Before we set out, a reader advisory: don’t mistake this column for an attack on our libraries.
They are vital gateways for knowledge, important resources for well-being and education, and foundations of community identity. Municipality by municipality, they provide access to resources to those without privilege, to newcomers and others who savour literature and value literacy. Until I could afford books, what I used week after week into adulthood to learn how to work with words and understand the world were my libraries. I wouldn’t be here without them.
But at the risk of offending the bookish, the time has arrived to recognize (a time that requires the most cost-conscious management of tax dollars) that the North Shore could use a more fiscally prudent library administration. It really is overdoing it.
There is one library in West Vancouver, one in the City of North Vancouver, and three full libraries and a boutique one in the District of North Vancouver.
To manage these facilities, there are three separate library boards, each with full, duplicative management teams featuring several six-figure salaries, a library director and assistant director. It is hard to see how this could be called taxpayer-sensible.
By comparison, the City of Vancouver has 22 libraries, one board, one director, one team. And few hold Vancouver as the paragon in prudent public management.
It is understood that each municipality possesses some form of chauvinism in justifying the silo. This is what happens as communities evolve. There are good reasons amalgamation is a political third rail in our region, even if larger cities have long since combined with proven benefits.
Fine, let’s not be fully, administratively as one on this side of the bridges. But let’s not be blithe in examining opportunities to serve communities in the most affordable way when there is no particular reason to duplicate.
The borrowing and circulation of books, recordings and the like at our libraries is interchangeable, and the facilities themselves are few in number and rather similar in nature, so why would they need to be managed separately?
Why couldn’t there be one library board comprising members from all three, an appointed director with responsibilities across the North Shore, and a management team proportionate to the tasks?
At last count from public disclosures, there were 13 West Vancouver library employees earning more than $75,000, including six in six figures, 17 in North Vancouver District, including seven in six figures, and nine in the City of North Vancouver, including two in six figures.
Pound for pound, that’s a lot of management. And yes, the savings wouldn’t be massive from what are already three seven-figure budgets. But the symbolism surely would be, particularly as we face much more difficult economic conditions that will challenge communities to control costs. I’m not hearing candidates for office talk about austerity and efficiency. The public sector most everywhere has enlarged by stealth during the pandemic.
While I’m poking the bear, how about a few words on the elephant in the room? If you’re not already offended, try this on for size.
The West Vancouver Memorial Library website notes that it is managed bearing in mind the “significant costs that would be incurred to build a new library of a similar size.” Well, yes and no. And mostly no.
When you sit on some of Canada’s most lucrative land, it is not as if you haven’t any leverage or economic options. Presuming, of course, you have courage and conviction.
Rather than constantly renovate and retrofit, why not find a new location to create something state-of-the-art? Sell the existing site with a long enough closing to build a better, broader facility that would serve as the community’s centre of knowledge and discourse.
Stage the construction properly and you might not have to send users to North Vancouver for a few months while you move in. If you wish, combine the new home with the proposed arts centre under discussion in the election campaign. Approve the existing library site for housing, perhaps even a small hotel. Put any remaining proceeds toward an endowment to secure the precious library’s future. As West Vancouver inevitably finds its operations challenged without a growth strategy, the library may need some protection – preferably from a leaner bureaucracy.
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV as well as vice-president, editorial, Glacier Media Group, the North Shore News' parent company. He is also a West Vancouverite.