If I have a litmus test for politicians, it might be this: if they don’t understand the value of public libraries, then I don’t trust them. Because a person who doesn’t understand public libraries doesn’t understand community, and doesn’t understand civilization. Libraries are pillars of both.
Why, you may ask, do I take the time to mention this now? Well, it seems the provincial budget has slashed the Ontario Library Service budget by 50 per cent, according to a report Thursday from CBC — an immediate cut “that would need to be absorbed into the current 2019-2020 fiscal year.”
While this cut was unexpected and unheralded — I cannot recall any campaign promises pledging to fight Big Book or stick it to those fat-cat librarians — it’s hard to say it’s exactly surprising, coming from this premier. Doug Ford, when his brother was mayor of Toronto, made his pathological disregard for public repositories of knowledge well known.
Asked if he would close library branches then, he said, “Absolutely I would, in a heartbeat.” He said anyone who reacted negatively to that suggestion was simply taking their cues from self-interested “library groups.” The city was lousy with libraries, he suggested, complaining that there were more branches in his area than Tim Hortons franchises — which there were not — and suggesting that was a bad thing.
You have to think the hatred he expressed towards libraries is real and strongly felt, because it sure wasn’t a calculated political ploy. As pandering, it was a loser, and likely remains so. According to the Toronto Public Library, 70 per cent of Torontonians use the library regularly, which is an astonishingly high usage rate for a public service. By way of comparison, less than 40 per cent of Torontonians use public transit to get to work. So in 2011, the politics played out like this: people packed public meetings — some of them lasting more than 24 hours — giving impassioned pleas to save libraries. And because of that, the Ford brothers entire budget-slashing agenda was derailed.
After that, Doug was less vocal about his opinion on libraries. But there are signs the attitude persists. Like cutting the provincial library service budget in half, overnight.
To be clear — and fair — this isn’t a cut to the budgets of local library branches, which are generally run and operated by municipal or regional governments. And thank goodness for that. But it isn’t inconsequential, either.
The Ontario Library Service provides support to those local library systems, including an inter-system online loan program that lets libraries share books with each other, collective purchasing and collections sharing, training, and advice. It exists, according to its mission, to ensure Ontarians have “equitable access to library services” including access to worldwide collections and common standards of service. Its services are particularly important to smaller communities that lack the size and budget to create as strong an organization as the Toronto system has (in its more than 100 branches collectively owning more than 10 million books).
People in smaller cities and towns and rural areas need access to decent libraries too.
The writer Susan Orlean, a giant of non-fiction letters, recently published The Library Book, which is part investigation into the seven-hour fire that destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library, part history of the evolution of public libraries, and part personal memoir of her relationship to them. She writes of feeling as if she grew up in libraries — something I, and many readers here, I suspect, can relate to.
A library isn’t just a place to borrow books you might otherwise buy — though it is that. It is a place to access books by the thousands, to refer to them briefly and compare them, and to get access to stores of information (in journals and databases and on microfilm) you can’t get on your own, at least not without thousands of dollars worth of subscriptions. It’s a place to work, away from the distractions of home or the purchase and table time limits of coffee shops. It’s a place to study, maybe alongside work-group partners.
And it’s a place to hang out. I used to do that a lot, having time to kill, just go into the library out of the elements, with access to a washroom and a place to sit down, and with lots of reading material handy. Increasingly, our libraries function that way for teenagers after school — offering hubs where they can socialize and do homework. They serve that purpose for the homeless, in important ways.
“Every problem that society has, the library has, too, because the boundary between society and the library is porous; nothing good is kept out of the library, and nothing bad,” Orlean writes.
Our libraries are places that offer you shelter from the cares of the world when you need it, while simultaneously being places that offer you access to the knowledge of the entire world when you want it. Better writers than me have outlined in detail the role libraries have served as the cornerstone building blocks of civilization. They remain the indispensable centres of community life.
Those are things you want to build up. Instead, our premier and provincial government seem intent on tearing them down.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire