THE BLOG
09/01/2011 03:31 EDT | Updated 11/01/2011 05:12 EDT

Toronto Libraries: The Souls of Our Neighbourhoods

The discussion around cutting library services comes from a place devoid of thought or emotion. It comes from a place where numbers on a balance sheet are expected to tell the entire story, when in fact they merely tell us how much things cost.

Recently, Torontonians have been asked to consider all of the services that their city provides. The framework for this examination has been to focus on what is a "core service" and what is not. By separating out these different functions, we have been told, will help us to determine what is not necessary and can be safely trimmed or eliminated without affecting the quality of life of its residents.

The results of this exercise have been surprising.

First, the public consultations and online surveys have clearly communicated that Torontonians understand and value the different programs and services that the municipal government provides. While this on its own is not surprising, the outpouring of support has been astounding.

Second, the reports that have come back from the consultants determining what is considered a core service have confounded most people. Many of the "options and opportunities" in the report identify public services as frills even though they're the very same services that the public considers to be important.

One of the most surprising of these targets is the Toronto Public Library system, deeming that parts of it are easily expendable.

The public response has not been surprising. My office alone has received over 1,600 phone calls and emails from residents concerned about the future of our libraries. And these have arrived in the dead of summer, when most residents are enjoying the weather and councillors' offices become very quiet.

The Toronto Public Library is one of the city's great institutions. It is a leader across North America, with the highest rate of use -- over 18 million visitors every year -- beating out the libraries in larger cities like New York and Los Angles. It also delivers over 27,000 programs across the city and to some of our most vulnerable and at-risk communities.

On any given day, I can walk into the library branch at the Wellesley Community Centre and find a tremendous amount of activity. This branch serves St. James Town and the surrounding neighbourhood. This community is one of the densest in the country and is home to many low income families and recent immigrants from around the world.

This library is a haven for children who are learning English, honing their reading and writing skills, and finding their voice. It provides a necessary gateway for people to access computer stations for research, communications, and job searches. It offers a place for new Canadians to access periodicals in their first language. It gives students a quiet place away from bustling and crowded apartments to do their homework and school projects.

These are scenes that are played out in library branches across the city. Our libraries are true community hubs where people from all ages and backgrounds can come together to have their souls opened and their worlds expanded through the magic of books.

Who could possibly consider this anything less than a core service? Who would want to limit access to these opportunities?

The discussion around cutting these services comes from a place devoid of thought or emotion. It comes from a place where numbers on a balance sheet are expected to tell the entire story, when in fact they merely tell us how much things cost. It comes from a place that wrings out what is good and necessary for our communities.

The consultants whose reports sparked this discussion were only following the mandate and direction that was given to them: find the spending that is not necessary.

Torontonians have been told repeatedly that there was sufficient waste in the city's operations to close the budget gap without affecting services. Obviously, the people of Toronto have been sold a bill of goods.

Since amalgamation, the city has always searched for efficiencies. Every year, the city identifies and takes advantage of streamlining to save money and better deliver programs. However, these efficiencies are not so large as to close the budget gap -- a gap that was widened with the elimination of the Personal Vehicle Tax and a property tax freeze.

As a result, the consultants were left to target the services that are important to our communities. Such as our libraries. And our child care centres. And our long-term care homes. And our animal services. And our environmental initiatives. And our community agencies.

These services and programs are the expression of the soul of our city, and they say much more about who we are than a string of numbers behind a dollar sign. The carving away of these services and programs is an attack on the values of Toronto.

The people of Toronto are recognizing this attack and are responding in record numbers, with waves of communications to the offices of the mayor and city councillors. I am encouraged and grateful by this mobilization.

Our libraries are the souls of our neighbourhoods. They bring a hope for the future.

Cutting this service saves only pennies for the few while robbing the dreams, opportunities, and successes for the many.