At its meeting on Tuesday, Jun. 7, 2022, Kingston City Council rejected a motion which sought to oppose a pilot project at the Pittsburgh branch of the Kingston Frontenac Public Library that would see some expanded hours without library staff present. The motion, moved by Councillor Mary Rita Holland, looked to have Council express its disapproval of the pilot project, something library staff have also expressed concerns over.
Considering the important role libraries play in the community, and the various services offered to residents, the motion aimed to establish Council’s “opposition to the unstaffed pilot project and instead ensure that any expansion of hours at public libraries within the City of Kingston [would] include the use of qualified library staff.”
The motion was in response to the library’s Extended Hours Project, which aims to use various technologies to allow for expanded hours of service at the Pittsburgh Branch, without the need for staff on site. Instead, library users would have access to the branch at hours consistent with other locations throughout the city, with staff at other branches available via remote link.
As part of its approval of the library’s 2022 budget, City Council gave the green light to the pilot project’s implementation, which is expected to be carried out once the library’s facilities plan is finalized. Councillor Holland opted to introduce her motion at this stage, as previous discussions were unable to get into the specifics of the program, with members of Council needing an opportunity to voice their concerns about the project.
“There was considerable public interest in the issue of the unstaffed library project back during the budget deliberation process. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity during that time to have any conversations… due to the Public Libraries Act being what we have to adhere to, and we can’t advise on operations,” Holland explained.
“However, we did, at that time and again this evening, receive a briefing about what that pilot project was designed for and what it would do, and all of the assurances that we’ve received have been that staff would not lose hours.”
It was the issue of staff hours and compensation that the Kingscourt-Rideau councillor mostly spoke to on Tuesday night, addressing the concerns of staff who fear they may lose hours in the future.
“I think it is important to recognize the changing realities for library workers,” said Holland. “Obviously, through the pandemic and certainly now, we’ve seen over the last few years an increase in the number of vulnerable people relying on every public service available to them, including libraries.”
“Library staff are often part-time and precariously employed, and they should be valued. And I think they need an assurance that this project, while it has its benefits, is not a direction that is advisable.”
Sydenham Councillor Peter Stroud echoed some of Holland’s concerns, stating that he has heard from many constituents who are worried about the ramifications such a pilot could have on other branches in the future.
“Ninety-five per cent of the letters we received are from urban library users… and they can’t imagine a library without staff. And I agree. Central Branch, just down the street from my place, we use all the time. We can’t imagine not having staff there. If those are the people writing in to me, I agree with [them] 100 per cent,” Stroud expressed.
While some councillors spoke out about the potential negative impact such a project could have on access to libraries throughout the city, Pittsburgh councillor Ryan Boehme noted that the intent of the program is to increase hours of operation at a branch that is often underserved compared to other parts of the city.
“One of the messages I’ve heard this entire time is ‘How come our library hours are so random? How come they’re all over the place?’” remarked Boehme. “[We] have a historic library in the Pittsburgh district that is a true gem in this whole city. And unfortunately, it’s closed far more often than people would like.”
While Boehme admitted there are concerns surrounding the project, any opportunity to increase the branch’s hours of operation is a positive move for his constituents, he expressed.
“We already heard the money’s not there. There’s no quick fix, no silver bullet. I do understand some of the concerns. I think they come from a place of fear rather than a place of progress. We have technology; it’s not going away. If anything, it’s going to get more and more interactive. And part of this technology is also how we need to adapt to the world going forward. The whole intent of this, again, is to increase access to all those resources that we have paid for,” Boehme said, noting that those members of the Kingston Frontenac Public Library Board who’d addressed Council earlier in the evening as delegates had themselves expressed support of the pilot project.
Trillium Councillor Robert Kiley, who serves on the Library Board, noted that similar projects have been run successfully in other municipalities. “We’ve looked to other jurisdictions that have done something very similar, if not identical, Hamilton being the best comparator because, like our jurisdiction here, they balance an urban contingent with a rural contingent,” Kiley said.
“The Hamilton program is indicative of what we’re looking at, and they’ve seen no security problems. And in fact, in order to enact this program, we will actually have to have additional security that we don’t already have, which is a very good thing for the health of the system.”
Another point of contention on Tuesday night had to do with Ontario’s Public Libraries Act, legislation which ensures that operational decisions are made by public library boards, not municipal governments.
“I appreciate the [Libraries] Act. But that doesn’t mean that the municipality should ignore the expressed concerns of our citizens, and it doesn’t mean that the Library Board should ignore those… We’re approaching 300 letters of concern,” stated Williamsville Councillor Jim Neill, who has served on the library board for over 30 years.
If passed, the motion would have expressed Council’s disapproval of the pilot project, but it would not have directly prevented its implementation. Instead, Council would have the opportunity to address some of its concerns if and when the project comes back as a full proposal as part of future library budgets.
Ultimately, Council ended up voting 8-4 against the motion, with members Holland, Neill, Stroud, and Collins-Bayridge Councillor Lisa Osanic voting in favour.