Lawrence Solomon: Atwood’s library

(August 5, 2011) Time for public libraries to update their outdated business model.

Toronto has an extraordinary library system with close to 100 branches. The former is mostly about books; the latter mostly about everything but books. This is true of most Canadian cities, where the great history of building public libraries to bring books to the people is running up against rapidly changing cultures and technologies.

The old public library business model, such as it was, is under attack. In Toronto, author Margaret Atwood is fighting for the status quo against cost-cutting Mayor Rob Ford. Before Ms Atwood takes this cause too far, she should open her eyes to the distinction between libraries as a system and libraries as branches. The library branches of her youth are no more.

I dropped by my local library the other day, which is also Margaret Atwood’s local library, and was pleasantly surprised by its quiet (Toronto libraries are often raucous) and the number of people — about a dozen — using the spacious facilities. But I was not surprised to see no one at all browsing the meagre bookshelves. One person was browsing the VHS and DVD movies, several the large assortment of periodicals — everything from the National Enquirer to The New Yorker — and most were taking advantage of the computers and free wireless. Some were checking their emails, others were doing Google searches, at least one was watching a video online. For the most part, libraries have become part Internet café and part Kinkos — printers and photocopiers are also available. Last year, the Toronto Public Library logged over one million Wi-Fi users.

“Do you have a copy of The Edible Woman?” I asked a librarian. “No,” she responded courteously. “Would you like to download it?” I don’t own an electronic reader, so I asked about another Margaret Atwood classic, The Handmaid’s Tale. It too was unavailable at the branch. Would I like to have it brought in to the branch, for a later pickup?

This pickup service is the great strength of the Toronto library system, as it is of other urban libraries. While no single branch can carry much of its vast collections, the library system will happily deliver books to local branches at its members’ request. This is how my family — along with the overwhelming majority of book readers — have benefited from its vast collections over the years. Members simply order books online, by phone or in person and then effortlessly pick them up when the books arrive. Or, increasingly, download them.

No muss, no fuss, and … no need for local branches and the massive investment in real estate that they now entail. The Toronto Public Library book lending system, in fact, would serve the vast majority of its members better by replacing its local branches with satellite kiosks, much as the postal system sold off its oversized buildings and placed kiosks in drug stores and shopping malls. Except that the library kiosks — little more is needed than space for a computer terminal and a bin of books — can be placed in neighbourhood bookstores and other establishments that would benefit, and benefit from, a book-loving clientele.

My Toronto neighbourhood — the left-leaning Annex — has only two local library branches, but many independent and second-hand bookstores, most of whom would likely welcome the opportunity to house a library kiosk. The foot traffic that the independent booksellers would obtain, quite apart from the fee they could charge the library system for housing and staffing a kiosk, would provide welcome revenue that could make the difference between an independent staying in business or not.

Book readers would also be better served. The book retailers are not only more numerous and so likelier to be conveniently located, they also keep more convenient hours and have knowledgeable staff who can enhance the lending library experience —they stock enough books to offer a true book-browsing experience, for example, and they can sell people like me an e-book reader to allow me to make better use of the Toronto Public Library offerings.

A move away from local branches would also mark a return to quality, a goal the library system formally abandoned. As one library executive told me several years ago, by way of explaining that my elevated view of libraries is passé, a rarely read classic that I might consider important counts less in its scheme of things than a trashy novel that will be read time and time again. The library system is all about quantity today, not quality. For this reason, the Toronto Public Library plans a $300,000 expansion of video games, the better to attract gamers.

In reality, library branches have evolved into community centres that show kids how to carve pumpkins and provide pedometers for adults who want to keep fit. They rent out spare rooms, they help people find jobs. Worthy functions, all, but none are needed for an appreciation of the written word, and all would be better performed elsewhere, either at the city’s actual community centres or at the many churches and non-governmental organizations that provided the role of community centre before the library system invaded their turf. The many non-book readers who now use libraries have little in common with each other, partaking of library services mostly because they’re provided for free. By returning these community functions to the churches and NGOs that boast a real community, these institutions couldn’t help but be strengthened.

The Toronto Public Library spends in excess of $180-million a year, the great majority of it on salaries and very little of it — less than 10% — on books and other library items. Discarding non-library functions, and selling needless local branches and other assets, such as the bookmobiles that act as travelling kiosks, would realize a one-time windfall from sales of perhaps $100-million, while eliminating the lion’s share of the $180-million annual expense. Those immense savings can then be applied to doing real, and not fictional, good.

Toronto’s public library has a long, ever-changing history, beginning with its roots in the private sector, where the York Mechanics’ Institute in 1833 formed the first of the city’s various lending libraries “by the exertions of a few public-spirited institutions,” as it proudly announced. Over time, cities took over the library and then expanded it beyond “the diffusion of useful knowledge” — its original purpose — into edifices that don’t discriminate between what is useful and what is not. It is time for libraries to resume their respect for the written word. I would hope Margaret Atwood would agree.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Energy Probe and the author of Toronto Sprawls (University of Toronto Press).

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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