By Peter Kuitenbrouwer
November 26, 2013
It is quite amazing how the library debate has evolved at city hall.
Not that long ago, looking for ways to save cash, Councillor Doug Ford complained that there were more libraries than Tim Hortons in his corner of Etobicoke. Councillor Cesar Palacio, who sits on the library board, railed at the Toronto Public Library for spending close to $1- million buying 34,500 copies of popular movies. Margaret Atwood leapt to the libraries’ defence, while 2,300 Library Workers Union members walked out on strike.
Today, the Toronto Public Library, “the world’s busiest urban library system” in the city’s words, is blossoming. Far from shrinking, the system is growing, with two new libraries, each 15,000 square feet, set to open in 2014.
Branch 99, designed by Shirley Blumberg at KPMB and paid for by developers, is coming together nicely at Bathurst Street and Bremner Boulevard. It will offer a sumptuous view of Fort York when it opens early next year. Branch 100, at the Scarborough Civic Centre, a $9-million project, is underway on Borough Drive in Scarborough. When it opens in about a year, the Scarborough branch will offer 50,000 books, movies and CDs.
Toronto’s libraries employ 1,713 people. In 2014 they plan to hire 20 employees, to staff the two new branches. The library will purchase $18-million worth of books, e-books, CDs and DVDs in 2014. E-book circulation will top two million this year, double the total from 2012.
Through a feat of fiscal alchemy, the library in its 2014 budget proposes to achieve this expansion while keeping the net cost to taxpayers at $167-million, an increase of only 1.2%. I say alchemy because unionized staff all get a 1.75% raise, costing the library $2.6-million. To offset those cost increases, the library will cut the cost of its maintenance, cleaning, its wireless contract and pest control. Plus the library has increased revenue by $900,000 a year. For example, Balzac café pays rent to the Toronto Reference Library. The library will raise $20,000 by selling ads on due date slips, and pull in $2.73-million from development charges. Plus the library plans a gift shop at the reference library, next to the café. There is also a new fee of $1 if you put a book on hold and don’t pick
“The library is flourishing in Toronto,” says Councillor Jaye Robinson, a member of the library board since 2010. “Our library and library system are revered around the world. It’s blossoming.”
The Fords deserve some credit. Under Mayor Ford’s watch, the library has cut $10-million from its budget in the past three years, and shed more than 100 staff. That discipline has encouraged the library to innovate with such things as self-checkout machines. In 2014, the library will add an automated material sorter system at its Fairview branch. Some doubt we need libraries anymore. But as Ms. Robinson points out, “libraries have really become community hubs.” Granted, many people go there to surf the web on the city’s terminals or their own laptops, but isn’t that a nice service to offer citizens? I have taken to stopping at the Lillian H. Smith branch (named for a Toronto librarian, hired in 1912, who improved children’s literacy worldwide) to borrow Harry Potter books, which my son reads voraciously. The library has saved us hundreds of dollars over the years.
“There’s this misperception that reading is down,” says Jane Pyper, the city librarian. “That is not our experience.” Council votes on the library budget in January. It is a bargain. I encourage them to approve it.