By ADAM DAVIES
Alberto Manguel, the noted novelist and bibliophile, offered a simple lesson: "The love of libraries, like most loves, must be learned."
It is a message that speaks to those who have their own collection of books, be it large or small, as well as to public libraries. It also speaks to the value of books, of learning, and of literacy. It is, unfortunately, a lesson successive governments in our province chose to ignore.
The news is grim. Funding for Nova Scotia's public libraries has not kept pace with costs and now chief librarians and library boards have to make hard decisions, such as cutting services, reducing hours or closing library branches. But the reality of successive governments' attitudes toward public libraries goes far beyond funding and budget cuts. Public libraries, especially those in rural areas, are completely invisible to government. Government does not understand libraries, it does not appreciate the services libraries provide and it cannot grasp what libraries offer.
For example, in May 2016, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development launched a new provincial literacy strategy with the goal that students will excel in literacy and graduate with the literacy skills they need to succeed in school, the workplace, and their communities.
There was mention made to a "team effort" and "strong partnerships" to realize that goal, but those partners were identified as "community groups, parents, and guardians." Public libraries — with 80 branches throughout the province and providing free access to everyone — were so far removed from this strategy, and so little regarded, that they are not even mentioned among the existing "literacy tools and supports which are currently available in our communities."
More recently, at the end of January, the Nova Scotia House of Assembly Committee on Human Resources heard testimony about that same strategy. Here there was recognition that "literacy just doesn't happen in school and just during the school day," and there was reference made to partnerships and an "umbrella" of services, but no mention of public libraries. No one encouraged parents to get a library card for themselves or their children, and no one highlighted the fact that libraries offer early literacy programs. Consider this: the Read to Me! program was praised for being "more than a books for babies" initiative, but no one mentioned that those same bags also contain baby's first library card.
Successive governments have failed to see the link between literacy and public libraries. The author, Neil Gaiman, in his defence of public libraries, offered this analogy: "We need our children to get onto the reading ladder," he wrote, adding "anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy." That ladder is firmly grounded in public libraries, for it is there that children have free and equal access to all sorts of reading material, covering a variety of subjects, genres, media and tastes, and it is there they have a safe space in which to read.
What is perhaps most frustrating of all comes from the testimony at the Human Resources Committee in January. As stated in creating the Nova Scotia Literacy Strategy, there was research done on how other jurisdictions had created their own. Apparently, they missed reading Ireland's "National Strategy to Improve Literacy and Numeracy among Children and Young People 2011-2020." To quote from the Irish document, "Libraries and librarians are an important resource in supporting children’s literacy. Through the expert selection and provision of a wide range of books and other materials, libraries can both support the acquisition of literacy skills and help foster children’s love of reading amongst children. Some schools benefit from in-house library facilities but the forging of strong links with local public library services will be an important facet of the literacy and numeracy plans of schools. Public libraries enable families to support their children’s literacy development through the range of resources and information they make available in a free, open and informal setting. While libraries are an excellent resource for all families, they can be of particular assistance to families who find it difficult to meet the cost of providing a rich range of books and educational resources in the home."
To return to Manguel's lesson, the Irish offer an example on how government can encourage people to learn to love libraries. So why is that lesson not seen here in Nova Scotia? How have we sunk so low that governments can separate literacy from public libraries? How it is possible that governments can look at public libraries as nothing more than an item on a budget line?
Adam Davies lives in Pugwash. He is an employee of Cumberland Public Libraries in Amherst and an elected representative on the Chignecto-Central regional school board.