The Ontario government cut funding for the province’s two public library services in half this month to help tackle its deficit.
The news came as a shock to many, including NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, whose criticism, in particular, highlighted how fundamental libraries are to the communities they serve.
It would be a mistake, says John Pateman, chief librarian at the Thunder Bay Public Library, to think of libraries solely as places that lend books, just as it would be a mistake to pretend the service cuts won’t affect libraries across the province.
“Any reduction in those resources will get passed on, at some point, to the library,” Pateman says.
“There’s a horrible way in which governments who’ve got this austerity mindset see libraries as a simple cut — a soft cut — not understanding there will be short, medium and long-term impacts that will probably cost them more.”
The problem, says Pateman and a handful of other experts in the field, is that while libraries have been transitioning into community hubs, becoming one of the last free and truly welcoming public spaces in an increasingly polarized world, not everyone thinks of them beyond a place to borrow books.
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In reality, says Martha Radice, an urban anthropologist and professor at Dalhousie University, libraries are about information sharing, be that books, technology, a cooking class, a reading circle, morning tea time, and evening talks.
“The really key thing,” she says, “is that everybody has a really solid understanding that libraries are for everybody… That kind of accessible, welcoming, inclusive space is absolutely fundamental to a well-functioning democracy.”
In 2013, the Toronto Public Library did a deep dive into its own economic impact. It found that for every dollar invested in the library, it offered a return of $5.63. Since then, other libraries across the country have used the same cost-benefit analysis to see their return on investment, ranging from $2.36 for the Sault Ste. Marie public library to $7.85 for the Newmarket public library.
The body of research touting the economic and social impacts of libraries goes back decades. Leslie Fitch and Jody Warner co-authored a 1998 book called Dividends: The value of public libraries in Canada, which dug into a similar period of fiscal restraint that “did not leave libraries untouched.”
What they found jives with what Pateman says today: the economic benefits of public libraries are “frequently overlooked.” Not only do they help with combating low literacy levels nationwide, which an estimate then found cost the economy more than $10 billion every year, but they also help locally.
Studies from Nova Scotia and B.C. found that library traffic meant more shoppers for local businesses, building on American studies which show that dropping a library into a community would usually bump its economic value.
You can’t overlook the value to society, says Dawn Ibey, director of library experience at Vancouver Public Libraries.
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“One of our most important roles right now is about building social capital,” she says.
“We are developing within our community a respect for diversity, a sense of belonging, a sense of empathy, and the ability for individuals to get information and engage with civic life.”
It is especially necessary for people from low socio-economic backgrounds, from marginalized communities, and — often — for people who are isolated: the senior who feels increasingly alone as he ages, the young person who doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere yet.
“Providing that commercial-free space that works towards being inclusive and welcoming and respecting diversity is critical. It’s critical,” Ibey says.
In Thunder Bay, a city that’s been in the news repeatedly for systemic racism and violence against Indigenous people, Pateman says the librarians are attempting to decolonize, to rework their spaces into a place that will bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together, that will improve happiness, health and education.
“These are big agendas we’ve set ourselves,” he says — and it starts with very loudly engaging the community in the process.
Far too many still “think of the library as being a very traditional institution,” he says, but it isn’t.
In 2018, the Vancouver Public Library logged nearly 100,000 Wi-Fi sessions, an increase of over 18,000 from the year prior. So, Ibey says, think of the library also as a bridge to a “connectivity divide.”
How many people need access to the internet for life and work but can’t because they don’t have the money or the technology or they’re newly arrived to Canada and need help accessing and downloading government forms? In that sense, she says, the libraries are “a lifeline in the modern world.”
It’s a unique lifeline, Pateman says.
Hospitals, police and universities all have very specific mandates, he says.