Are public libraries an essential service?

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford says ‘no’—but he’s wrong


At 9:30 am on Thursday, July 27th, Toronto’s city council, and roughly two-hundred regular people, packed into a board room at city hall to “discuss” Toronto’s latest greatest angst-ridden cause célèbre: the proposal by Rob Ford to trim the city’s $774 million budget shortfall, via the “rationalization of Toronto’s public library footprint.” Which is to say, closing libraries.

Over the next 24 hours more than a hundred civilian deputations would be made, directed mainly at the mayor, who swiveled in his chair, downed the occasional Red Bull, and made not-so-comfortable eye contact with angry disputants. “Save the libraries” and “Shame” were among the more popular epithets slung at Ford, whose fiscal mission—to distinguish Toronto’s “need to haves” from its “nice to haves”— has clearly put neighbourhood libraries in the latter category. His Worship’s older brother Doug—also a city counselor—helpfully poured gasoline on the library fire, making an unlikely opponent of Canadian author and T.O. resident Margaret Atwood by asserting that a) there are more libraries than Tim Hortons outlets in his neighbourhood (there aren’t), and b) he doesn’t care what Atwood has to say about his erroneous assertions because he doesn’t really know who she is.

In response, Atwood has galvanized thousands on Twitter, pushing an ever-growing “save the libraries” petition. The number of “if-Doug-Ford-keeps-the-library-open-maybe-he’ll-learn-how-to-read” jokes is similarly on the rise. Conceding that they’re literate, it’s always possible that the Fords, who seem pretty comfortable with their Neanderthal-and-proud-of-it image, are completely wrong on this issue. Still, the issue begs a broader question: if the Fords are so severely misguided, why have municipal governments across the country (as well as the federal government) cut library funds—and the librarians that accompany them—consistently, year after year? The Ford brothers may be the latest people to disquiet librarians, but they certainly aren’t the first.

Last year, the Vancouver Public Library almost lost its special collections department (practically a shrine among historians) when the city cut $1.4 million from its budget by 2011, reducing hours and putting librarians out of their jobs. As for school librarians—Nova Scotia no longer has any, and B.C. has laid off nearly all of its own, in the apparent belief (according to the Canadian Association of Librarians Canadian Library Association) “that given today’s technology, the teacher-librarian no longer has a role to play in the school.” Calgary’s municipal government considered cutbacks to its public libraries when they faced a $60-million budget shortfall last year, threatening to reduce hours and eliminate programs for seniors and children. It’s hard to believe that every one of these examples was orchestrated by cynical politicians who can’t read good.

So why are libraries under siege? The general consensus among the library-savvy in this country echoes the view of one former public librarian and professional researcher on Vancouver Island I spoke to:

“The public library doesn’t perform its traditional mandate anymore because information and how it’s accessed has changed so rapidly. Also, resources are spread too thin among branches, when they should be merged rather than duplicated. And a lot of librarians currently perform the duties of social workers and teachers, looking after latchkey kids when social workers should be monitoring them. We should consolidate public libraries and community centres—blend their budgets staffs—so they can do their jobs much more efficiently.”

In other words, libraries are on the chopping block because they can’t keep up with the times, and because they’re duplicating services performed by community centres. The proposed solution to this is to a) close inefficient and under-circulated branches and b) consolidate the rest with community centres. Somehow, it’s much easier to buy the diagnosis than the cure.

The Brittania Community Services Centre in Vancouver is a perfect example of the supposedly efficient model—it houses a public library, child-care facility, and youth centre. However, there is one key benefit it can’t provide: proximity—the practical and cultural efficiency of having a neighbourhood library. Walking distance is key. Libraries should be local hubs, not hubcaps latched onto larger, more central facilities. Even Toronto city counselor and transit chair Karen Stintz—usually an ally of the Ford brothers—has spoken out against permanent library branch closures, telling the CBC’s Matt Galloway last week that “the availability of resources in close proximity is of real value…certainly the library can find the efficiencies without closing any branches in the community”.

But the Fords don’t want to find efficiencies. They want to realize them, by closing or consolidating a service which is simply “nice to have”: the neighbourhood library. What the Fords fail to account for—and where politicians miss the mark every time a neighbourhood library closes its doors forever—is that proximity doesn’t only serve the dedicated reader who would seek out a public library no matter its location, but the student or immigrant whose interest in culture is piqued accidentally. I walked to the local library after school, not because I loved to read, but because it was there.

When libraries are in walking distance, people frequent them who normally would not. And while technology has changed the way we consume information services, it’s unlikely that an increase in Kobo sales and Wikipedia searches is going to stop an adult ESL student from taking out the required books to pass his or her TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), or a retiree from picking up the next Nora Roberts installment. “Our libraries are full,” says Counsellor Janet Davis, also a member of the Public Library Board. “We have the highest per capita circulation in the world. We shouldn’t be considering how to close libraries or cut hours—we should be considering how to expand them.”

In the end, though, this really isn’t a “find the gravy” core service issue—as governments purport—but a core values issue. When my father was a kid growing up in North Toronto, his neighbourhood lacked a library, so a city-funded bookmobile visited a local plaza weekly instead. Libraries then weren’t niceties, but necessities. Today they offer much more than reading material—most critically, they provide Internet access to those who can’t afford it. Chances are slim, if and when the Ford brothers “rationalize the library footprint,” that they’ll provide the modern equivalent of my dad’s bookmobile. There will be no “Internet Access mobile” or subsidized bus pass for the purpose of picking up your TOEFL study materials.

The irony is that a government fixated with saving money and creating jobs is jeopardizing an institution that allows easy access to precisely those things: “I’m no taxpayer,” a fourteen year old Scarborough student named Anika told mayor Rob Ford in her 4 a.m city council meeting deputation, weeping as she did. “But when I use the computers in the library to do my homework I’ll be able to get a good job someday…and when the day comes to pay taxes I’ll be glad that years before people paid the extra taxes to keep the system going, so I could pay taxes for the kids who depend on the computers in my time.” Unfortunately for Anika, the operative word in her deputation probably wasn’t “depend”, but “taxes”—something a service-slashing municipal government finds even scarier than too many literature repositories. And until that changes we may as well say goodbye to local libraries. Or hello to story time at Tim Hortons (Internet access not included).


Are public libraries an essential service?

  1. If there was a famine then this can be classed as a “nice to have”. But there isn’t (in the US) and surely with a $774 million budget you can afford to keep libraries open! We’re not even talking about building new ones!

  2. Just a quick correction.  The $774 million is the estimated budget shortfall, not the entire budget.  In the large Toronto suburbs (North York, Etobicoke, and especially Scarborough) surrounding the downtown core libraries are oases where students and families gather to relax, work and socialize.  They are foundations for a better neighborhood.  In a word: essential.

    • Corrected.  Thank you.

  3. This is not now, and has never really been about money. This is a guy who hates the fact that taxes level the playing field a little bit. People without money can borrow books, people who are not as rich as Rob can get dental care, single mothers can get child care… this is primarily a mean spirited attack against those things in our society which tend to level us out; in a word, it is an attack against civil infrastructure.
    Rob hates Toronto. He has been saying so for years. His brother Doug hates Toronto and it’s denizens. He calls them ‘citiots’. Their mentors, Mr. Harper Mike the Hammer Harris and Jim Flattery REALLY hate Toronto, almost as much as they hate LIBERALS (of course, since Toronto is a bastion of liberality, it is the prime target for such ire).
    Toronto has great schools, libraries, parks, water, city programs, etc. And why should they??? Why should Toronto have something that, oh, I don’t know, say, Vaughn, does not? Huh? (It might be something to do with tax base and density…) So, if Vaughn, or Sutton, or Petrolia doesn’t have it, why should those ‘looney lefties’ in Toronto have them? Let’s CRUSH Toronto. Yeah.

    Do you remember Walkerton? This attack on our city services and infrastructure, from the federal and municipal levels of government threatens to make us one BIG Walkerton.

    Thanks for the analysis. We don’t get much of it.

    • Okay, let’s take a deep breath and reflect that “Wakerton” was about some uneducated people who did not understand about the right concentration of chemicals required to provide safe drinking water.  I am a fiscal conservative but a social liberal. I am all about providing a library and a swimming pool in every community.  I am not sure that Stephen Harper does not feel the same way. 

      • Harper was just celebrating the cleaning up of the ‘leftwing mess’ with Mayor Ford the other night.  If he doesn’t want to be tarred with the same brush as Ford, perhaps he should lay off the good ol’ boys rhetoric.

  4. Psh, Fords right. Libraries are one of those stupid, unnecessary things
    that carry no value to our economy. They’re just one of those money
    sucking, silly and frivolous things that those stupid Torontonians just
    “think” they need, like bike lanes, more hospital workers, and a reliable
    public transit. Now, lets all come together and build the Ford brothers
    vision of an overweight, illiterate, hummer driving society. We’re almost there!

  5. I may be old fashioned, but I still go to the library for books. I know that a lot of people do, especially single parents who pick up books for their kids. Anything that adds educational value to people’s lives is an asset to society as a whole. Having the opportunity to avail of books for those who can’t afford to go out and buy every book they want to read can only be good for society. Education is key for the future development of civilization. Taking away the library would be taking one step backward.

  6. I can’t remember the last time I was in a library. I lived in a number of really small communities with pathetic or nonexistent libraries when I was younger, and resorted to mail-order book clubs to fill my need. I was / am lucky enough to be able to afford to do that (though eBooks and other competition killed of the book clubs in Canada last year).

    That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate libraries, though. As a kid, I spent a lot of time wandering the shelves or sitting in a comfortable chair in the library of the town where I grew up. My daughter now goes occasionally – and enjoys it when she does.

    Not everyone can afford to buy all the books they want / need. Everyone needs access to knowledge at one time or another. Literacy is crucial to a nation’s health. The Fords are proving once again just what Philistines they are.

    [Rob: “Phyllis who?’ Doug: “I think he said “Steen”. Rob: “Do we know her?” Doug: “Probably some friend of that nagging Maggie Atwood.”]

  7. Technological revolution could eventually make physical libraries irrelevant, as it is making physical bookstores.  Once the Library of Congress has been digitized and put online, maybe all one does is make sure everyone has high-speed internet and an iPad.

    That said, we are not at that point yet.

    What neither side seems to be asking is how do public physical libraries evolve in the meantime?  The question should be what should a public library system look like in the 21th century?

    The sides arguing just for cutting, or for the status quo both seem to be asking the wrong question, IMHO.

    • Ideally in city council chambers.  Preferably in the waiting rooms and hallways between the mayor and anybody else.

  8. A  library should always be open to anyone, it is a refuge, an affair, a joy, a new world, a possibility, a history,  and no one should ever consider shutting them down.

    I love the library!!

    • I used to love the library. I still use and enjoy it as a service, but actually spending any time there is severely unpleasant since it became the officially permitted Homeless Daytime Hangout. The reference floor is completely soaked in BO, and you’d be afraid to sit in the easy chairs for fear of lice.*

      So…how does all that factor in to Public Libraries WOOOO! as a platonic ideal?

      *To be fair, I’m sure upper-middle-class suburban branches don’t really have these problems.

      • On an unrelated note, I don’t care for librarians; most of them seem to imagine their jobs as a Sacred Mission somewhat grander than the reality of being minor front-line bureaucrats.

        • That’s a shocker. 

      • Gee – you seem to have hit on a problem – homelessness.  I can imagine what you’re solution to that is.

        • Um…housing? No….that couldn’t possibly be it….

      • Unfortunately, poor people have the right to inhabit public space and use public resources, like library books and computers, just as much as middle-class suburban people. But perhaps that is the next thing to solve on Mayor Ford’s list.

      • I live in a poorer neighborhood and although some of the people are not exactly well dressed at the library, they are not offensive.  Further, if they were that would be a hint that the City needs to do more for homeless people.  The solution is not to close the library. 

    • Yeah, I was just thinking this comment thread was lacking some random fatphobia from someone who fancies him-/herself politically ‘progressive’.

      • It’s just that for a couple of guys who preach personal responsibility, Harper and Ford are bad examples.  What they may save us from not using libraries will be dwarfed by the expense of their cardiac surgeries.

        • Do they have documented heart conditions for which surgery is advised? I was unaware. I also don’t see any indication of a lack of “personal responsibility” in their respective behaviours.

          Or, maybe, you are falsely equating fatness with unrestrained eating and heart disease, in which case you should perhaps consider how such bigotry impacts people of size, and why many of us who hold ‘left-wing’ views are loathe to participate in real-life ‘progressive’ movements when we receive just as much prejudice (dressed up in the language of ‘concern’) from fellow left-wingers as people of colour and queer folks do from right-wingers.

  9. Literacy rates in Canada have been falling in recent years.  I guess when people don’t value knowledge learned from reading, they don’t see value in keeping that knowledge available to others.

    We need to look for efficiencies and modernize our libraries.  Not just to save money, but to offer the best range of self-education services possible in today’s world.

  10. Absolutely.  Make it mandatory to use them and help make our politicians smarter!

  11. Libraries have deteriorated into entertainment where the overwhelming customer is the middle class female who gets her paperback novels there. This is a fact, based on the libraries own statistics. Both the size, staffing and cost of libraries would decrease by 70% if this “essential service” was not provided.

    • This has to be sarcasm.  Has to be.

      • Ask for the Library’s statistics on book borrowing and profile of “customers”,  Jan. It is a fact and has been for years.

        • Which  library are you referring to?

    • You’re right. It would be so much better if Canada’s women were illiterate. Less time reading  fiction = more time to make sandwiches for the menfolk.

      • The savings to the household budget in shoes alone would be remarkable.  But what about the population explosion?

        (For the youngsters in the crowd, this is a reference to the proper woman’s role as “barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen” as earlier versions of Rob Ford would have put it.)

    • Robinoz, my guess is that children are getting their books at school libraries and likely use the public library during summer vacation.  Also, just because women are the highest users of the library in terms of signing out books does not make the library a service that is less valid.  Furthermore, every literary classic has been released in paperback so who are you to judge what these middle class women are reading?  Do those statistics tell you how many people sit in the libary and read reference books or use the computers? 
      You remind me of the former Minister of Health for the Government of Alberta, Mr. Ron Liepert when he said “we have too many educated people working in the hospitals.”  Mr. Liepert quit school in grade 10.

      • Go to your library and look at the paperback selection again. Libraries do not track use of specific paperback titles but the overwhelming majority are romance, mystery and less than what could be called “classics” or educational. Libraries track members by postal code, and other details (sex, age, etc) so they know their customers. This is not a complaint about women, just the fact that middle class, middle age women are the ones who benefit from our taxes and who could pay for themselves.
        The effort and money public libraries put in to literacy, research and reference is minimal. Paperbacks, cd music, and dvd movies are what they provide.
        If you think taxpayers should pay for this, fine, but I think demanding other people pay for your leisure activities is greedy and selfish.

        • So, having a population that reads regularly, even if that reading material is not up to your standards, and even if the bulk of that population is middle class women, is not worth a public investment?

          An argument which, of course, is only worth having if I believed any of your ridiculous statements, which I do not. I spend a lot of time in various libraries in my city, and in most cases the people I see there are students, seniors, and children, and immigrants. I see infant and toddler storytime, summer reading camps, and literacy mentoring programs. I see computer and internet access, classes that teach seniors how to use email and how to use the internet. I see teen book clubs, seniors book clubs, womens book clubs, gay book clubs, and men’s book clubs. I see author talks and readings, seminars, and lectures all in a public space where every member of society can access any kind of information they need. Even if all they need is a lowly romance novel.

          • Robinoz is just grumpy because he doesn’t have his own “middle class woman” turned on by romance novels to greet him at the end of the day.  If he did, he surely would embrace the library as a wonderful thing!

        • Robinoz, these people are taxpayers.  Libraries are open to all taxpayers for a yearly fee.  30% of the books signed out are not paperback novels for middle class women.  Furthermore, as a healthcare insider, you should be happy that these taxpayers are not spending their time in the bar, then driving home drunk.  Do you know how much dangerous driving costs us taxpayers per year?  Overwhelmingly, middle-class women are not participating in dangerous driving.  They are at home reading their romance novels while their children are in bed sleeping.  Why don’t we do a cost analysis of what they are saving the system by looking after their kids in the evenings.  My guess is that libraries are providing a valuable boost to the welfare of society – think of all those “women’s book clubs.”

    • Ah, yes, those “females” using up taxpayer dollars which could be better spent on “real people” (read: men). Fail.

  12. Magazines, newspapers & books I read free online.  No more going to the library.
    Photocopying is cheaper at Staples than the library.  No more going to the library.
    Netflicks offers more DVD type videos via internet than the library. No more going to the library.
    Libraries are mainly drop-in-centres these days and not much else that can’t be duplicated elsewhere.
    Seems to me many of us no longer use the library for the above reasons.

    • Oh I see. Because you don’t go to the library, no one else does either. And because you only use the library for magazines, photocopying, and dvds, that’s about all libraries are good for. Pray, tell us what other public services you personally do and don’t use, so that we can determine the value of those accordingly.

  13. Sure, Emma is correct,  libraries are essential.  Let’s face it, Toronto’s libraries are out of date.
    They need updating and upgrading. Doing this will save taxpayers dollars. From what I have seen and read , nearly two thirds of the small branches should be cut and merged.
    At this point they are free cyber cafes, without the coffee. Most don’t keep M.Atwoods’ books on the shelves, read one or two to find out why.
    No longer do I frequent the library to look for a book  that isn’t there, or order one that has to be returned before I finish reading it. 
    Yes Emma,  Kindle, Kobo and Nook are the three wise men of the future.

  14. I recently had a chance to spend some time in Hamilton, where I visited their brand-new central library branch several times. Beautiful, bright, clean, welcoming, and inspiring! And full of people, too, even in the middle of a weekday. Every city would benefit from such a place.

  15. Is “Libaries” one of the tags for this post because that’s how Rob Ford pronounces it? Really?

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