Quiet in the library
Just as the critics forewarned, borrowing and reservation numbers have plunged at Hamilton City Council libraries since new fees were introduced last July. Council expectations of a lift in revenue have been dashed commensurately and an awkward shortfall shows in the budget.
More concerning is the slump in use of facilities that should play an important role in the city's social and cultural, educational, environmental and economic life.
An explanatory note to the Local Government (Public Libraries) Amendment Bill, a member's bill introduced into Parliament last year by Labour's Darien Fenton, said libraries help citizens get access to information and entertainment, serve as community hubs, help improve literacy and reading, and "empower New Zealanders to participate in their democracy". But how should they be funded? Under pressure from central government and ratepayers to curb costs, user charges have been introduced by local authorities.
Ms Fenton's bill aimed to bring New Zealand into line with Unesco guidelines, making essential library services such as borrowing and internet use free of charge. It was voted down 61-60 at its first reading in November after a debate that exposed a doctrinal divide.
National's Nick Smith, challenging the notion that the local library is the pivotal access point for people to get information in the era of broadband and the internet, scorned the bill as "nanny state" stuff. Moreover, whether they are taxpayers or ratepayers, somebody always pays for "free" services.
Ms Fenton portrayed a public library as "a place that is open to rich and poor alike" and insisted library services should never be bound by someone's ability to pay. She peppered her speech with references to experiences and statistics showing the introduction of user charges led to lower usage of public libraries. By denying access to those who could least afford to pay, inequalities were exacerbated.
Hamilton was among her examples. In August 2009 Hamilton had introduced a fee of $10 a month for its homebound service. The numbers using the service halved. But it seems this and the experiences of other libraries were overlooked when fees were raised last year. What happens next should be filed under O for oops.