Thunder Bay

Ontario librarian calls minister's suggestion service be 'more efficient' after 50% cut an 'outrage'

Local politicians quizzed provincial cabinet ministers at the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association annual meetings Friday in Thunder Bay, with one of the most contentious topics being the government's decision to slice in half the budget of the Ontario Library Service.

John Pateman, Thunder Bay chief librarian, says crime, drug abuse rates rise where library funding slashed

Steve Clark, minister of housing, (podium) and Greg Rickford (seated), minister of energy, northern development and mines and Indigenous affairs spoke about cuts to the Ontario Library Service during the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association annual meetings in Thunder Bay on Friday, chaired by president Wendy Landy (right). (Jeff Walters/CBC )

Local politicians quizzed provincial cabinet ministers at the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association annual meetings Friday in Thunder Bay, with one of the most contentious topics being the government's decision to slice in half the budget of the Ontario Library Service North (OLS North) and the Southern Ontario Library Service (SOLS).

The OLS helps cover the cost of moving books between libraries, staff training and development, and even group buying which makes offering E-books and other resources more economical. For instance, the interlibrary loan program, which has now been suspended, gave seniors in Dryden, about 300 kilometres west of Thunder Bay, access to large-print books, which the library wouldn't otherwise be able to afford to provide.

In response to a question about whether the government would revisit this cut, Steve Clark, the minister of housing, stated "there's got to be a way that we can work with those third parties, like the northern service and the southern service to make them more effective and more efficient."

'Complete outrage'

It's a comment that leaves John Pateman, the CEO and chief librarian at the Thunder Bay Public Library, feeling "complete outrage", adding that the OLS North is "already a highly efficient organization" for the support it provides to a region extending from the Manitoba border, east to Sudbury and north to James Bay.

"If it's not efficient, I don't know what is. It means we get better returns for the investment our municipalities put into our individual libraries by working collectively."

Greg Rickford, the MPP for the Kenora riding and the minister of energy, northern development and mines and Indigenous affairs, also responded to the question about OLS cuts at the NOMA meeting.

'Selfish' to think everyone can access computers

He said he was meeting with librarians in his riding to see if the interlibrary loan service could be maintained, along with the purchasing power OLS provided.

But he defended the cut stating "some of this was redundant. Books are increasingly available on iPads and computers and the like and people are using them, including in our district so we reserve the right to make some features of this a little more modern and reflect how people are using various forms of literature."

John Patement, CEO of the Thunder Bay Library, says libraries are more important than ever in the digital age. (Thunder Bay Public Library)

Pateman said he found that "quite a selfish position. If people can afford to buy books and they have access to the internet then good for them, lucky for them. There are in fact a lot of people who aren't in that position and for whom a library is the only recourse for books and reading and information."

He believes the cuts to the OLS have little to do with books or saving tax dollars and much more to do with an "ideological quest."

Library is 'democratic public space'

"It's a smokescreen for an all-out assault on the public sector. Public libraries are the soft underbelly of that, the low hanging fruit, but what it's going to find is that we're going to fight back and we're going to fight back very strongly and very effectively because our communities love us. He's tinkering with the wrong people."

It's a "personal and professional opinion" for Pateman, who sees his library as a "community hub", and is actively collaborating with Indigenous groups in Thunder Bay to decolonize the collection and has made fighting racism a key part of the library's strategic plan.

For Pateman, libraries represent "democratic public space."

"You don't have to be a member, you don't have to spend any money, doesn't matter what your situation is, we will provide you services at the point of need and all of that is imperilled by these cuts."

Pateman said there is business case to be made in supporting libraries because statistics show for every dollar invested in a library five to 10 dollars goes back into the community. 

But he said the "social argument is that the public library is the glue that holds the community together and once you start eroding the public library all kinds of bad things start happening."

Pateman was a librarian in the United Kingdom in 2012 when the government there began pulling money from public libraries and the effects was almost immediate he said.

"Crime has gone up, health has got worse, teenage pregnancy has got worse, drug abuse has got worse, obesity has got worse so there is a correlation between the library and the services it provides in terms of community well-being."

with files from Jeff Walters

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