A motion calling for Kingston City Council to oppose a staffless library project at the Pittsburgh Branch of KFPL was struck down at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Councillor Mary Rita Holland, who brought forward the motion, said council should use the opportunity to send a message that they support library staff.

“They should be valued and they need an assurance that this project, while it has its benefits, is not a direction that is advisable,” Holland said.

The motion was reflective of a protest held outside City Hall on Tuesday by library workers represented and CUPE 2022 members.

CUPE 2022 President Jillann Rothwell said members plain and simple think the libraries should only be open with staff on hand.

“We just believe that it has to be staffed, or we don’t believe that the library should be open without staff,” Rothwell said.

“It’s a very blunt line unfortunately for us because we just don’t feel it’s safe.” 

CUPE 2022 and the Kingston and District Labour Council also organized a letter campaign, asking for the cancellation of the planned unstaffed library pilot.

The campaign, which saw over 550 letters sent as of Tuesday, asserts that a staffless library “creates inequities and will disadvantage those in our community who experience systemic barriers” and puts people who use the library without supervision at risk of violence.

According to Laura Carter, chief librarian and chief executive of KFPL, the pilot is based closely off of a similar project run by Hamilton Public Libraries, and that none of the safety concerns being brought forward have been an issue in those branches where unstaffed library pilots have taken place.

The pilot in Hamilton has been seen largely as a success, increasing overall library usage and now implemented in three branches total.

Carter told council that the pilot wouldn’t take any hours away from staff, but would increase the hours of access for residents to bring the location more in line with other KFPL branches in the city.

“This is not about replacing staff, and it’s not the same level of service that people will experience when they come in during staffed hours,” Carter said.

“What it is doing is providing additional options.”

With the pilot, the Pittsburgh branch would see hours of operation increase from 38 to roughly 60-62 per week, with staff available either over the phone or via video call to assist patrons during unstaffed hours.

Currently, the branch is closed on Sundays, Mondays and Fridays, and has slightly reduced hours on other days.

Carter says ideally Kingston would see the project expand further, specifically in more rural communities like Sharbot Lake and Sydenham, to improve equity of access.

“Those are communities, particularly Sharbot Lake… where internet access remains a huge barrier for people, it’s either not available, it’s very poor, or it’s very expensive,” Carter said.

“In addition to looking at it as a potential investment in the county, it’s also an opportunity to increase use of the library generally.”

Carter said if library usage goes up overall, there could be an opportunity to increase staffed hours and programming.

Rothwell said members are aware of the projects in Hamilton and Toronto, but say they give no assurance that success of the pilot would pave way to more staffed hours.

Councillor Boehme, who represents the Pittsburgh district said while the letter campaign may be seeing a lot of support, there have been very few written by his constituents who he feels support the idea.

He said in general he thinks that extended hours, whether staffed or not, is something the community wants to see.

“I 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,” Boehme said.

“I do understand some of the concerns, I think they come from a place of fear rather than a place of progress.”

He said that innovations that can be made through technology like this one should be embraced.

Mayor Paterson, voting against the motion, agreed with Boehme.

Paterson said while trying to recover economically from the pandemic, Kingston will be faced with a number of challenges where it will need to respond creatively, and this pilot could be one of those times.

“The library board has done their homework here, this is not a half baked idea,” Paterson said.

“I think that this is important to show a vote of confidence in our citizen appointed library board and it’s important to show confidence in the importance of looking at innovative, creative ideas to deal with the fiscal challenges that are ahead of us.”

Council voting in favour of the motion would not necessarily have stopped the pilot, rather shown disapproval of it.