Thu | Nov 21, 2019

Editors' Forum | Starved for cash - Public libraries limping on meagre budget

Published:Sunday | October 20, 2019 | 12:17 AMCorey Robinson - Staff Reporter

There are some 116 libraries across Jamaica and the Public Library Network receives less than a 10th of the budget needed to sustain them.

As a result, many of the commonly regarded ‘poor man’s universities’ have been falling into disrepair while others have been forced to close their doors or scale down their offerings to the public.

The concern was a sore point for representatives of the Library and Information Association of Jamaica, who last Thursday argued that despite an increase of social media use, libraries remain relevant in Jamaica.

“To deliver a public and school library service at the level that we would like to, what we would be receiving from our parent ministry would certainly not be adequate,” said Director of the Public Library Network Kishma Simpson.

Of a requested $1.2-billion budget, Simpson said the island’s library service received $124 million from Government in 2018.

That money must also stretch towards catering to 898 schools that fall under the purview of the library service. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Information has ultimate responsibility over the library service, Simpson explained.

“By virtue of that limited capacity in our budget each year we might not be able to achieve all the activities at the desired level dependent on what is provided,” she said, noting that social outreach is an integral part of the library services, especially in rural communities.

“A lot of what we do is to engage the private sector and the diaspora as well to be able to support some of our initiatives … . The print material is still in high demand, and our data would reflect that print resources have lowered because we are not able to replenish it based on the resources that we have,” continued Simpson, adding that libraries still have to pay for the acquisition of some online materials and e-books.

“So you will have a library which serves a particular community and we are not able to replenish some materials there,” she explained, noting that more than 2.1 million people have accessed the island’s libraries in the past year. The allocated budget, she said, does not include salaries.

Only six of 13 mobile-library vehicles launched years ago are still operational, according to the experts who underlined that in some instances the vehicles are without fuel. At least three libraries were also closed because of tenancy issues.

“We do try to maintain the service to the communities. We have 356 communities that we visit and we do that with our ordinary utility vehicles and with less material. So the service standard would not be the same,” she explained.

Claudette Thomas, director of the Jamaica Archives and Record Department, said her outfit could also bolster their public outreach with a little more resources. Last year, her office requested $150 million, but was allocated a budget of $122 million.

Not tied to physical structures

In the meantime, librarian at the University of Technology (UTech), David Drysdale, said contrary to year in the past, libraries are not tied to physical structures, but that people access library materials on their smartphones and other electronic devices.

In some communities, he said, libraries are regarded as a social space, where individuals gather and discuss matters of public interest.

“Some people think that the role of the libraries is going down, but you see more and more people packing the libraries. Students have to meet together for their projects or to study together, and to use the devices that are at the library that they don’t have at home,” said Drysdale.

corey.robinson@gleanerjm.com