slash hours and services, leaving many locals in the lurch

If you live in a rural town, what is the heart of your community? 

For many people, it’s the library. 

But as the costs continue to rise, libraries are fighting to keep the lights on.

So, what’s the solution? 

James MacDonald, Executive Director of the Northern Lights Library System (NLLS), thinks libraries need to be recognized as critical infrastructure.

Critical but Overlooked? 

Critical infrastructure refers to processes, systems, facilities, technologies, networks, assets and services essential to Canadians’ health, safety, security or economic well-being.

Some common examples of critical infrastructure include highways, railways, and buildings related to electricity, gas, and water.

Critical infrastructure is mainly owned, operated, and paid for by the federal government, but provincial governments fund local critical infrastructure projects. 

James MacDonald, the executive director for NLLS | Lakeland Connect

In Canada, library funding is the responsibility of the provincial/territorial government.

Libraries are gateways to knowledge and culture and play an essential role in communities, especially rural ones. 

Libraries are often the first to open their doors and extend a helping hand in times of need. 

Libraries also offer various programs and services, like literacy programs and career development. 

Why shouldn’t they be included as critical infrastructure? 

These are the questions NLLS wants answered. 

NLLS is one of our province’s seven regional library systems and operates almost 50 libraries. But it is becoming harder for rural libraries to stay afloat.

Runaway Costs

Each year, the Northern Lights Library System delivers over 850,000 books to 175,000 residents. In 2019, the NLLS spent $32,000 to buy a van to make these deliveries.

NLLS Headquarters in Elk Point | NLLS Alberta

But the cost of operating the van doubled in 2022. 

The cost of delivering books is one of many expenses libraries incur.

“That’s not eight percent inflation. That’s 100 percent inflation,” said MacDonald. 

The 2023 Alberta budget increased funding for public libraries by $3 million, which is the first increase to the Public Library Grant Program in the last eight years.

But an extra $3 million isn’t enough to keep up with eight years of inflation, especially here in Alberta.

“Unfortunately, for many libraries, these increases were not sufficient to deal with the full pressures of inflation and rising costs. Some libraries continue to run deficits, cut services or hours and so forth,” explained Hank Smit, board chair of the Yellowhead Regional Library.

Rising costs have forced many rural libraries to cut their hours because they lack money, resources, and staff. 

“It’s a great space, and it’s got all the services. But if you can’t access them because the doors aren’t open, that’s a real problem,” said MacDonald. 

In addition to recognizing libraries as critical infrastructure, MacDonald thinks funding must benchmarked to inflation. 

Proper funding would allow the province’s seven library systems to meet the needs of rising salaries, infrastructure costs, and higher overall costs.

Libraries shouldn’t have to fight for funding; they are pillars of the community that welcome and help all walks of life.

Libraries exist for the good of the people. 

It only makes sense that they are fully funded and considered critical infrastructure.

In 2018, people in Alberta borrowed almost 40 million items from public libraries, including books, CDs, DVDs, eBooks, and more | Parents

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