Government cuts hit libraries

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MANITOULIN—American writer Libby Bray said, “The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of all human beings, and it is the passport that opens up our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy and ignorance.”

It was no surprise, then, that Ontarians were shocked when Premier Doug Ford announced a 50 percent slash to the budget of Southern Ontario Library Service (SOLS) and Ontario Library Service-North (OLS – North).

Libraries have many components besides supplying books, including computer usage to download documents, search for jobs, fill out resumes, and have network questions answered. These learning and information centres offer a warm, safe place for patrons to read, have a cup of tea or coffee, do puzzles, interact with others, enroll for free classes and go home with more than books. 

Sally Miller of Providence Bay has worked for years at both Central Manitoulin branch libraries and she was quick to tell The Expositor of all the items available for patrons including magazines, DVDs, VHS tapes, and audio books in both cassette and CD forms. As well, puzzles are for sale for $1. Ms. Miller is also proud of the fact that books will be delivered free to one’s house following surgery or for shut-ins. In talking about the effects of the budget cuts to libraries, Ms. Miller said, “a library is a social place and it is free. I don’t know what Doug Ford was thinking.” 

These cuts will be particularly devastating for rural and Indigenous communities. One of the first services to be slashed and done immediately was the inter-library loans program. Library members were able to access books from other, larger libraries. The latest figure for this program shows 450,000 books borrowed in 2018 in Ontario.

Claire Cline has been the CEO of the Central Manitoulin libraries in Mindemoya and Providence Bay for 30 years and she is concerned about the loss of this program.

“Being a small library,” she said, “we cannot purchase all the books people want to read and also we have to continuously weed out older books to make room for new ones. If someone came in and wanted to read a series of books starting with number one and it is a series that started, say, in the 1990s, we would have weeded out over half of that series. Maybe out of a 15 book series we would only have six left, but until last week, that wasn’t a problem. We would just order through OLS the books our patron would like to read at no cost to our library or our patron, the cost was covered through OLS. That service is now cancelled as of last week because of these drastic budget cuts. We order approximately 300 books yearly through inter-library. Even if the service was still kept in place, each time a book was ordered, our library would have to pay the postage from the lending library to our library and then pay again to send the book back. It would mean a budget hike from council of at least $2,000. The postage cost is approximately $6 to pay both ways. This is a lot to ask of council when everything seems to be getting cut.”

The CEO of the Assiginack library in Manitowaning is also concerned about the changes to the library budget. Debbie Robinson explained how well the program for large libraries to lend to smaller, rural ones worked with the regional offices helping by paying for postage. She explained that she doesn’t know what further changes are coming, but emphasized the importance of libraries, especially for those on a fixed income. “Food,” she said, “rent, and all the rest of it. It gives them equal access.”

Island head librarians are also concerned with the fact that large-print books are also borrowed through the inter-library loan program and will severely affect seniors. 

Retired teacher and editor Miriam Bardswich of Cobourg is also concerned with this issue. “Cobourg has the highest retirement population in Ontario,” she said. “The government said everything is digital now, but you are not always talking about digital tech-savvy people when speaking of retired seniors. Also, many people read daily newspapers in the library. The 50 percent cut may mean cuts to this. And municipalities may not be able to take up the slack as they are already facing cuts. It’s like Harris all over again.”

Ms. Bardswich is very disappointed with the loss of reading material for seniors’ book clubs. She belongs to a group of eight readers who meet once a month and the Ford budget will probably mean the end of the meetings and book discussions. It is not feasible for many book club members in Ontario to buy the 12 yearly books.

Laurie Landry lives in Mindemoya and she, too, is disappointed with the cuts. “I am really upset by it,” she said, “since I am handicapped. I am a voracious reader, up to 80 books a year, sometimes three a week. I love our little library, but it doesn’t have enough books. You can’t carry what everyone wants to read. I was so upset. I think it is really short-sighted. There are a lot of handicapped and elderly on the Island and we need the inter-library loan program.”

Ms. Landry also spoke of the importance of the role of librarians. She talked of Canadian writer Richard Wagamese who wrote that a librarian had saved his life. He was homeless, on the streets cold and alone and a librarian took him under her wing and turned him around. Mr. Wagamese died last year, but before he died he wrote six novels, a book of poetry, and five non-fiction works for which he received many awards.

OLS-North CEO Melissa D’Onofrio-Jones spoke briefly with The Expositor and issued a statement saying “there will definitely be other changes in the capacity to provide services and we will provide information to our client libraries in the coming days.”

Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha will be bringing petitions before the legislature assembly in a few weeks’ time. Islanders are encouraged to sign the petitions at Island libraries. Online petitions require complete names and addresses. Hard copy letters and petitions can be sent to Office of MPP Mike Mantha, Room 160, Main Legislative Building, Queen’s Park, Toronto M7A 1A5.

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