“Historic legislative library faces uncertain fate”

Here is the full version of the story first printed in the Vancouver Sun on March 16, 2007.

Historic legislative library faces uncertain fate
90-year-old facility to be closed for upgrade but may move permanently

Miro Cernetig
Vancouver Sun; with file from CanWest News Service

Saturday, March 17, 2007

VICTORIA – It has existed for 144 years as one of B.C.’s great democratic institutions: The library within the legislative buildings devoted to tirelessly researching and cataloguing the political events, laws and history of British Columbia.

But B.C.’s Speaker of the House, claiming the legislative library is in a wing that needs to be seismically upgraded, is about to close the library down for up to two years, and perhaps move it from its historic site for good.

About half the 30 librarians will be sent to other jobs in government. The millions of precious items in the library’s dusty stacks — historical Canadian documents filled with esoteric government business dating back before Confederation — will be sent to a warehouse.

“There will still be a library on the legislature’s precinct,” said Speaker Bill Barisoff, who holds the library’s fate in his hands. “The only thing difference will be the location of the books.”

That isn’t good enough for those who see the library, which has been at its current site for 90 years ago, as an important resource for non-partisan research in the heat of political debate. Documents that can sometimes be found nowhere else can be signed out by politicians, academics and journalists in a few minutes, often in time for deadlines and ongoing debates.

“It’s a tragedy,” said veteran Times Colonist columnist Jim Hume, who has used the library for more than 50 years. “My God, if the legislative chamber is the heart of the legislature, the library is its soul . . . . This is our history. If you really want to do research, you use the library where you can find everything, not the Internet.”

Barisoff said it is unclear where the contents of the library will be warehoused, but promised that materials can be available to users within 24 hours.

The New Democratic Party, which relies on the library for its research, as opposition parties always have, said nobody should panic. NDP house leader Mike Farnworth said the library will not be “banished” and that the “core collection” will stay near the legislature, if not in it.

The uncertain fate of the library only became public knowledge Friday morning, when reporters walked in for some research and were met by teary-eyed librarians.

The library here is under siege while the federal government has recognized the importance of having a library of Parliament. More than $136 million was spent on refurbishing that institution over four years and it was reopened to widespread praise.

But word is that the government covets the library’s five marble floors — all housed under a towering dome that covers cosy reading rooms with a fireplace — for office space. The legislature has faced a space crunch for decades as the number of MLAs steadily expands — now at 79 and with another four expected after the current review of electoral boundaries.

In recent weeks, Premier Gordon Campbell, a book lover who likes to promote literacy as one of the great goals for the province, checked out the facility, but not any books. That raised librarians’ suspicions something was up as the government eyes a major refit of the legislature.

Joan Barton, who ran the library for more than 30 years, told the Times Colonist the legislature’s space crunch has been long ignored and has now precipitated a rush to action. “Now they’re in crisis mode, and the premier’s office is driving this agenda,” she said, dismissing the argument that in the digital age a legislative library a few hundred metres away from the debating chamber is a waste of space.

“There is no such thing as ‘everything is on the Internet,’ ” she said. “When you say that to a librarian, they’re too polite to say so, but their first thought is: ‘I’m dealing with an idiot.’ ”

mcernetig@png.canwest.com

FOR THE RECORD(S)

1863 — Library is founded with a grant of £250 to serve the Colonial Legislature of Vancouver Island.

1893 — The first librarian, R.E. Gosnell, a close friend of Premier Sir Richard McBride, establishes a separate collection of material relating to B.C. history. That forms the nucleus of the provincial archives.

1898 — Known as the Provincial Library, the collection begins a travelling library service to bring books to British Columbians because of a lack of libraries.

1974 — The library is re-christened the Legislative Library and focuses on serving the legislature, its MLAs, academics and the press gallery.

1985 — The Speaker of the Legislature takes over management and control of the library.

March 16, 2007 — News leaks out that the government plans to shut the library for up to two years for seismic upgrading and likely move it to another location.

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