The Sunday Edition

Why we still need public libraries in the digital age

The CEO of the Thunder Bay Public Library, John Pateman, calls himself an unrepentant revolutionary. He says information is power, and that libraries are needed now more than ever as vibrant, exciting centres for learning, development, connection and community.
Waterloo Region Library wants to extend library services to four townships in the region that don't have their own libraries. (Getty Images)

It's one of the line items on municipal budgets that cash-strapped councils often train their sights on public libraries. You can't cut police, firefighters, garbage collection or any number of other essential services, but public libraries all-too-often seem inessential. 

Surely, the reasoning seems to be, in this age when every scrap of information you could possibly want is available on the Internet, public libraries are expensive and expendable.

But as municipal politicians repeatedly find out the hard way, you mess with libraries, librarians and their supporters at your peril. The late Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug stirred up a hornet's nest -- and came out on the wrong end of verbal sparring with Margaret Atwood -- with their intent to impose major budget cuts on public libraries. It didn't help their cause, either, that they were so publicly disdainful of libraries. 

More recently, Newfoundland's Liberal government backed off its plans to close 54 rural libraries in the name of budget austerity, after the public outcry that ensued.

It's true, that the role of public libraries is changing in the Internet age. But some would say they're more indispensable than ever. In a time when information is power as never before, we still need guides to help navigate the bewildering sprawl of available information…and institutions that safeguard access to that information.

John Pateman, CEO of the Thunder Bay Library, says libraries are more important than ever in the digital age. (Thunder Bay Public Library)
In the world according to John Pateman, the modern-day library should be much greater than the sum of its collection and the information it holds.  

He has been working in public libraries for almost four decades in various capacities, both in the U.K. and Canada. Currently, he is CEO and Chief Librarian of the Thunder Bay Public Library. That is his official title. Unofficially, he is an unabashed revolutionary.


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