Vincent Lam: Modern Citizens Know a Library’s Worth

The Globe and Mail – Published Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011 2:00AM EDT

Amidst recent public outcry against proposed Toronto Public Library cuts, City Councillor Doug Ford said he “wouldn’t have a clue” who Margaret Atwood was if he saw her. He has since backtracked. He also complained that “I’ve got more libraries in my area than I have Tim Hortons.” Actually, Etobicoke has 39 Tim Hortons and 13 library branches. It doesn’t really matter whether Doug or his brother Rob, the Mayor, would recognize a Canadian literary icon. What matters is that we Torontonians love and use our library, at a very reasonable cost.

One of Rob Ford’s election mantras was that he would run Toronto like a business. Now that he’s mayor, the city is “dedicated to delivering customer service excellence.” That’s the new tagline on the city’s press releases. Meanwhile, all City of Toronto departments have been directed to cut 10 per cent from their budgets. Respect the taxpayer, remember? So perhaps we must simply accept library cuts as business restructuring.

What about the 72 per cent of Torontonians who access the library’s 11 million items, making it the busiest urban library system in the world? Or the 55 per cent who said in a July survey that, if their local councillor supported closing library branches, it would affect their municipal vote “a great deal”? Tough cookies. Business is business.

But wait a minute! If this city is to be run like a business (a Ford mantra, not mine), shouldn’t our Mayor and city council prioritize, strategize and allocate money efficiently? Shouldn’t it cut high-cost, underperforming parts of the organization, and preserve or even strengthen the low-cost, high-value portions, seeking value for money? No intelligent business restructuring cuts 10 per cent blindly from all parts of the enterprise.

The Toronto Public Library runs on 19 cents per day per citizen. For this reasonable sum, 32 million items are borrowed each year. For context, the Toronto Police Service costs $1 per citizen per day, five times as much as the library. Waste management costs 37 cents. The Vancouver Public Library costs $80 per citizen per year; the Toronto Public Library comes in at $68. If I were running this city as a business, I would say the library looks like it is delivering excellent value.

Where would the 10-per-cent budget cuts come from, anyhow? Would it be from our library’s settlement and housing seminars for newcomers to Canada? From the library’s workshops on résumés and interviewing skills for those seeking employment? Perhaps some brave councillor would like to explain the axing of Homework Help for Teens, a free evening tutoring program, or the popular Business Seminar Series, which helps new entrepreneurs get off the ground? There’s no good place to cut when an organization is already delivering high-value services at a reasonable price.

Meanwhile, there are two priceless features of each of the 18 million annual library visits in this city. First, sharing wisdom through the library and its programs increases the wealth of our community. We learn, innovate and enrich our city by sharing knowledge through books, films, lectures and discussion. Second, the library is completely democratic. It provides access to information, culture and leisure for new immigrants and established Canadians, to children and the elderly, and to all Torontonians whether they’re rich or going through tough times.

Speaking of tough times, in which we’re told that all belts must tighten: Such are the precise times in which those with less disposable income need access to good libraries more than ever. Those who can’t buy books need to access the library’s collections, not to see acquisitions or library hours cut. The destruction of the ancient Library of Alexandria is one of the intellectual tragedies of antiquity.

The public anger in Toronto over proposed library cuts shows that modern citizens also know a library’s worth. The Fords might pay attention to former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, who once said: “If you cut funding to libraries, you cut the lifeblood of our communities.”

Of course, with 10 per cent off the library budget, each Torontonian would be $6.80 richer. Every year! What would I do with my savings? I could console myself by going to Tim Hortons. I’d have a large iced cappuccino, a yogurt and two Timbits, please. Oops – $6.80 isn’t enough for that. If someone is going to claim to use their business smarts to run this city better, they’d better not gut my library without even saving me enough for a snack at my favourite coffee shop.

Vincent Lam is a writer and ER physician. His book Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures won the 2006 Giller Prize. He is participating in the “Why My Library Matters to Me” contest for lunch with one of 11 distinguished Toronto writers, sponsored by the Toronto Public Library Workers Union. (Toronto residents can enter at