If the Tories want to support smaller communities, they need to support libraries

OPINION: Libraries are “palaces for the people” — but government rarely appreciates the work they do
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Mar 13, 2020
Libraries have embraced the internet, connecting patrons to ebooks and streaming services, as well as to newspaper subscriptions. (iStock.com/Casarsa)

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There are times, as a journalist, when the universe, the Almighty, and good fortune all conspire to put the perfect words in the mouth of someone you’re interviewing, and they frame all the work that follows from there on. You know it when it happens, and, while you try to maintain your composure, it can be hard not to cheer audibly when you hear it.

I thought of that while reading Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. There’s a moment in an early chapter when Klinenberg is speaking with a New York City library worker named Andrew about the value of libraries as public spaces open to all.

“The library assumes the best out of people. The services it provides are founded upon the assumption that if given the chance, people will improve themselves,” Andrew tells Klinenberg. “The library really is a palace. It bestows nobility on people who can’t otherwise afford a shred of it. People need to have nobility and dignity in their lives. And, you know, they need other people to recognize it in them too.”

(It was Andrew Carnegie who, as he built thousands of libraries around the world, coined the phrase “palaces for the people” — but, in Klinenberg’s narrative, it’s Andrew the library worker who uses the phrase first. I don’t know whether Klinenberg cheered when Andrew said those words, but he did make it the title of his book.)

There’s a vast gulf between Andrew’s heroic view of what a library can do, both for individuals and a community, and where governments actually put libraries in the hierarchy of services they fund. Inevitably, in a recession or in any other period of fiscal restraint, it’s library services that go on the chopping block early. In 2019, the Progressive Conservatives at Queen’s Park cut in half the funding for the interlibrary loan service that helps hundreds of libraries across the province. After a months-long interruption, the service resumed in both northern and southern Ontario, but the disruption and lower service levels were substantial, especially given that the savings were trivial (about $1.5 million, or 0.001 per cent of the province’s total spending).

This wasn’t a surprising turn for the Tories: even as a city councillor, Doug Ford was notorious for being basically uninterested in the services that libraries provide. He famously got into a spat with Margaret Atwood over cuts to Toronto’s public libraries after saying he didn’t know who she was and he’d close libraries in his ward “in a heartbeat.”

But if government rarely appreciates the work that libraries do in our communities, patrons certainly do. The Toronto Public Library regularly posts continent-leading numbers for circulation and program attendance, and, across the province, the total number of cardholders has remained steady.

The simplistic response that libraries are irrelevant in the age of the internet is the kind of thing that you could say only if you hadn’t actually been in a library in the past decade. Libraries have embraced the internet, connecting patrons to ebooks and streaming services, as well as to newspaper subscriptions. Even the basic provision of internet service itself is part of their mission: in many communities, it’s the local library that gives people reliable access to broadband internet, and many libraries are now in the business of lending out wireless hotspots so that patrons can take the internet home with them.

There was, under the Liberals and Kathleen Wynne, an effort to get the province to fund more “community hubs” — places where people could access government services and programming. To the frustration of some advocates, after the Liberals said that rural communities could repurpose shuttered schools as community hubs, the effort largely got wrapped up in the politics of school closures. The first problem with this was that it didn’t solve anyone’s real-world challenges: a community hub isn’t an answer for a mom who now has to drive her child 45 minutes to a school in the next town.

The second problem was that, to a large extent, this was re-inventing the wheel. Municipalities, for the most part, know the kinds of community amenities their residents want. Libraries and community centres are predictably popular with voters and politicians seeking re-election. What municipalities need is money to build and operate them. This is especially true in Ontario’s smaller rural communities, where property taxes bring in the least revenue.

A government interested in supporting small and rural communities in this province has a relatively easy and inexpensive path forward, if it wants places outside of the core cities to know their needs are being taken seriously at Queen’s Park. There is, as Carnegie knew, more than one way to be for the people.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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