This year, the Greater Victoria Public Library System asked for a global municipal contribution increase of 5.9% based on budgets supplied by each of its 10 main branches. Provincial funding for public libraries in British Columbia has remained frozen since 2009, forcing municipalities to step up to keep pace with budgetary needs and their commitment to the values and benefits that make them vital pillars of community life in Greater Victoria.
Most people associate libraries with access to books and information, but libraries also play a unique role in nurturing a sense of belonging through the services they provide. For example, the GVPL hosts bi-monthly drop-in ID clinics organized by the Community Social Planning Council Victoria (CSPC) for people, including new Canadians, who are navigating the tedious bureaucratic paperwork involved in obtaining or replacing personal ID.
The ID service reflects comments Langford-Juan de Fuca MLA Ravi Parmar made recently to members of the Bangladeshi Association of Victoria, who gathered, last week, along with the Minister of Citizen’s Services at Goldstream-Goudy Branch to celebrate as recipients of a provincial grant to help encourage members of the Bangladeshi community to participate in demographic surveys.
Census data is frequently used by librarians when they make decisions around which books, periodicals and resources they should acquire, based on the cultural and linguistic diversity of their clientele.
“Many people,” said Parmar, “are still left behind because programs and services aren’t designed with them in mind.” Greater Victoria Libraries are working hard at not leaving people behind by creating programming that meets the needs of diverse local populations.
Libraries are where culture and learning meet
Public libraries serve as hubs for ideas and cultural expression, making them essential for the development of an inclusive society. Their programming enhances client critical thinking and appreciation for diverse cultures and perspectives by hosting events such as Saanich Library’s October 14th Islamic History Month celebration which will focus on Muslim contributions to sciences and the arts. Two days later, on October 16th, the Victoria Public Library is holding a Dia de los Muertos altar workshop, an opportunity for participants to learn about its significance to members of Victoria’s Mexican and other Latin communities.
Libraries are invaluable repositories of culture and history, offering access to an extensive collection of books, documents, and multimedia resources from diverse authors and sources. They serve as platforms for cultural programming, hosting book clubs, author talks, art exhibitions, and workshops that bring minority communities together to celebrate and explore their heritage and shared values.
GVPL Board Chair Andrew Appleton believes that “libraries are places that belong to everyone.” Digital and physical holdings across Greater Victoria libraries also include a wide range of French, Spanish, and German titles. Victoria is home to over 3,500 people who, according to its 2022 demographic survey, identify as Chinese. An online search in GVPL’s French and World Languages portal results in 170 titles written by Chinese authors.
City councilor Susan Kim and Greater Victoria Library board liaison had this to say about the importance of representation in public libraries and what it meant to her as a child:
“I remember growing up and seeing the limited variety of Korean materials available for my low-income single mom. We relied heavily on the library, and it made me sad to see how inaccessible it was made for my family. Stories like mine are why it’s important to adequately fund public libraries-so that the diverse families that make up Victoria are served as equally as anyone else.”
For newcomer parents and their children, the availability of a diverse catalogue of books in libraries means welcome representation and for others, offers the chance to learn about people who are different from themselves.
In British Columbia, place names increasingly factor into efforts, throughout the province, to reconcile with its colonial past. In honour of the region’s first Peoples, Victoria City Council chose the Lekwungen name sxʷeŋxʷəŋ təŋəxʷ· James Bay Branch for the library when it opened in 2018. In 2022, GVPL hosted the powerful `Bi-Gwen Coming Home – Truth Telling from the Sixties Scoop Exhibition’, developed in collaboration with the Sixties Scoop Indigenous Society of Alberta (SSISA).
The Esquimalt Library’s current Indigenous Reads displays, Indigenous Stories Book Club and the virtual book club, hosted by Carmen Rodriguez de France, Assistant Professor of Indigenous Education at the University of Victoria, focus on the works of Indigenous Peoples in Canada as a pathway to explore Indigenous history, culture, and ways of being.
From October 2022 to February 2023, GPVL hosted the traveling exhibition Hope Meets Action: Echoes Through the Black Continuum, a collaborative work curated and written by Josh Robertson and designed by Rodney Hazard, that re-claimed and retold the complex stories of stolen people on stolen lands and highlighted the contributions of Black Leaders in Canada across time.
Black leadership in BC’s history is honoured at the sxʷeŋxʷəŋ təŋəxʷ· James Bay Branch in the naming of its study room after local merchant Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, who served as the first Black person elected to public office when he became a Victoria City Councillor in 1866. In these ways, public libraries represent our collective past and present in enriching and accessible ways. That access though, comes with a significant municipal and tax-payer price tag.
The costs of staff and infrastructure are real and so is the work being done to keep the region’s 10 branches going. “With a sustainable budget and exceptional staff, we provide inclusive, safe and welcoming experiences, said Appleton. “The library uses funds efficiently and effectively to deliver essential collections, spaces and programs.” At a cost per capita of $54 dollars per year, Greater Victoria public libraries democratize access to cultural resources, ensuring that everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic background, has the opportunity to engage with literature, art, and historical materials.
The GVPLS serves 10 municipalities and 362,553 citizens online and through community outreach initiatives across its 12 branch locations. Municipal contributions account for $19.5 million of the $22.3 million operating budget (based on the 2023 budget submitted to the municipal finance committee), costs that are spread across 10 municipal partners.
According to councilor Kim, the cost is worth the innumerable benefits. “We’ve seen the cost of living increase, and public libraries are one of the few remaining truly public spaces. Enhancing inclusion and celebrating diversity through adequate funding will ensure that libraries remain in the public domain.”
Sidney Coles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Capital Daily