A hang-out session with Margaret Atwood or lunch with Michael Ondaatje are among the prizes in a new contest spearheaded by library supporters in Toronto.

A group of activists opposing proposed branch closures, service and program reductions for Toronto's library system — among a host of  auditor-recommended cost-cutting measures for the city — joined a host of acclaimed writers in Toronto Thursday morning to announce details of the contest.

Prize-winning authors Atwood, Ondaatje, Vincent Lam, Linwood Barclay, and Susan Swan are just a few of the literary celebrities who are calling on the public to submit short essays and videos on the theme of "Why My Library Matters to Me." The competition is also open to children, who may submit drawings or short written pieces.

Authors participating in the contest:

  • Michael Ondaatje
  • Susan Swan
  • Sylvia Fraser
  • Joy Fielding
  • Judy Fong-Bates
  • Jeremy Tankard
  • Robert Rotenberg
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Vincent Lam
  • Anna Porter
  • Linwood Barclay

"The position that libraries hold in the hearts of people really cannot be overestimated," Atwood told CBC News.

"Messages were pouring in from all over the country and from other countries. People really got into it, not just via the [online] petition, but through story-sharing on Twitter and blog-sharing."

The contest was inspired in part by this sharing — Atwood said her Twitter account was flooded with people sharing "little, 140-character stories" about what libraries meant to them.

Altogether, 50 winners will be chosen to join one of the participating writers on a tour of Toronto sites that have inspired his or her work (or that have particular literary significance), followed by lunch with the author at a local restaurant.

According to the organizing group OurPublicLibrary.to, which is sponsored by the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, the goal is to defend public libraries, raise awareness of their importance and to inspire further discourse on the issue.

Strong reaction to service review

The proposed service review sparked strong reactions in Toronto, with hundreds of members of the public queuing tooffer passionate pleas in support of specific services and programs during a record-setting city council session that stretched out overnight to a marathon 20 hours in total.

The municipal issue also made headlines on a much wider scale and sparked criticism of Toronto Counc. Doug Ford when he dismissed CanLit icon and avid Twitter user Atwood for her online appeals in support the Toronto Library System.

"Well good luck to Margaret Atwood. I don't even know her. If she walked by me, I wouldn't have a clue who she is," the councillor and brother of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was quoted as saying in published reports.

'We do not want Toronto to be known as a place that is hostile to reading and hostile to the arts. It's a very negative message to put out about the city.' —Margaret Atwood

He added that if Atwood ran for office and got elected, then he would "sit down and listen to" her.

Coun. Ford later backpedaled, saying that "everyone knows who Margaret Atwood is," and called her "a great writer" from whom he looked forward to hearing more input.

On Thursday, he told CBC News that the services review is a budget issue and not about a single author. He also insisted that no library branches would be closed.

For Atwood, one of the unfortunate results of her fracas with Ford was that — in today's digital age — the Toronto councillor's words quickly spread around the world.

"We do not want Toronto to be known as a place that is hostile to reading and hostile to the arts. It's a very negative message to put out about the city," she said.

"[Saving libraries] is a hugely popular issue. The support for this has been astounding. People who work at city hall say they've never had such an influx of emails, letters, people writing their councillors," Atwood added.

"This is something that cuts across all lines. It was a mistake to try to make a dichotomy between people who drink coffee in Tim Hortons and people who go to libraries. They're the same people."