It’s never been easy to keep a library running; Like everything else, it costs money. In fact, it took $183,598,412 to run the Toronto Public Library (TPL) system in 2010, according to the board’s annual report.
Some of those libraries were built on charity, and continue to run on charity to some extent, borne on the philanthropic expectations of Scottish-American Andrew Carnegie, who, in his time, funded construction of nearly 100 libraries in Ontario alone. He did so with the understanding that beneficiary communities would keep them operational — a stipulation which suggests he knew that bricks and mortar were only the beginning, and that to thrive, these noble enterprises would require serious commitment.
From TPL’s annual report, we see that last year Toronto’s library system functioned on more than $6.5 million in provincial and federal grants, while raising upwards of $2.5 million, or just over one per cent of total library revenue, in part, thanks to Friends of the Library groups, and miscellaneous donors. So, for the most part (considering that under the previous mayor, library hours were reduced), the community has followed through on the Carnegie promise.
The City of Toronto supplied the lion’s share, totalling nearly 93 per cent of total library revenue. This, however, effectively places TPL in the teeth of a rabid municipal beast, one willing to shred it during the deficit fight being waged in this city, and others in the UK, Australia, and America. It’s a merciless fight, with all social services coming into play, no matter how needy the neighbourhood, or beneficial the service.
Over the summer, Torontonians rallied with renowned resident and author Margaret Atwood to prevent cuts to library services. This, among other displays of public outrage, eventually engulfed Toronto’s out-of touch mayor and his deputy, who then backed off, deferring cuts; but the deficit remains, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see cuts suggested earlier this year in KPMG’s city of Toronto audit re-surface.
Library closures or service reduction were proposed by the agency to reduce the city’s financial burden.
Is that suggestion optimal? Not to those who love and find libraries useful — pivotal, even. Closing libraries closes down opportunities for library patrons and potential patrons, including children, literature junkies, job seekers, immigrants, students, etc.
Nevertheless, cost is a formidable foe and losses are to be expected in combating it. Loss number one: the Toronto Urban Affairs library, which closed on September 14. Material and staff from that library were transferred to the second floor of the expanding Toronto Reference library, so TPL hasn’t been defeated, but this is stage one of a multi-pronged battle to define not only a city but also its citizens.
To avoid a crushing defeat of a valued social service, and to harness the opportunities it offers citizens, an early library safeguarding mission might be useful, to prepare for similar talk later this year and next.
First, a suggestion which was forwarded, sarcastically, by Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume, but which is useful here. It’s rooted in mayor Rob Ford’s high-school gym advertising revenue scheme, which Hume balks at. He takes the idea one step further than Ford, however, suggesting Toronto’s libraries could also rent space to coffee dens such as Starbucks, Second Cup, or Tim Hortons.
I support Hume’s high ideals — keep profit-seeking establishments away from the vulnerable. Life is not all about the ka-ching — learning should be sacred, and libraries should be sacredly brimming with books. But despite Hume’s disapproval, and my sympathies, housing coffee shops in libraries is neither far-fetched nor entirely off-putting. In the U.K. they’ve done it: In the London borough of Hilingdon, since 2007 several libraries have been renovated to include Starbucks, with positive results reported in an Oxford Mail article this March.
The challenge to success here, is that refreshment franchises might already have locations close to TPL branches. At Metro Reference, and North York Central that is the case. Furthermore, maybe only the branches in high-revenue neighbourhoods would thrive with that arrangement. Also, what would be the construction costs, and who would absorb them? Would the city be entitled to revenue-sharing? Would library operating hours change? A cost-benefit analysis would be required, as well as community consultation.
Revenues are one thing, but as Hume attests, people have very definite ideas about what a library is and how it should function. However, by combining revenue and convenience, the library including coffee den idea gains appeal. After all, libraries form part of the social fabric and should weave in seamlessly to be effectively utilized. Investigating the idea would facilitate a reasoned conclusion, one way or another.
Actively ask for more support from your friends, TPL. Friends of Library groups exist around the world, and all for the purpose of organizing and promoting libraries and their services, while recycling community goodwill. In Toronto the Friends group is divided into a North and South chapter. Maybe there should just be one undivided group, if there can be savings. Also, as friendships go, old ones are bankable, but TPL must cultivate new ones, as inevitable attrition and austerity demand. Appeal for funds at the check-out terminal, reminding users that they are paying themselves with any donation they make, and more importantly, also helping a friend. Similarly, use banners on TPL web sites, not just footer links, and elevate the issue with links to further information on TPL’s needs.
Tweet from your wallet your love of TPL. Imagine if Margaret Atwood’s Twitter friends each got a friend to donate, let’s say, $75, and did likewise themselves? Boy, we could keep TPL on sound footing, at least through this year. Next year, repeat. Hopefully, she’ll have more followers then, and the haul would increase. But if you can give yet don’t tweet, click this link and give directly to a cause you support.
Tell the mayor to find revenue sources, knowing it means paying more taxes. Consider it backing your values, and stretching your dollar, which could benefit TPL’s 1.25 million card holders. The now cancelled vehicle registration tax, and municipal land transfer tax were only a few of the new taxing opportunities afforded the City of Toronto as of January 2007 to help Toronto curb its deficit. Although rejected, entertainment, liquor and cigarette taxes, and road tolls were also on the table. Some American cities collect special taxes to fund libraries.
Have stable library funding enshrined in municipal law, and/or modify the Ontario Public Libraries Act to ensure a basic level of funding to avoid the same chaos every year.
Question the idea that there isn’t enough resources to build the city of our dreams. If we cannot afford libraries which are effectively the great equalizer, and must pay more taxes to maintain them, can we afford tax cuts for corporations and the like? If the entire society must pay a fair share for our betterment, should sober decision-makers be now cutting corporate taxes, especially for those currently hoarding cash?
You may not agree with all of the above suggestions, but to preserve a good thing, I thought it would be nice to offer up ideas to secure our happiness and nobler concepts. Run with any you find appealing, or feel free to suggest additional ideas.