The Toronto Star reported last week that the Toronto Public Library Board has voted to close sixteen library branches on Sundays and cancel thousands of book orders as part of a budget slashing exercise ordered of all city agencies, boards and committees in the wake of a $575 million budget shortfall announced just last week.
What leaves are being torn from the Toronto Public Library? To start with, the Toronto Reference Library, the Lillian H. Smith Library (affecting both the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books and the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculative and Fantasy literature), and fourteen other branches (including North York Central, Albert Campbell, Bloor/Gladstone, Brentwood, Don Mills, Downsview, Eatonville, Fairview, Goldhawk Park, New Toronto, Northern District, Pape/Danforth, Parkdale, and Parliament) will be closed on Sundays beginning in September. Furthermore, a seventeenth branch (Jane/Dundas, currently undergoing renovations) will be mothballed until further notice. On top of this, the TPL has reportedly cancelled the purchase of 14,000 items, mostly books and periodicals. These are cuts that library users will see.
But these are only the visible cuts. Most of the projected $1.2 million budget reduction will be paid for by library workers, particularly part-time library employees who will have their hours cut and full-time staff who will bear heavier burdens because the TPL will institute a hiring freeze. Staff training and travel costs and technology expenses have also been slashed on short notice, meaning that library workers will have to do much more with considerably less.
How will these cuts affect the Toronto Public Library system? Currently, the TPL is the largest public library system in Canada with 99 branches and over eleven million items in its collection. It is reportedly the second busiest library system in the world (after Hong Kong). Perhaps it can afford to absorb a few cuts. But a closer look shows that Toronto's library system has already been labouring under increasing strain. A great many of its branches have already had their hours reduced, including my local branch on Annette Street, which (like about half of Toronto's local library branches) is already closed on Sundays and opens as late as 12:30 on some weekday afternoons. Other branches make do with deteriorating fixtures, aging carpets, broken photocopiers, and dated computing equipment. As further cuts are applied to part-time employees, even more programs (including the Storyteller in Residence program, already targeted by the current cuts) will vanish. So TPL patrons may expect to say goodbye to computer training classes, research skills workshops, childrens' programs, and language skills assistance, and other programs relied upon by many Torontonians, particularly its vulnerable populations: the young and elderly, students, immigrants, parents, the unemployed, as well as people who patronize libraries simply because they have nowhere else to go. Bye bye books.
I don't doubt that the City is in fiscal crisis. I haven't doubted it for some time. But the City's $575 million budget shortfall didn't begin with last week's announced cuts, nor with the news a day earlier that the Mayor's plan to pry $356 million from home buyers and drivers had been defeated by deferral. It's dishonest to conflate these events. The problem, in my view, lies in a short-sighted city council whose only solution to money woes is to demand a bailout or, when that fails, to plunder anyone it can get to ante up, whether via property taxes or through user fees at the local pool. And when that fails? To slash and burn city services by reducing access and cutting hours and employees. This is crisis economics at its worst, and the implications are far reaching: gutted services at the local level, deteriorating labour relations between the City and its employee unions, lack of confidence in council and mayor, and loud derision not only from the provincial and federal governments but from other GTA municipalities as well.
It's almost too easy to discuss sources and solutions to the current crisis. Downloading of decades past. The MFP debacle. Recalcitrance from the provincial and federal purses. Council's "inner circle" brand of cronyism leading to infighting and cynicism among citizens. The city's persistent inability to take public consultation seriously. A missed but controversial opportunity to raise property taxes and/or take advantage of other new taxing powers. A mayor and councillors who'll cut hours and jobs but who won't take a pay cut to save the city. It's so easy to discuss the current crisis that it's astonishing that the City -- whose 'clean sweep' mayor is nearly a year into his second term -- apparently didn't see it coming. That the City was taken by surprise is indicated by the edict that city agencies and staff implement emergency "cost containment" measures by July 31st -- two weeks after the defeat of the land transfer and vehicle registration tax proposal, itself motivated by crisis management. The current council is starting to sound a little too much like councils of the past -- except that this time we've got a fiscal crisis so deep we might not be able to dig out of it.
So what can we do now? I won't speak to the big picture. That's something I'd like Council to start doing. But what about Toronto's public library system? Who will speak for it? I've got a couple of ideas.
* The Toronto Reference Library -- turning 30 this year -- has invited patrons to submit stories about the Reference Library for a collection and exhibit celebrating its tenure as one of the country's most interesting public research centres. Users are invited to submit stories to firstname.lastname@example.org . But why should only the Reference Library hear these great stories? It seems to me that City councilors should also be interested in these stories. Got a great story about the Toronto Reference Library? What about your local branch? How will the cuts affect your use of the system? What would Toronto be like without a public library system? Tell your stories!
* The City has forced the TPL's Board to cancel orders for 14,000 items, mostly books and periodicals. But perhaps the City doesn't think this is a large number. Perhaps councilors don't have any sense of how much space 14,000 volumes take up -- or what kind of vacancy will be left in their absence. 14,000 books, magazines, videos, and other resources. They take up a lot of room. Can you imagine how much room 14,000 volumes would take up in the rotunda of City Hall? In the Mayor's office? In council chambers? Perhaps citizens should help council understand. 14,000 volumes.
Got any better ideas? Surely it can't be too hard to find better ideas than closing branches and cancelling book orders.
[In conjunction with the Imagining Toronto project, Amy Lavender Harris writes regularly about Toronto literature and the imaginative qualities of cities. This commentary first appeared at Reading Toronto.]
[Library stacks image by Neil Lee and used here under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]