The Current

Meals, medical aid and more: The evolving role of public libraries and what they stand to lose

From cooking classes to acting as a community hub, public libraries are offering much more than books these days, even as the institutions face funding cuts. We explore the evolving role of libraries, and who those cuts will affect.

'We're now becoming multiple-use community hubs that are being driven by a community's needs,': John Pateman

Cutting library funding can 'damage the social infrastructure of a community,' warns John Pateman, CEO and chief librarian of the Thunder Bay Public Library. (Thunder Bay Public Library)
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Public libraries are the "social glue" of a community, offering a wider breadth of services than simply providing books — and when they face cuts, there's a ripple effect, says one Ontario librarian.

"We're now becoming multiple-use community hubs that are being driven by a community's needs," John Pateman explained to Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current.

"It's a fundamental shift to where we were in the past," said Pateman, chief librarian at the Thunder Bay Public Library in Ontario.

Earlier this month, the Ontario government announced a 50 per cent budget cut to the Southern Ontario Library Service (SOLS), which provides significant support to the province's public libraries.

Cutting library funding can "damage the social infrastructure of a community," Pateman warned.

"They're a neighbourhood service, and you can't centralise them. You can't expect people to bus into them or drive into them; they need to be on the street corner if they're going to have a social glue effect."

Thunder Bay Public Library opened their Indigenous Knowledge Centres on Oct. 30, 2018. (Thunder Bay Public Library)

Pateman was recently working in the U.K., where cuts to the public library service over the last decade have closed hundreds of public libraries and thousands of jobs in the sector.

Things are "falling apart" in the communities that have lost their libraries, he argued.

"Health has got worse, education standards have got worse, teenage pregnancy has increased, drug use has increased, crime has gone up," he said.

While Pateman conceded that library cuts aren't the sole reason for such changes, he argues there's still a link to be drawn.

Libraries as community hubs, gathering spaces

Kathleen Peverill, director of public service for public libraries in Halifax, echoes the sentiment about how libraries serve a community.

"We have been offering warm snacks. We've been offering a hot cup of coffee," she said. "We're even putting in community kitchens in some of our branches."

Peverill outlined the programming offered at public libraries throughout the city, including a media recording studio, a dietician who teaches food literacy, and mental health first-aid training for staff members.

"Public libraries really have become community hubs and gathering spaces and we really want to reflect the community that we're serving ... so we truly knew there was a need across our system for creative spaces," she said.

To discuss the expanding role of libraries and what budget cuts could mean for them, Tremonti spoke to:
  • Kathleen Peverill, director of public service for Halifax Public Libraries.
  • John Pateman, chief librarian of Thunder Bay Public Library.
  • Amanda Oliver, a former librarian in Washington D.C., who says she developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the job.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Produced by John Chipman, Danielle Carr and Cinar Kiper.

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