Big cuts put local libraries at risk
BEATRICE THOMAS and KATE CAMPBELL, The West Australian March 29, 2010,
The future of the local library is in doubt after the State Government proposed slashing funding for books by up to 40 per cent, despite fears it could have a severe impact on literacy among WA children.
Under a long-running agreement, the State Government covers the cost of book stocks on a per capita basis, while local councils pay for the infrastructure, maintenance and running of libraries. After allocating $10.8 million to buy books in 2008-09, the Barnett Government reduced funding to $7.95 million this financial year.
WA Local Government Association president Bill Mitchell said that during negotiations with the Government, councils had been told the State planned to spend just $6.5 million on books next financial year, 2010-11.
This was a 40 per cent drop in three years and half what the State's 139 councils needed to provide books and other resources for library users, he said. Local communities would ultimately suffer.
University of WA Dean of Education Helen Wildy warned the State Government not to cut funding to community libraries, saying they were a "pivotal point in the educational landscape of all children".
Libraries were central to early childhood literacy and evidence showed children without a strong foundation in reading entered school "many steps behind", Professor Wildy said.
Desperately low levels of literacy existed in pockets of the community and in some households community libraries were the only educational resources available.
"It would be like pulling the rug from under the community's feet if you don't have those resources available," she said. "I would hate to see it in any way diminished." National literacy and numeracy tests conducted last year showed WA schoolchildren were among the worst performing in the country.
About nine million visits are made to local libraries each year, ranking them second behind cinemas as WA's most popular cultural activity.
"These things are hard to build up but easy to lose," Professor Wildy said.
Edith Cowan University associate professor of early childhood education Caroline Barratt-Pugh, who is involved in the Better Beginnings program which encourages parents to read to their children from infancy, said libraries were an important tool for parents to become more literate.
"It would be a huge loss in terms of access to resources and support for early literacy," she said.
City of Stirling mayor David Boothman said funding was back to 2001 levels despite a 16 per cent increase in population and a million visits to its six libraries each year. He said the State provided $452,000 a year to Stirling - equal to about 42¢ per resident - which was "not enough to buy a second-hand paperback from the op-shop".
Culture and the Arts Minister John Day said the State Budget forward estimates for 2010-11 allowed for $8.17 million a year for libraries.
The actual amount that would be allocated to buy books was subject to on-going negotiations with local governments, he said.
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