How much is your public library worth to you?

In a 2004 opinion survey by the Fraser Valley Regional Library, 88.4 per cent of 2,000 respondents judged their local library to be “a vital part of the community.”

The Government of B.C. reports annually on library costs and library use.  The latest report shows that about 45 per cent of Metro Vancouver/ Fraser Valley are library cardholders. This number does not measure active users, but it testifies to widespread  good intentions.

In 2010, local governments in Fraseropolis spent an average of $41 per resident on public library operations, or a total of $106.6 million.  Local government contributed more than 85 per cent of library revenues; fines, provincial grants and private donations made up most of the rest.

As with many other functions in the region, public library jurisdictions are carved up on a quasi-random basis, with per-resident costs varying widely.  And, as always, the unanswerable question: do these cost differences indicate an admirable diversity in community priorities, or are some jurisdictions simply wasting money?

Ten library systems are identified with single municipalities, and are overseen by citizen boards.  The largest library system, the Fraser Valley Regional Library, is governed by politicians from numerous communities.  Local government contributions in this service area are a modest $27.24 per resident.  My own experience of this system has been positive, as a user of a large branch library that opened in 2001.  Some would argue that the regional system has achieved economies of scale.  Others would say that the FVRL board is plagued by inter-municipal wrangling, and that this has made the system unresponsive the opportunities and to public demand.  Surrey and Richmond have both left the FVRL in recent decades to form their own library systems.  Surrey has kept its per-resident operating costs low since the separation, although it recently opened a $36 million central library building as part of its City Centre development program.

The trend in library operations is towards investing in online resources.  Library cardholders have access to a wide range of subscriber-only sites, providing articles on everything from home repairs to medieval history.  This access represents a significant cost to libraries, and (according to my professional librarian source) the service is underused.

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