Rural book borrowing in peril as libraries slam PC budget cuts

Rural and small-town libraries in eastern Ontario are bracing for cuts to an organization that helps them provide more books to the public than they can keep on their shelves.

Ford government 'doesn't value small, rural libraries,' librarian says

A woman walks up to the main library branch in Smiths Falls, Ont. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Rural and small-town libraries in eastern Ontario are bracing for cuts to an organization that helps them provide more books to the public than they can keep on their shelves.

The Southern Ontario Library Service (SOLS) said this week it's facing a 50 per cent budget cut from the province.

The service's CEO, Barbara Franchetto, posted a statement on the SOLS website Tuesday that some services would have to be eliminated.

Two days later, Franchetto announced "with great sadness" that SOLS would be ending its interlibrary loan delivery service as of April 26.

SOLS serves almost 200 municipalities in southern and eastern Ontario and provides librarian training and interlibrary loans — so that a reader in Perth, for example, can borrow a book from Kemptville and vice versa, without both libraries having to stock the book.

The end of the program means that 24 full-time, part-time and occasional drivers will also lose their jobs, she said.

While books will still be able to be shipped by mail, Franchetto said in her post it was "highly unlikely SOLS will be able to provide postage reimbursement" for libraries after April 26.

Interlibrary loans 'very important'

Under the SOLS interlibrary loans network, library users in Smiths Falls borrowed 695 titles last year, while sending other libraries 1,335 books and materials.

"It's very important to us," said head librarian Karen Schecter, one of a number of library officials who spoke to CBC News before it was announced the loan service would be cancelled.

"We're going to see a lot of impact in smaller libraries."

She said frequently people doing historical or self-guided research will use the interlibrary loan service to request books from big-city libraries.

Erika Heesen, CEO and chief librarian at Perth & District Union Public Library, said 30 or so local book clubs in Perth could be affected, since when clubs choose a book, they make requests for multiple copies.

"[The cuts are] definitely going to impact rural and small communities disproportionately," she said.

There are about 30 book clubs in Perth, Ont., and many rely on interlibrary loans to get access to their reading material. (Aislinn May/CBC)

PCs defend funding cut

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

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

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

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

E-book concerns, too

SOLS also manages a fund to which smaller, rural libraries contribute, granting readers access to 60,000 e-book titles.

"That's something we would never be able to offer on our own," Heesen said.

This government doesn't value small, rural libraries.- Meriah Caswell

Carleton Place librarian Meriah Caswell said that fund gives users access to e-books that often come with restrictive and expensive library copyright licenses.

Whereas an individual might pay $20 for an e-book, the publisher charges a library $120 for unlimited access to titles like the latest James Patterson novel. Other agreements only permit a couple dozen e-book sign-outs before the license expires and must be repurchased.

"Without [SOLS], we wouldn't be able to afford e-book services," said Caswell. "It means to me that this government doesn't value small, rural libraries."

For Schecter, SOLS operates as something approaching a professional association, with the agency's staff often being called on for help with questions on provincial policy, human resources, and other issues in the field of library and information sciences.

"I don't know whether they actually know how the cuts are going to affect rural Ontario," she said of the government's decision.

"In smaller towns, we sometimes feel that Toronto isn't really aware of us."

With files from CBC Windsor