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Ontario library cuts are sudden and shortsighted, but manageable

There is no need for defeatism. Municipalities, libraries and donors should be able to make up the difference with relatively little pain
April 26, 2019
Chris Selley

Barbara Franchetto has seen budget cuts before over her three decades at the Southern Ontario Library Service, of which she’s CEO. “Since I’ve been here there’s only been one increase in our operating budget and otherwise, it’s been pretty well flatlined,” she says. And she was prepared to take a hit under Premier Doug Ford’s government, which only stands to reason: It’s on a cost-cutting mission, and Premier Doug Ford is not known as a staunch defender of libraries. As a Toronto city councillor he complained the city’s superb library system had too many branches, claiming he’d happily close some of them in a “heartbeat.”

Franchetto wasn’t prepared for the 50 per cent budget cut that’s come her way in the 2019 budget, however. Nor was Mellissa D’Onofrio-Jones, CEO of Ontario Library Services -- North, which took a similar hit. Neither has decided exactly which of their programs and services will face the axe. Each provides its member libraries with pooled resources for purchasing materials and subscriptions, training programs, policy and management advice and grants.

One immediate casualty, however, has been interlibrary loans. SOLS employed 24 part- and full-time drivers to run an in-house delivery system in urban and suburban areas. It’s been around since even before Franchetto came aboard. They’re all getting the sack. Canada Post delivers interlibrary loans for all OLSN and further-afield SOLS libraries, at a hugely discounted rate: Shipping and returning a 1.28-kg package costs just $1.38. In the past OLSN and SOLS have reimbursed libraries for some or all of the cost, the effect being that loans are free to users.

While the cuts have angered the sorts of people Ford enjoys angering, it’s not big-city folks who are taking this on the chin

OLSN has said it can’t do that anymore. SOLS hasn’t made a final decision, but has put the entire interlibrary loan system on hiatus until it can figure out how or if to reactivate it.

We’re not just talking about a few books here and there. SOLS drivers delivered some 710,000 packages last year. OLSN libraries, meanwhile, shipped nearly 26,000 items and received nearly 30,000.

And while the cuts have angered the sorts of people Ford enjoys angering -- the same urban elites whose heads exploded en masse during his library-closing efforts at City Hall -- it’s not big-city folks who are taking this on the chin. The main victims here are people in small towns, many of them seniors, many of whom vote Tory. Franchetto says she’s stopped trying to keep up with the “vitriol and anger” she’s seeing on social media, and that’s being forwarded to her by SOLS member libraries.

The government’s messaging seems unlikely to calm frayed nerves. In a statement, Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister Michael Tibollo described SOLS and OLSN as “arm’s length agencies that have no involvement in the day-to-day operations of Ontario’s public libraries.”

“It’s important to understand we are maintaining base funding to local libraries across the province,” Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes MPP Steve Clark told the Brockville Recorder & Times.

That’s true as far as it goes: Libraries do get some direct funding from the province. But there’s not much more basic or day-to-day about a library than access to library materials, and a city the size of Brockville can’t hope to maintain a library system that exhausts its citizens’ curiosity all by itself -- never mind a town the size of Blind River, or the Big Grassy First Nation.

There’s a peculiar idea afoot on social media that the Internet renders the interlibrary loan obsolete, which is both weirdly wrong -- if everything I needed from a library was online, I wouldn’t spend nearly as much time as I do in libraries -- and which assumes a quality of Internet service that’s simply not available in many remote communities. Interlibrary loans will certainly become less important over time, as more and more of the world’s texts are digitized and broadband access improves. That process will be of incalculable benefit to future generations, but for now, the principle of free access to the wealth of human knowledge, in its physical forms, needs defending.

On that front, there is no need for the defeatism that so often attends government cuts in this country. The SOLS delivery service cost $1.4 million. OLSN’s total program and services budget last year was just $475,000, and D’Onofrio-Jones says postal reimbursements only amount to $21,000 a year. Municipalities, libraries and donors should be able to make up the difference with relatively little pain. (Folks: If you’re able, I highly recommend donating to your local public library.) Indeed, I suspect that’s just what will happen. Libraries are generally a lousy place to cut spending, if you ask me -- both politically and on principle. But if this hadn’t suddenly been sprung on them by a government that often seems determined to create bad press for itself, it could have happened much more smoothly.