Barriers in BC Libraries: A Growing Concern

What barriers does a librarian in a rural BC library face today?  What about a library technician working in the Lower Mainland? How do our patrons fare?  What barriers do they experience when using our libraries? And, how does an awareness of barriers ensure we provide the best possible service?  BCLA’s 2016 and 2018 Professional Learning Assessment surveys went a considerable way to identifying a variety of barriers experienced by multiple stakeholders across BC’s libraries.  However, the 2018 survey demonstrated that most barriers are intensifying and some new ones are emerging.  This article outlines the state of patron and professional barriers as described in BCLA’s recent professional learning assessment surveys and makes recommendations for how these can be addressed.


Through the financial support of grants from the Libraries’ Branch of the BC Ministry of Education, BCLA developed the Professional Learning Assessment Project to better understand and address the professional learning needs of the British Columbia library community.  The first survey was conducted in 2016 and established a baseline for professional learning needs, skills, and experiences. The 2016 survey comprised two separate questionnaires, one for library directors and another for library workers. The 2016 survey questionnaires received a much higher level of engagement than expected.  Based on BCLA’s membership numbers, the approximate response rate for the general questionnaire was 44% and the directors’ questionnaire received a response rate of 54%. The 2018 survey followed up on the 2016 results by mapping the same question constructs in order to track change over time; the 2018 response rate was approximately 18%.  The survey responses represented multiple library types, geographic regions, employment groups, age, gender, years and extent of professional experience as well as preferred methods of professional learning and areas of interest for professional learning. Approximately 60% of the respondents were librarians, 20% were library technicians, 10% were library assistants, and the remaining identified as ‘other’ which included, for example, policy analysts, teacher librarians, archivists, library trustees, and library school students.

What the surveys say about barriers

Leading barriers to library workers’ experiences across both surveys included: trying to maintain high quality services with annually shrinking budgets; addressing inequities of the rural/urban divide; negotiating precarious employment across all labour groups; and, securing financial and time support to participate in professional learning.  Because the surveys did not seek responses from patrons directly, we were not able to acquire their perspectives in their own words. However, library worker survey respondents provided considerable insight into the experiences of their patrons. Through this indirect feedback, the surveys revealed that some leading barriers to patrons’ library experiences included: equitable internet access in remote areas; language challenges; and, feeling included (or not) in library programs and services.

Key issues facing BC libraries today

The surveys reveal much about barriers experienced by multiple stakeholders in all library settings and each is worthy of more in-depth discussion; however, when respondents were asked the same question across both surveys, much consistency was revealed and these relate directly to barriers.  In both surveys, respondents were asked: “What key important issues facing BC libraries today can be addressed by professional learning?” (question 14 in the 2016 survey and question 2 in the 2018 survey). The results were surprisingly consistent across library workers. Furthermore, an added dimension of diversity, equity, and inclusivity was revealed in the 2018 results.

In 2016, general questionnaire respondents identified the following six leading themes, in percentage priority order, as being the most pressing issues facing BC libraries today:

  1. Technological change
  2. Library advocacy
  3. Community engagement
  4. Budgets, funding, and financial
  5. Assessment, evaluation, user experience monitoring, metrics, and analytics
  6. Collections

In 2018, survey respondents identified the following six leading themes as being the most pressing issues facing BC libraries:

  1. Change in libraries
  2. Learning technology (technical support, metadata, etc.)
  3. Being community focused
  4. Diversity, inclusion, Indigeneity
  5. Leadership development
  6. Professional learning

Change in libraries, particularly technological change, remains a challenge for library workers.  This change has multiple meanings to different respondents.  For example, technological change can mean library workers keeping up with the latest metadata standards and workflows or productivity technology so they can support their patrons with using it themselves.  Keeping up with this change requires constant professional learning, which some workers do not feel they get enough of which is a considerable barrier to workers and patrons. Regarding general change in libraries, a number of respondents indicated experiencing a sense of ‘change fatigue’ meaning they felt some changes were implemented only for the sake of change in the name of innovation, but had little impact on the day-to-day routines of serving patrons.

Community focus or engagement speaks to the commitment to service many library workers feel.  Ensuring library policies and services are patron-centred was highlighted by respondents as a way to remain conscientious of patron needs and barriers.  Respondents wanted their work to speak directly to the interests of their community. Relatedly, library advocacy was deemed important so that directors could secure the best financial support possible for their patrons.  Workers felt the pinch of doing more with less and numerous respondents outlined the importance of assessment as a measure to demonstrate value and, as a result, secure funding.  Finances were identified as a significant barrier and in 2016 this impacted collections work.

A significant number of respondents felt that leadership development and professional learning were also pressing issues.  By leadership development respondents meant both the development of their own leadership, regardless of their position, as well as the further leadership development of their own leaders.  As the 2016 survey noted in particular, there is a considerable gap between the experiences and perceptions of library workers and the library directors who lead them. Specific discrepancies specifically related to the perceptions, priorities, and experiences of professional learning.  The types of professional learning that library workers indicated they wanted, did not often relate to the types of professional learning opportunities that directors perceived as important. This alone is a noteworthy barrier. If there is not a shared understanding of library values and services, the work of the library becomes very challenging for all stakeholders.

Finally, in 2018 the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion was expanded upon. Specific areas of inclusive service included the following aspects: supporting multi-lingual patrons; preventing racialization; being aware of patron mental health; being inclusive of LGBTQ+ patrons and colleagues; developing multiple age programs; expressing empathy for poverty, homelessness, and addictions; supporting new immigrants and refugees; and, including under-served patrons, non-traditional patrons, and intersectionality within programs and services.  A number of diverse respondents outlined the need for safety training related to activities of the opioid crisis. Some respondents felt that libraries were often sites for opioid use and this made them feel the library space was unsafe for their patrons and themselves. These respondents were at a loss for how to adequately address this.

While a diverse range of equity and inclusion issues were mentioned by respondents, the most noteworthy aspect related to understandings of Indigeneity being highlighted in new ways.  These were noted somewhat in the 2016 survey, but the 2018 survey brought these issues front and centre.  This increased awareness in Indigenous issues aligns closely with the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada, which released their executive summary and calls to action in 2015, around the time the first survey was underway.  In the three years since the TRC shared its findings, it is clear that many in the library community are aware of this report and are incorporating the calls to action into their library work. Respondents to the 2018 survey want to do and know more, but remain unclear of where, when, and how to acquire this knowledge.


  • Change, and particularly technological change, needs to be well managed and meaningful.  Change for change’s sake often does not trickle down to innovation on the frontline. The purpose of library change should be patron-centredness and library change needs to be supported through ongoing professional learning.
  • Community engagement and patron-centredness remains a core value of library workers; however, their ability to meet these needs is challenged with shrinking budgets.  Library directors and workers find themselves having to do more with less and this financial barrier impacts patrons despite service providers’ best intentions.
  • A barrier exists between the experiences and perceptions of library workers and library directors.  As the 2016 survey noted in particular, there is a gap between the observations and expectations of library workers and the library directors who lead them.  Employers, employees and patrons need to better develop a shared understanding of library values and services.
  • In light of the opioid crisis, library workers want increased training to ensure the safety of all their patrons as well as themselves.
  • Recently, library workers have indicated an increased understanding of Indigenous issues in British Columbia and want further professional learning opportunities to expand this knowledge in the context of libraries.  A lack of professional learning opportunities related to Indigenous issues despite library workers having a growing interest in acquiring knowledge on this topic is a barrier. Employers should provide library workers with professional learning opportunities which specifically address the TRC, Indigenous-settler relations, and Indigenous issues.

For more information about the BCLA Professional Learning Assessment surveys, please consult the following reports available online through BCLA Connect:

Pia Russell (BA, MISt, MEd, MA) is the Education Librarian and Coordinator of Learning and Research Resources at the University of Victoria Libraries.  Her research interests include: the social history of education; academic libraries as sites for truth, reconciliation, and Indigenous resurgence; public history; digital scholarship; Social Science research methodology, particularly mixed-methods and longitudinal research applications; and library assessment.  Pia was the qualitative research consultant on both the 2016 and 2018 Professional Learning Assessment projects at the British Columbia Library Association.

Todd Milford (BSc, BEd, MEd, PhD)  is an Associate Professor in Science Education and Research Methodologies in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the Faculty of Education at the University of Victoria.  He has experience with a variety of research methodologies including Hierarchical Linear Modeling and path analysis with large scale datasets, quasi-experimental design, and case study research; however, the overarching theme of his work is using data and data analysis to help teachers and students in the classroom.  Todd was the quantitative research consultant on both the 2016 and 2018 Professional Learning Assessment projects at the British Columbia Library Association.