What closing the book on the province’s library delivery service means for Ontario

The deliveries that support interlibrary loans have become a casualty of funding cuts — here’s who critics say will be hit the hardest
By Will Pearson - Published on April 29, 2019
Girl looks at bookshelves in library.
Just over a week ago, the Southern Ontario Library Service announced that it had learned that the provincial government would be cutting its funding by 50 per cent. (iStock/ bradleyhebdon)

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For Nancy Fox, “a day without reading is a dreary, dreary day.” Fox is retired and lives in subsidized housing in Millbrook, a community of roughly 1,700 people in Cavan Monaghan township, 20 kilometres southwest of Peterborough. As she’s on a fixed income, she’s careful about her spending and borrows books from the Millbrook Branch of Cavan Monaghan Libraries. But Fox has what she calls “eclectic interests,” so when she can’t find what she’s looking for at her local branch, she's borrowed from other libraries across Ontario using the provincial interlibrary loan system.

The books Fox ordered — recently, it was the novel Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann — usually arrived at her local library within a week. They were delivered by one of 24 courier drivers who criss-crossed the southern half of the province, creating a network of more than 150 libraries that could share materials quickly and at a lower cost than Canada Post could provide. 

These drivers sometimes visited as many as 10 libraries a day. Last year, they drove almost a million kilometres to deliver more than 710,000 packages to Ontario libraries, according to the Southern Ontario Library Service, the provincial agency that manages the program. 

This delivery service was largely invisible until just over a week ago, when SOLS announced that it had learned that the provincial government would be cutting its funding by 50 per cent — and that the service would be too expensive to maintain. It cost about $1.28 million in 2018, roughly one-third of SOLS’ total operating budget. 

In an email to SOLS’ member libraries announcing the service cut, the agency’s CEO, Barbara Franchetto, called it the “end of an era in provincial resource sharing.” She estimates that SOLS provided delivery services to Ontario libraries for at least 40 years.  

In addition to delivering the books, SOLS also manages the software that libraries use to search one other’s catalogues and request interlibrary loans. Because of the elimination of the delivery service, the ability to request loans through the software has been temporarily suspended, though SOLS has said that it will be reinstated and that it will continue to provide access to the software. 

But when it does become possible to place loan requests again, libraries will likely have a problem to solve — how to pay for shipping the books that get requested. SOLS has told libraries that, in the future, they will have to use Canada Post to ship books and that postage reimbursements will likely no longer be available. (SOLS had been offering such reimbursements for shipping to and from a few dozen libraries for which the courier service was not cost-effective.) In the north of the province, the equivalent agency, Ontario Library Service – North, used only postal reimbursements because the large distances make a courier service unfeasible. OLS – North has said it will be not be able to continue to offer the reimbursements, as its budget has also been halved.

Franchetto says that the cuts will hurt small, rural, and First Nations libraries the most because they don’t have the resources to maintain extensive collections. 

Nancy Fox’s local library, for example, has 29,227 items on the shelves, according to the CEO of Cavan Monaghan Libraries, Karla Buckborough. Compare that to the 10.6 million items a Toronto Public Library cardholder could access in 2017 without having to use interlibrary loans.  

Buckborough says the floorspace is limited and the shelves are full — when a new book is purchased, an older one has to go to make room. “It’s a choice of having an older collection or being able to stay with current titles,” she says. “So we’ve just always hoped that … other libraries will loan us the material that we’ve had to get rid of.” 

Budget constraints, Buckborough notes, will also limit her ability to purchase books for her collection. Municipalities provide Ontario libraries with most of their funding, and, in the case of Cavan Monaghan Libraries, she says, the collections budget was frozen from 2012 to 2018 before rising 12 per cent in 2019. 

Patrons of the Cavan Monaghan Libraries system borrowed 570 books via interlibrary loans in 2018 — that same year, the libraries lent out 1,912 books through interlibrary loans. 

Buckborough says she isn’t certain whether Cavan Monaghan Libraries can afford to continue offering that service. “Most libraries grapple with meagre budgets at the best of times, let alone when a new service cost like this comes into play,” she says. 

Some patrons, including Fox, are already discussing whether they could pay a fee to access the service. “A small fee wouldn’t be unreasonable,” Fox says, because “it’s a lot less expensive than buying a book.”

But Buckborough is cautious about that approach: “I can think of some of my patrons who, even at a couple of dollars … it would be a financial hardship to try and find that.”

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