Library opposition is backwards thinking from Norris, other candidates

This year’s municipal campaign is well on its way to becoming a referendum on whether a new library is built at all.

A contemporary library is about more than just books

Rob Norris has made opposition to Saskatoon's planned new library a centrepiece of his campaign. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

This is an opinion column by Randy Burton, who will be writing about Saskatoon's upcoming municipal election throughout the campaign. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

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Are Saskatoon voters really the backward-looking skinflints that Rob Norris and other candidates railing against the new library seem to think?

Norris's mayoralty campaign is the test case for determining just that.

It's hard to imagine that a career employee of the University of Saskatchewan would want to undermine a long overdue public library project.

But then you might also think that a former Minister of Advanced Education would be in favour of forward-thinking solutions to infrastructure and continuous learning. 

Apparently not. 

Norris is making his attack on the already-approved Saskatoon library the centrepiece of his mayoralty campaign.

As a recent CBC survey shows, he's joined by many council candidates who know a bandwagon when they see one.

Not that they are against libraries, mind you. It's just that they think this particular one is too expensive. Norris said that as mayor he would move to rescind council approval for the $67 million it has agreed to lend to the library board for new construction. 

Think of it as the biggest library fine of all time. Norris doesn't like what the previous administration did, so he wants to "shelve Charlie Clark's gold-plated library." 

It won't be that easy. 

The average annual cost to taxpayers peaks at less than $5 apiece, or the price of a coffee at Starbucks. This is hardly the stuff of scandal.- Randy Burton

A parallel might be the Health Sciences Centre at the U of S. First announced by former premier Lorne Calvert at $175 million, the project budget ballooned wildly over time and finally came in at something well over $300 million, mostly under Norris's administration as the provincial minister responsible.

Where was the defender of the public purse on that one?

Ah yes, but that was health care. That's different. It doesn't matter how much you spend on health care, people always want more.

Not like libraries. The Norris campaign would have you believe that they are a frill, a "nice-to-have," not a must-have.

If so, that puts Norris and his followers well outside the mainstream of Canadian thought on libraries these days. The country is currently in the midst of a major boom in library construction in cities both large and small.

There is a renewed belief that libraries are a cornerstone of the community, far more than a simple repository of books. Increasingly, libraries are serving as hubs of learning, community centres, public gathering places and social service agencies. 

Exhibit A for this argument is the new central library in Calgary, a $245-million showpiece that opened in November of 2018. Not only is it an architectural triumph, it is a stunning example of what a modern library can be.

Calgary Central Library's new location opened in 2018. (Michael Grimm)

Aside from its collection, it features career services, an early learning centre, audio and video editing suites, a performance hall and an elders' guidance circle, among other things.

In its first three months, the Calgary library attracted 500,000 visitors and it has become a significant tourist draw. It landed the city on the New York Times list of 52 places to visit in 2019 and is helping to offset Calgary's national image as nothing more than a concrete cowtown.

It's a recognition that a contemporary library is more than just a resource centre, it's a key component of the knowledge-based economy, not unlike a university. 

How odd that a university administrator would not recognize that.

For Saskatoon to take its place among other leading Canadian cities, it's not enough for city council to simply fill the potholes and build hockey rinks, as important as those are. It also has to provide the cultural infrastructure to attract the professionals and business people we need to grow the economy.

It's the mayor's job to provide the leadership to make that happen. True leaders set the bar, aim high and bring others along.

A first-class library is not just a matter of dollars and cents, it's an important investment in the economic and cultural life of the community, one that we won't make again for 50 years.

There's no time like the present to ask the candidates just what their vision of Saskatoon's future is. It should be reasonable to expect Norris and all the others who want to turn back the clock to answer the following questions:

If $134 million is too much for a library, then what is the right number? Is it $100 million? Is it $50 million? Or $25 million? If Norris has a number in mind, he's not saying.

The average annual cost to taxpayers peaks at less than $5 apiece, or the price of a coffee at Starbucks. This is hardly the stuff of scandal. 

If the library's plan is too extravagant, what would Norris drop? The public theatre? The meeting rooms? The Indigenous programming?

Finally, if not now, when?

It takes 10 to 15 years to plan and build a library. If a new city council can rescind its approval of a library loan, it could take years to reach a new consensus. Once elected on a platform to stop the current library proposal, they will have no political incentive to approve a new one anytime soon.

In short, this year's municipal campaign is well on its way to becoming a referendum on whether a new library is built at all.

Those who think that's a bad idea should ask their local candidates for more than Sask. Party bromides. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Interested in writing for us? We accept pitches for opinion and point-of-view pieces from Saskatchewan residents who want to share their thoughts on the news of the day, issues affecting their community or who have a compelling personal story to share. No need to be a professional writer!

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Randy Burton is a former columnist and communications professional who covered politics at the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and later led communications teams at the Saskatchewan Finance Ministry, Crown Investments Corporation and PotashCorp. He now pursues personal writing projects in Saskatoon.


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