Hamilton-area libraries scramble as PC cuts kill 'backbone' interlibrary loan service

Libraries in the rural communities that surround Hamilton are scrambling to figure out how to keep serving the public without a service that helped them offer readers thousands of books the libraries otherwise wouldn't be able to keep on their shelves.
Libraries in smaller communities across Ontario are reeling after news government cuts to the Southern Ontario Library Service mean its ending its interlibrary loans as of April 26. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

The interlibrary loan service that's been the "backbone" of the small town libraries that surround Hamilton is ending because of government cuts, leaving staff scrambling to find ways to get patrons the books and materials they need.

The Southern Ontario Library Service (SOLS) announced it's facing a 50 per cent budget cut from the province and will be permanently ending its interlibrary loan service as of April 26, 2019 — meaning for the first time in decades, readers in rural communities will have far fewer options.

"This was a shock. We were all … flabbergasted when the news came down," said Beverley Slater, a manager with the Norfolk County Public Library. "This has been the backbone of our library system for quite a few years if not decades."

SOLS serves almost 200 municipalities in southern and eastern Ontario by providing training and interlibrary loans — meaning a reader in Cayuga, for example, could borrow a book from the library in Chatham and vice versa, without both libraries having to buy the book.

"It meant an individual could access anything at any public library in the province," Slater explained.

In 2018 the Norfolk library borrowed and lent out about 12,000 items through the service.

Now that's no longer an option.

"We don't know how we're going to make up this gap … there are lots of questions and very few answers at the moment," said Slater.

Haldimand faces loss of interbranch couriers

Library staff in Haldimand County are wrestling with questions too.

The public library "piggybacks" off the SOLS interlibrary courier service to move books between its branches, according to CEO Paul Diette. Without the service they're not only facing losing access to other libraries across Ontario, but an inability to transport materials to other parts of the county.

The Haldimand County Public Library will have to find a new way to move books between branches as its previous system relied on interlibrary loan couriers. (Google Maps)

"It will result in delays and no doubt higher costs for us to deliver materials between our own branches," said Diette.

"If the province is saving a little bit of money on couriers it's essentially being downloaded to our level in trying to make up for that shortfall."

PCs say budget is meant to bring 'balance'

SOLS delivers services on behalf of the Ontario Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport.

In its April 11 budget, the province stated it would reduce the ministry's funding by $58.6 million, from $1.55 billion to $1.49 billion.

In a statement to CBC News, Brett Weltman, press secretary for the minister, said the PC government "recognizes the importance of libraries to Ontario communities across the province."

There's no fat or cushion to be cut here. [This is] a direct impact on service levels and it's a reduction.- Paul Diette , Haldimand  County Library

Wtltman also added that while Ontario libraries continue to receive funding from the ministry, the budget was "putting the province back on a path to balance."

Diette said the cuts came with "no forewarning" for library staff across the province who rely on SOLS.

He added the interlibrary loan system was actually set up by the province years ago to cut costs and that both SOLS and libraries take pride in "being frugal."

"There's no fat or cushion to be cut here," Diette noted. "[This is] a direct impact on service levels and it's a reduction.

Students, researchers and e-book users will suffer

Without interlibrary loans, high school and university students, book clubs, people researching local or family history, those wanting to read books that are out of print and e-book users will all suffer, said library staff.

Kelly Bernstein, CEO for the County of Brant Public Library said she did some quick math after the end of the service was announced, calculating the total number of books her library borrowed last year would have cost $70,000.

She pointed out the cut is going to be felt even more deeply by smaller libraries in First Nations or northern Ontario communities where resources are already scarce.

"We're still committed to providing the best service we can, it's just going to be harder," said Bernstein. "We hate to say 'No' to people, but there may be cases where we simply cannot find the materials or get them the books they need."

with files from CBC Ottawa and CBC Windsor