Toronto’s looming library cuts: what could happen, and how to stop it

Everyone had a lot of fun last week when Councillor Doug Ford did that thing he does where he says something completely stupid and wrong. This time, it was about libraries. There are too many of them, he said: “We have more libraries per person than any other city in the world. I’ve got more libraries in my area than I have Tim Hortons.”

None of this, of course, turned out to be anywhere close to even kind of a little bit true. Toronto doesn’t even have more libraries per person than other cities in Canada. And the ratio of Tim Hortons to library branches in Etobicoke is somewhere in the neighbourhood of three-to-one. (At BlogTO, Derek Flack actually mapped things out.)

Response to Ford’s comments was swift — and kind of bizarre, honestly — as the Toronto Public Library Workers Union launched a campaign to stop the privatization of Toronto’s library system with a very well-done new website called (The Tonga top-level domain is a nice touch.)

The campaign was effective enough to engage 20,000 people to state their opposition to library privatization, and got author Margaret Atwood all fired up. Less positively, they also seem to catch the attention of corporate library privatizer Library Systems & Services Inc., which led to some articles touting the potential of outsourcing branch management.

Taken altogether, however, it’s a good campaign. But, as mentioned, also a little bizarre. Why jump to the spectre of privatization so quickly? Are these well-intentioned literary-lovers — and, okay, sure, union members — overreaching? Is privatization really the clear and present threat they seem to think it is? And is a dumb Doug Ford exaggeration really the thing you want to point to as a motivating factor?

What KPMG says about libraries

KPMG’s budget considerations for the Toronto Public Library are limited to the following: sharing administrative services with the City; consolidating Toronto Archives with TPL; closing some branches completely; reducing or eliminating some educational and outreach programs; and reducing the hours and days of operation at some branches.

Of all the TPL items, only three are noted as items that could bring potential savings for 2012. And of those, only the latter two above — killing educational/outreach programs and reducing branch hours — are workable as suggestions that will shave significant dollars off the 2012 operating budget. Notably, alternative delivery models — consultant-speak for ‘privatization’ — are not floated as a consideration for TPL.

The real threat isn’t privatization. It’s cuts. Cuts are easier and more immediate. Privatization of library services has never been done on a Toronto-size scale before. So while that threat is probably real — in a Doug Ford “we’re going to privatize everything!” sort of way — it’s not real in the sense that this is something anyone has actively floated or brought up as an option. The real immediate threat to libraries is simpler: drastic and deep service cuts.

How to cut libraries

Putting on my small-government conservative hat for a second — it’s an animal-skin fedora with a condor feather in the brim — here’s how I’d rationalize support for reducing service hours or activities at libraries. First, I’d ask leading questions that refer to technology and the internet: in this era of computers and gizmos and video games, are libraries even still relevant?

Then, I’d talk about youth, and the differences between youth today and youth when I was a youth. (And, since I’m playing conservative, it’s safe to assume that childhood was eighty years ago.) Kids today are different, I’d say, and maybe we need to take an innovative — politicians love to be innovative — approach to the kind of services libraries provide. Are we really providing the best bang for our buck with an outdated model?

Then I’d cut. I’d support closing a few branches, rolling back hours, eliminating a bunch of programs that teach immigrants how to read or seniors how to use computers. I’d say that we’re not shutting down the library or cutting service — just re-adjusting it to fit the new social and fiscal realities. I’d balance this with enthusiastic support for convening a task force or a committee to hold public consultations about new strategies for delivering the kinds of services libraries have traditionally delivered.

“e-Learning! Cutting Edge! Smart City!” I would say these things for no real reason, then I would make a long and rambling half-speech where I make vague references to how much I like the iPad I just got.

The consultations I enthusiastically support would inevitably go nowhere, of course, and the end result would be that the city spends less money and provides less service. But it will feel like a victory for the reasonable middle, who — in supporting the move — will have embraced both innovation and efficiency while demonstrating their commitment to youth.

The end. A bit conspiracy theory-ish? Sure. It’s highly speculative. But just google “Are libraries still relevant?” — the seeds are there.

How to fight that

The Toronto Public Library is one of the busiest and largest systems in the world. Its recognized internationally for its activities. It’s incredibly well-used across the city, with 18 million visits and 32 million items borrowed in 2010 alone. Last year was also the library’s busiest ever, indicating that our libraries are far from forgotten relics.

TPL has also embraced new technologies, letting people borrow eBooks with popular tablet devices and providing computer access and training to visitors. This is not a musty organization dedicated only to paper books.

Most critically, our libraries are public spaces. Just as City parks provide free access to recreation activities, our libraries provide free access to learning and community connectivity. Real cities — thriving cities — value public spaces.

TPL is a cost-effective, well-used organization that provides value for Toronto residents. On an average property tax bill, the Library represents about a $114 per year cost, or $9.50 per month. After sales tax, this is about the same as you’d pay for a Netflix subscription. It is one of the few city agencies taxpayers should feel proud of. It is unequivocally not a place where City Hall should look for significant cuts.

Yet here we are.

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