Citizenship & Library Advocacy

2011/12/13

On December 5th, as our second activity for the Research for Citizenship project, Patti and I pulled together a research guide on Violence against Women for the  Montreal Massacre memorials on campus (and beyond). I intend to write another post on research guides as a core IL component for the types of events we are hosting – and how to extend beyond linking to academic sources in our guides — but that’s for another day.

Today I want to go off on a little tangent, and talk about librarians as citizens, and advocacy for libraries as part of our professional responsibility.  As the book chapter we are writing is titled “The Public Academic Library” – it should come as  no surprise that we are big fans of public libraries and librarians, and further that we have been deeply troubled by Toronto City Council’s dictate that the Toronto Public Library, amongst other core services, figure out how to cut 10% of its budget. As the goal of this Research for Citizenship project is to empower our students to act like citizens (and not just taxpayers), it only makes sense to put our money where our mouths are and behave like citizens ourselves.  And where better to throw down than on something like libraries, where we feel comfortable talking about the issues? I personally am worried about cuts to childcare and the public transit too – but I can’t speak with the same degree of professional expertise. I don’t mean to imply that citizens shouldn’t speak to the issues that concern them, regardless of their expertise – but I reckon I have a special responsibility to step up for libraries.

So last night I went to the Toronto Public Library Board to give a public deputation to the Board as they consider a further 5% cut to services – they have already cut 5.7% from their budget and lost 100 positions. The only way to cut more is to cut hours (which the Board had previously rejected) or cut collections and services. Here’s a list of what the City Librarian proposed as possible service cuts to meet the budget demands.

And below is my deputation. It could be better-  deputations are a learned skill, and I am still learning.  Luckily it seems I will have no shortage of opportunity during the Ford reign of terror to hone my skills. Some of the other deputants were a million times more articulate and effective than I was – the head of the TPL Worker’s Union in particular was on fire, as was the chair of Word on the Street and the many literacy advocates.  I wish I had added a paragraph about collections, and how libraries are not necessarily about books, but about IDEAS, in whatever format they might come in … dvds, magazines, and so on. I also wish I had mentioned that I know people who use the multilingual collections at TPL to help them learn another language – and how multilingualism is critical to the development of a tolerant, compassionate and successful city. Next time!

_______________

Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight. I address you tonight as citizen, a taxpaying home-owner, and a mother to a 4 year old enrolled in junior kindergarten. I am also an academic librarian at York University, a place where a large proportion of the student body comes to us as the first member in their families to attend university. Many of our incoming students rely on their public libraries to meet their academic literacy needs in order to gain admission into universities – and so I have always admired the critical role that public libraries play in the education continuum. So I am here tonight speaking in two capacities – as a user of the Toronto Public Library system, and as one of TPL’s learning partners.

I am asking you tonight to reject any further cuts to the TPL budget.  Keeping branches open while cutting programs does not save libraries, it kneecaps them. Further slashes to the libraries’ collections budget will ensure the long term death of what we will look back upon as a once vibrant and vital core service. I am asking you as Board members not to be responsible for this death.

The mayor has asked the city to consider the must haves and the nice to haves. He asked us – libraries or childcare? I answer that libraries are a part of childcare and that this is a false dichotomy. The public libraries’ outreach to kindergarten and preschool programs,  the Ready for Reading program, and the high school literacy programs – these are the things that not only make TPL one of the most widely respected systems in North America, but make them critical to the success of our city. Cutting these programs will negatively impact the children of our city, and diminish their capacity to be fully empowered and engaged information literate members of society. Our school for instance only has a part-time librarian and relies heavily on its important relationship with the High Park Public library branch. The children love visiting, and just as importantly, in attending  the public library they have the chance to witness adults engaged in their own reading and research, a witnessing which connects our youngest to our oldest and centralizes the importance of literacy and research throughout one’s life. In not attending to the information literacy needs of our children, we diminish their opportunity for future success and  therefore for Toronto’s as well.

Speaking to another program on the chopping block – I have been an adult literacy tutor in another library system, and I have seen what a difference those programs make to new immigrants and the illiterate. I hasten to remind you that  4 out of 10 adult Canadians, age 16 to 65 – representing 9 million Canadians – struggle with low literacy. They fall below level 3 on the prose literacy scale (Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) Survey, Statistics Canada and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2005).

Level 3 is equivalent to the level you need to complete high school. This bears repeating: 4 out of 10 adult Canadians struggle with low literacy. Literacy is not a nice-to-have in the global economy, it is a must-have.

It seems you have been asked to make a Faustian bargain … keep the buildings open or keep the services alive. A few good branches or many weak branches? I don’t envy the City Librarian or the Board members this horrible task – but I ask you this question … what makes a library? Is it a room full of books? Or is it the way the librarians/library staff animate those collections? Is it in fact the attention to literacy that differentiates a library from a bookstore? Keeping branches open while cutting programs does not save libraries, it kneecaps them. I say you do neither.  There is no other city service that has received more public outcry when it comes to the Mayor’s cuts than TPL. Public library usage is up by 45% in Canada in the last few years. Given that the so-called budget crisis is rapidly appearing to be as fictional as anything on a TPL reading list, you need to listen to, and respect your users in this matter and refuse to make any further cuts.

Does the Library Board serve the Mayor, or does it serve the citizens of Toronto?

Thank you.

__________

And so there you have it. The meeting went late and there were many passionate speakers – and finally the Board voted NO to further budget cuts. We’ll see what the future holds, and one might be cynical and think that the Ford administration never really expected a 10% budget cut and will be delighted with a 5.7% cut – but I’ll save the cynicism for another day and just feel like we scored one for our communities last night. Oh and also? Public librarians are freakin’ heroes… listening to Maureen O’Reilly talk about how 50% of their staff are part-time already, how gaps in staffing leads to staff being placed in situations of extreme personal danger (for instance during the murder at the Main St branch last year) was incredibly sobering. And the descriptions from literacy advocates about the work that librarians do were incredibly moving.  So here’s to the TPL workers, and to public librarians everywhere.

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