4 Mar 2021

Wellington librarians upset and angry over council decisions

9:58 am on 4 March 2021

Wellington librarians are deeply upset and angry with their employer - the city council - after it voted to sell off half the central library, and cut their collections budget by 40 percent.

Barriers in front of Wellington Central Library.

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The council voted in favour of both measures in a Long-Term Plan committee meeting a fortnight ago.

But neither decision has gone down well with those who it will impact: librarians.

"We're pretty worried about things, it doesn't feel good," a librarian, who wished to remain anonymous, said in a statement.

"We're quite dissatisfied. It's interesting that at this point libraries are being treated as a 'nice to have'.

"Plenty of members of the public think we are vital. The library is a place you're a citizen, not just a consumer."

The council was contemplating one of its most expensive budgets ever, and Mayor Andy Foster was looking for where savings could be made.

Billions of dollars worth of investment are being put into water infrastructure, improving resilience, and trying to reduce the city's carbon emissions.

But to keep money tight, a number of cost reductions were put forward: one was to sell off half the central library to a private company, to help pay for the $180 million strengthening fees.

Another, to cut the collections budget by 40 percent. Both were passed.

"A 40 percent drop in the collection is significant," the librarian said. "I don't buy the argument that the current library buildings will not be able to house new materials.

"The public also demands new stuff. I get that things are precarious financially, they need to fund pipes etc.

"But it would be interesting to see if there are other areas that could be trimmed (other than staffing levels of course) rather than taking the easy route."

What would a 40 percent budget cut mean?

The cut to the collections budget would just be for the first two years, but it would take $1 million away from them each year.

Public Service Association national secretary Erin Polaczuk said that would represent a real loss in terms of the services libraries provide to their communities.

She said it means less books being purchased, which would mean longer queues for people to get the trendy ones.

It would impact how libraries provide book club programmes for dyslexic people, and people with dementia.

It could mean libraries miss out on discounts from vendors even.

And it would also affect the services which the collections budget helps keep afloat - such as internet and digital capabilities.

Another librarian said it would go back on all the progress libraries have made.

"Our libraries are such valuable spaces, not just for the literacy aspect, they're a space for people to connect, engage with digital tech, come together.

"The work that we do in wgtn [sic] libraries is pretty cutting edge. Sometimes there can be a temptation to politically target libraries as a legacy institution.

"It'd be a real shame if we took this area where we are being so innovative and decided it's just a cost burden to eliminate."

The Public Service Association has for the past fortnight, been holding meetings with a number of union delegates representing librarians.

Erin Polaczuk said there's real disappointment that despite the council's enormous budget, library services is where they looked to make cuts.

"If you're looking for $1 million, in the scheme of things, there are a lot of places you could look.

"To hone in on the collections budget is to say this is an area we think is expendable. And that is really deeply problematic, and part of why our members are feeling so upset about the proposal, and oppose it so deeply."

Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons, who holds the libraries portfolio, agreed.

"The conversation should be about how we can increase the resources available to our library, so they can open more at the weekend, so that they can open in more convenient hours, across the whole city.

"That's the conversation we should be having. Not short-sighted cuts in our book-buying budget."

Council to go back on its proposals

Polaczuk said their members just want the council to rule out going through with either change.

"They think that the community hasn't really been considered in this, and that it isn't looking towards future generations and the type of city we want to be."

With the budget still up in the air, the decisions being overturned is entirely likely.

The vote held two weeks ago is not binding - the Long-Term Plan still has to go through public consultation before it is formally adopted by council before 30 June.

But it might not even come to that.

Fitzsimons - who voted against both the library's partial-privatisation and the collections budget cut - will be tabling amendments during the meeting this morning to rule out budget cuts or partial privatisation.

"Other libraries around New Zealand look to Wellington to be a leader investing in our libraries, so it's an important message, not only to Wellington residents but to people all over New Zealand about the value of libraries.

"I'm certainly optimistic it will be overturned tomorrow."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs