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.
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.