Privatization of the Toronto Public Library isn't the real issue at stake

Recently, Torontonians have read and scoffed at Councillor Doug Ford's comment that Toronto has too many libraries and that Etobicoke has more library branches than Tim Horton's coffee shops (not true, by the way).

This comment comes at a time when an outside consultant has recommended to the City of Toronto that service levels should be reduced and branches closed in the Toronto Public Library (TPL).

While I can't find evidence that the city has directly recommended privatizing the TPL, Mayor Rob Ford's comment made in February 2011 that the city is going to be "outsourcing everything that is not nailed down" has caused considerable trepidation among library advocates.

Many Torontonians (perhaps prompted by Margaret Atwood's Twitter campaign) have also signed the Our Public Library petition to ask Rob Ford to keep Toronto's libraries public, and free from cuts. It should be noted that the Our Public Library website is run by the Library Workers Union Local 4948.

In a July 21 release, the union deplored the consultant's recommendation that cuts be made totaling approximately $35 million (20% of the TPL’s budget). The union says that this move would be devastating for our city as three-quarters of Torontonians are regular library patrons, that our library system ranks first in the world in terms of use (circulation), and yet has only one library for every 28,120 citizens, ranking behind such cities as Vancouver and Ottawa.

As a devoted user of the library system, my knee-jerk reaction is to support a public and well-funded library system.

I rely on the library to provide a significant portion of my daily entertainment and to provide materials for personal and professional growth. I've relied upon the library's computers when I had no personal computer of my own, I've spent afternoons at the library when I want to be social and can't afford other forms of entertainment, and I plan to use the library as a place to spend time with my Little Sister to improve her literacy and knowledge base.

It's hard to see how slashing the TPL's budget would improve anyone's experience of Toronto's libraries, especially those who depend on the library in much more essential ways (more on that later).

And yet a survey published recently in American Libraries magazine revealed that even librarians think that privatizing libraries would allow them to run more efficiently and cheaply.

Is it possible that, despite the Library Workers Union Local 4948's protestations, that, privatization aside, Toronto librarians feel that the fat could be trimmed? Perhaps we should be asking the question of whether efficiencies can be achieved, whether all existing programs are working or necessary?

As the Toronto Star reported, since LSSI, a U.S. company that specializes in private library management, has taken control of the Riverside, CA library system, “circulation, library visits, and library programs all continue to increase." And yet profit was only 1.02% and the system remains "poor."

The Riverside system functions better under LSSI, but the real issue isn't that privatization is actually helpful, or even just innocuous, it's that everything comes down to the level of (government) funding.

The key issue is the level of government support, not the possibility of private intervention.

I admit that I signed the Our Public Library petition before I had fully done my research and I feel now that my support of said petition is less in favour of keeping the library public, and more in favour of overall support of the value of a robust library system in the face of seeming distain from such politicians as Doug Ford. And I ask you, is the petition really a defense of libraries as a sacred institution or a defense of union jobs?**

Still, it's hard not to fear what might happen to less profitable, or visible, library services come privatization.

Libraries aren't just centres for literacy, they are community hubs that provide welcoming environments both for the privileged and the less privileged, the latter of whom rely on libraries for Internet access, and a warm and somewhat comfortable and safe place to hang out in.

It is doubtful that a for-profit company would be as interested in providing some of the less obvious services I just mentioned. These services are hardly lucrative, but essential none the less. Obviously, some of these services should be provided by other public institutions, though the fact that homeless shelter funding might also be on the chopping block, makes it hard to see who will be stepping up here.

Then again, the total proposed cuts could save the city $25 million, savings desperately needed in the face of the city's projected $774 million budget deficit. This is just the beginning of the austerity measures required, including raising property taxes (it doesn't look like the two are mutually exclusive, as Ford suggests).

Proposed privatization of the library system is part of a larger quagmire, one that involves juggling the massive city deficit and the issue of how to both support the disenfranchised (vital) and promote the arts (also vital for stimulating job growth and creating a strong local culture).

I'm interested to hear your impressions of this post, so please submit your comments below, and let's keep the conversation going.

**[from above] This is not to say that I don't support unions, their presence ensures an equitable, healthy society, as proved so brilliantly in The Spirit Level. But, let's be clear on what the petition really seeks to achieve.

7 comments:

August said...

There's a lot of this that I didn't know, and I'm glad you did the research (because I didn't), but even knowing all this, I still would have signed the petition.

For me the issue came down, not to the efficiency (or even quality) of the library or the way it is run, nor for saving unionized jobs (though I'd be in favour of that too; I think that part of why Southern Ontario has a much larger disparity of income between classes than the part of the province I'm from is largely because unionization levels are less than a third of what they are up North). For me it's a question of responsibility.

Libraries are a public trust, and regardless of whether or not privatization could trim some fat, the job of private sector is to employ citizens for the purpose of creating wealth, and the job of the government is to create and maintain those services which are not necessarily capable of generating profits (or which should not be about generating profits) that its citizens deem necessary for a healthy, just, and free society. In other words, the whole point of government is to run things like libraries, and it is their responsibility to find a way to do so, not to pass that responsibility on.

I also don't trust the private sector at all, and this is not a new thing for me, though the various bubbles and financial crises of recent years haven't exactly made it easier for anyone to do so. I can't say that I trust governments much (the Ford government in particular), but even those I disagree with politically understand that 'responsibility' is what governing is about, even if their idea of what that means is different from mine. I don't think the private sector ever believes that to be a part of their mandate unless the government shoves it down their throats via legislation.

I guess, in short, I am against even putting privatization on the table simply because I see abdication of responsibility as a greater evil even than a reduction in funding. Of all the other reasons I think this is a bad idea (most of which, I admit, are ideological rather than practical), this is the one that matters most to me. I look to my government to be responsible for things of value to its citizens, and passing that responsibility on for reasons of finance feels like a betrayal.

(It's interesting how this issue could dovetail into many others, though; certain tax rates in Toronto are already lower than they are in rural parts of the province, and other taxes province or nation-wide are lower, in real dollars, than they were before we were paying for services like universal healthcare. And yet still we'd rather cut those services than raise taxes. Abdication of responsibility in favour of finance seems to be the way civics is going in this country.)

Amy said...

Thanks for this great write-up of the issue! I tend to think that whatever Ford is doing isn't a good thing for those in the community who are less privileged, going by the things he says and has done so far anyway. What I've found, like you, seems to say privatizing doesn't do a lot. I think that government support is needed for libraries and that they should be community hubs.

I'll just say - what August said!

Also, I didn't realize you were in Toronto! I've been trying to get local bloggers together, I've created a facebook group here if you're interested: http://www.facebook.com/groups/115323335225695?ap=1

Nic Boshart said...

That budget deficit is completely scare-tactic BS.
"In 2010, for example—the year Perks is referring to—the city faced a projected deficit of $821 million. After weeks of haggling, that number was balanced without any significant service cuts at all, and with just a 4 per cent tax increase for residents (lower for businesses)."
Ford is using standard operating procedure to justify crazy cuts to services. Everyone should read this article:
http://www.thegridto.com/city/local-news/from-350-million-surplus-to-774-million-deficit-in-one-ford-year/

B.Kienapple said...

Thanks August for your analysis! First off, Mark pointed out this post to me that forwards data that indeed privatization not only saved the government money, but improved service level in a variety of ways. http://reason.org/blog/show/why-the-new-york-times-and-library
Second, might not our library system be better off managed by a private company than a municipal government headed by Ford?
Third, are libraries a public trust in the same way that providing for the homeless is or the provision of drinking water? If there is a severe need to reduce costs should libraries go first (though thank you Nic for pointing out that this may not be the case)? Although, as my article outlines, libraries are more of an essential service than is immediately apparent, a public-private partnership may have its benefits, as CAMH has has experienced, as it keeps libraries in the public trust.

Anonymous said...

You asked:
"is the petition really a defense of libraries as a sacred institution or a defense of union jobs?"

Why can't it be both? What is wrong with library employees being part of a union? Anyone for that matter?

Hubert O'Hearn said...

Excellent, excellent article. The world needs free and open places for the interchange of intelligent ideas. We can't all be shut away typing at computers (he says while shut away typing at a computer). I'm planning my Book and a Martini Live! tour for early 2012 precisely in fund-raising support of libraries in any community that wants me. Raise money, raise awareness, raise a glass. Cheers!

*^_^* said...

Awesome!
Nice post!

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