I was in a blog slump when I read about the Mayor of Toronto’s bid to sell off some theatres and the city’s public library (the largest one on the continent, I am told, in numbers of books borrowed) and I woke up pretty quick. Sell the library…what retrograde buffoonery is this? Sell the soul of the city?
I would like to offer this mayor—who has probably always lived in an environment of public libraries and who probably does not know the effects of the alternative—a view of what life was like without a universally accessible library nearby. I grew up in a country where there were only three libraries located in the capital city: one featured only Brit•lit, the second only American books, while the third one—deemed “public”—charged a membership fee. All three library locations were in the swanky part of town and involved a long commute for us poor Joes. Only two books could be borrowed per library per visit. That library system was symbolic of the class distinctions that segregated the society I lived in at the time; a society that succumbed to marginalization and civil wars due to levers of inequality and exclusivity, like its library system, that were hard coded into its fabric.
When I arrived in Toronto a quarter of a century ago, I was blown away by the selection and the services offered by the TPL (99 branches and unlimited books per borrowing with inter•branch exchanges—wow!) and I recall instinctively reaching into my wallet to pay for my new TPL membership card which I was sure was going to cost me a fortune, only to be told that there was “no charge,” that it was a privilege I enjoyed for being a resident and a taxpayer of the city. Just that statement alone made the painful act of immigration a wise move. I instantly realized how this city had flattened the peaks and valleys of opportunity I had experienced in the old country: through this vast public library network, knowledge was openly available to all without the need for money as the key to access.
Admittedly, delivery of library services can be enhanced and rationalized with the advent of the Internet and e•distribution, and libraries and readers should embrace these practices to streamline costs and save our beleaguered mayor. But these technological developments only underscore the pervasiveness of the library’s mission and add to its value. The library, in broadening the scope of services offered to its community—with job search programs, ESL classes and others— often carrying the load on behalf of Canadian embassies abroad by arming new immigrants with what’s required for success in their new home, has become more than just a place where you can borrow a book. And I would argue that if we sit our criminals down with a book so that could learn something useful for society, they would be less likely to be bothering our cops and pressuring our mayor’s finances.
Canada has entered a very pro•business era with Federal, provincial and municipal governments swinging right. There is nothing wrong in being business•like but the best business people are those who combine good balance•sheet acumen with a broad understanding of history and human behaviour. Venerable B•schools around the world realized this flaw in the last financial meltdown in 2008 and rushed to bolster their MBA programs with humanities subjects.
If our mayor argues that the municipality needs not be in the arts business, or in other “essential services” it runs, and continues to withdraw and privatize everything, should he also outsource the city’s police force that sucks up a greater chunk of taxpayer money in a period of declining crime rates and does not directly return anything to the bottom line? Is it fair to also request that he start returning portions of taxpayer money for “services no longer rendered?”
I think our honourable mayor has to get it through his head that a city is not only about feeding the belly: eating, drinking, shopping and working – that makes for a rather dull place. The city is also about feeding the soul: arts, culture, intellectual growth, knowledge, and other activities that do not necessarily add to a bottom line measured strictly in dollars. Dollars in, quality of life out, is also fair value.
If the mayor is a savvy politician he would not give away crown jewels like the TPL that only enhance his city’s world class value proposition. Because if he does, what will he be left presiding over in the end?