These headlines caused a panicked outcry on social media. People read the headlines and thought that all Ontario libraries were losing half their budget. Rightfully, they were extremely concerned. But I want to clarify some things. Ford and his government have not cut library funding by 50%. They have cut the budget of an organization that supports libraries by 50%. This caused confusion because the name of the organization is “Ontario Library Service” (OLS).
The Good News
The good news is: The Ford Government can’t defund libraries (although I bet he wishes he could. He seems to be very afraid of an educated and empowered public). Libraries in Ontario are mainly funded by their cities. Every year library CEOs present a budget to their Library Board, and then to City Council. The city approves or denies the budget and ideally they work together until they settle on a fair budget. There is the Ontario Public Libraries Act which mandates that every municipality in Ontario provide free and equitable access to a public library. Changing this would be extremely difficult, however if he did, cities could still continue to fund their libraries.
What Impact Will These Cuts Have?
Southern Ontario Library Service (SOLS) is an organization who ran an impactful service called Interlibrary Loans (or ILLOs). They provided transportation for library materials between library systems. For example, if you were searching for a book and your municipal library doesn’t carry it – maybe a book that is out of print, a specific text book, or an obscure literary title – you could request an ILLO, and your library would have it brought in from another system at no charge. I process 3 – 5 ILLO requests daily at my small branch. Some of the books requested aren’t available online or for purchase. The only way to access them is through an ILLO. In 2018 SOLS delivered over 710,000 packages of requested items.
Why was it a good thing to have a publicly-funded organization in charge of this? Same reason why it’s important to have publicly-funded transit, schools, and healthcare: the people in charge are driven to provide efficient service to the public rather than to become billionaires.
The Bad News
The bad news is that OLS has permanently cancelled ILLO services. This will affect access to materials, and libraries will have to adapt to meet the needs of the public. It will disproportionately affect small libraries, First Nations libraries, northern libraries, and rural libraries. I hope that SOLS and OLS-N (Ontario Library Services – North) will use their remaining funding to support to smaller libraries who need it most.
Why would defunding libraries be bad?
These news reports, and the confusion they have caused, have opened a passionate debate on social media. I have LOVED all the fierce comments I’ve seen defending library services. I wish that I could just ride that wave of happiness and support. But I can’t. Because for ever 5 positive comments, I’ve seen at least one uninformed, negative comment. Some of them are just trolls, but others really seem so self-involved that they can’t see the value in free access to information.
The most common arguments I’ve seen are these:
(1) every piece of information is available online for free (wrong)
(2) everyone should just buy every book they want to read (no)
Why libraries are needed more than ever…even though we have the internet
We have an information literacy crisis right now, and one of the root causes is that people think everything they read online is true. A lot of information consumed online is written with ulterior motives – and often that motive is to collect clicks and ad revenue. Or to sell you something. I’ve had a few interesting conversations with patrons who got library cards this month JUST because they wanted to access non-fiction books. They are sick of sifting through hundreds of low-quality websites.
If all you want is surface level, cliff notes quality information, then yes. The internet can provide a ton of that. And that is super valuable! But you just can’t find the depth and quality of information that many are seeking.
To be clear: by quality information I mean facts that are provided by and verified by experts. We have thousands of books written by doctors, journalists, professors, researchers, historians, scientists, astronauts, chefs, artists, and more.
Secondly, remember that the internet is NOT “free.” And many members of our community cannot afford it. It’s true that the internet is becoming increasingly vital in terms of daily tasks – paying bills, getting a job, finding phone numbers, keeping in contact with old friends, etc. But having access to the internet isn’t a given for everyone. In 2017 the Pew Research Centre reported that only 71% of Canadian adults owned a smartphone. The Canadian Internet Use Survey of 2012 reported that 12% of households in Ontario did not have access to the internet at home. Every day across Ontario thousands of people use library computers to access the internet.
Why the library is needed even though you “just buy every book you want”
I find that the people who make this argument do not understand how many books the average library user actually reads. Many of my patrons and I read 2 – 3 books a week. Children and teens ESPECIALLY are checking out piles of books on a weekly basis. Parents with toddlers regularly check out 25 or more every week. I’m sure I don’t have to convince anyone that the more a child reads, the more likely they are to “succeed.” Imagine having the funds and the physical space to maintain that habit? If you do purchase 3 books a week, imagine the environmental impact your could have by using the library instead?
Of course, I too buy some books. I’m privileged enough to afford this, and I like to own a copy of my all time favourites. But every year I borrow hundreds from the library – digitally and physically. I would not be who I am today without the library.
The Bottom Line
I know that without access to the depth and breadth of a library collection, our society will see a huge drop in literacy, empathy, creativity, and informed decision making.
And I haven’t even mentioned the non-book and internet related services libraries offer! Partnerships with schools, early literacy programs, safe places for kids and teens to spend time, art and music programs, adult education classes, tax clinics, movie and video game lending, and on and on and on.
If you don’t read (why not?), have kids, or seek access to a depth of quality information – that’s fine. That’s you. But that is not the majority of your community. Surely everyone who wants all sectors of our community to succeed can understand why libraries need to exist.
The bottom line is, libraries help create an even playing field in communities. We need them. Not only to they lift up the most vulnerable members of our community, they lift up everyone who walks in the door with a desire to learn.