Board members broach topic of reducing number of branches
By Sue Tiffin
Library patrons are being asked to ensure the branch they’re headed to is open prior to visiting, as temporary closures could occur due to staffing shortages.
Chris Stephenson, Haliburton County Public Library CEO and chief librarian, told the library board at a Feb. 9 meeting that since he joined in September, branch staff has decreased from 16 employees to 10.5 – one person has shared duties in the administration office.
“We’ve dodged a lot of bullets in the time that I’ve been here,” he told the board. “COVID notwithstanding, we’ve also had plenty of absences, retirements, people scaling back their hours for study or other purposes and then of course COVID – fears of exposure within families, through the schools and other workplaces. All of this has come to mean that, it’s putting pressure on the number of people we have, the number of slots we need to fill in order to keep the branches staffed adequately.”
The library system requires at least 11 staff members to operate six active branches, and one depot of library lockers.
“That’s not a comfortable amount, however,” Stephenson told the Echo. “With 10.5 staff, we have no extra staff members standing by in case someone has a transportation issue or calls in sick on any given day. Many of our branch staff were hired with an expectation of helping us fill on-call hours, but when the pool has diminished, those people are filling regularly scheduled shifts and there’s simply no one else to call on.”
Stephenson said administrative staff has stepped in when possible to staff the branches, but that results in their own work being put aside. He is also being briefed on using the integrated library system himself so he can assist where and when possible.
Some patrons have reached out to Stephenson, dissatisfied that curbside service only had been available at some branches due to restrictions and public health measures during the province’s modified version of Step Two of the Roadmap to Reopen in January.
“We did fully intend to bring those branches back online for browse and borrow, but of course if there’s no one physically to be there for either curbside or stationing themselves at the branch … I just need to be honest,” he said. “We don’t have enough people.”
Stephenson said hiring is the long-term goal, and he has put in a request with the county to fill 2.5 positions. His focus, he said, is to re-establish what existed years ago with community members living and working near the branch “serving their communities” in branches there, rather than staff driving across the county to work shifts, and driving mileage up.
“We really hope to hire people in Cardiff, Highland Grove, Gooderham, to manage those branches,” he said.
Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt, who sits on the library board, asked if the staffing challenge is temporary, or if it’s “developing segue into the elephant in the room which needs to be discussed, which is how many branches can stay open in perpetuity in the current climate and under the current budget.”
Algonquin Highlands Deputy Mayor and County Warden Liz Danielsen said it was important to talk about the number of branches in the county, noting that Highlands East has four branches and circulation is not high in some of them.
“We need to face the fact that something has to give,” she said. “That’s not taking away from the fact that we want local people in local branches, but I think that’s the perfect solution. Can we continue to support four branches in Highlands East?
Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts said it’s a difficult conversation, one that has been broached in years past, but said “this is the time to be having this discussion, it really is.”
Highlands East Deputy Mayor Cec Ryall said there was no question the discussion needed to be had, but questioned if late into the library’s board meeting that day was the time to have it.
“I don’t disagree that it needs to be discussed,” he said. “But I also am saying that this is not the meeting to do that in. I think we need to set up a separate meeting, where we look at what options are available. Things that have been tried here, things that have been tried in other places that replace it, and that would be the sole subject for that particular meeting.”
He said there would not be support from Highlands East to justify closure, but that a discussion about “alternate supply, alternate resources, different ways of getting things done, that would be silly not to discuss.”
Stephenson said he did not expect the discussion to “go in this direction,” but understood the history of the local library system and challenges faced post-amalgamation.
“I did speak with a community member from Highlands East just this morning and he reiterated how important the library was to him and the fact that he needed to be able to walk there,” Stephenson said. “I understand there are some challenges. But what I can bring to the table in a future meeting is statistics, and facts about where we’re at currently. And also offer some advice about what could be done.”
Board chair Sally Howson suggested setting that discussion aside as an agenda item slated for a separate meeting, in which information on which to base the discussion could be brought forward including alternatives for service delivery that hadn’t been available in the past.
Board member David O’Byrne acknowledged that numerous public sector organizations in Haliburton County are currently dealing with staff shortages and temporary closures.
“This is not uncommon, we’re not unique, and if we have to close, we have to close,” he said of the potential for temporary closures. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”
Regarding temporary branch closures due to staff shortages, Stephenson told the Echo: “As with weather conditions, we advise that people check our website or social media before heading out to their local branch. And this is important in the coming weeks, to make sure a branch isn’t closed due to staff shortages. In each case of a closure, the banner at the top of our website (at haliburtonlibrary.ca) will be changed to indicate whether a branch is impacted.”