Local libraries contributes to community, deserves funding

By Robert Washburn

As municipalities get down to number crunching over the next few weeks, expect a barrage of rhetoric surrounding the 2012 budgets as various council members decry the unstable economy as justification for slashing services.

Public libraries are an easy target.  Hamilton Township council is reviewing its longtime relationship with Cobourg library, which provides support for two satellite libraries in Gores Landing and Bewdely. A similar review is underway with the Garden Hill library in Port Hope.

Chief Executive Officer Charmaine Lindsay was in front of Cobourg council last week outlining the library’s strategic plan.  The plan provides a vision for libraries in the future:

“Research shows that in communities large and small, public libraries have a strong role in literacy and learning, innovation, community and prosperity…”

Libraries are changing. No longer the silent tombs for reading and study, libraries are becoming social gathering places and vital participants in the development of social and economic capital.

The Urban Libraries Council in the United States released a report in 2007 showing the direct links between economic development and local libraries. Besides the obvious enhancement for child development and literacy, it shows how libraries can build workforce participation, assist small businesses with services and online resources, and contribute to positive impact on downtowns, commercial areas and neighbourhoods.

The Cobourg library’s action plan focuses on very specific goals over the next three years. First, it will enhance the use of technology with respect to improving its hardware and software, along with supporting users and staff. It also hopes to develop its collection in both print and electronic formats. And, it will continue to work at creating a safe, clean, welcoming space for the community.

Where the innovation comes is in the goal for greater collaboration between the library and the community. Certainly, it seeks to build stronger relationships with children and adults who use the facilities. But, it is when it speaks of partnerships with community groups and organizations that is where the greatest opportunities for transformation exist. It specifically speaks to the alignment with small businesses and entrepreneurs.

The opportunities boggle the imagination. Libraries are not traditional players in the area of economic development, often a task left to business self-help centres or other federal and provincial agencies or organizations.  Yet, the involvement of libraries as learning centres opens a host of possibilities worthy of exploring.

The access to knowledge and databases available to assist business people is enormous. And, if leveraged in a thoughtful way, it could become the basis of a municipal innovation initiative where businesses could be exposed to resources previously untapped. All it would take is an open-minded business community and some strong political champions to get it going.

There is one more advantage, as well. In a world interested in little more than the bottom line or return on investment, the importance of physical spaces where real people congregate is often ignored. Virtual worlds where Facebook replaces face-time often leaves us forgetting how vital it is for a community to have places to gather.

Catherine A. Johnson and Matthew R. Griffis did a study on social capital and community building in rural Ontario libraries in 2010. By creating a vibrant, vital library in a rural community contributes to greater civic engagement, community involvement and lifts the level of trust amongst people.

As politicians sit down around tables to weigh the importance of services for 2012, let’s hope the rhetoric can be toned down sufficiently to ensure the leaders are not blinded by ideology or historic grievances or other prejudices only to end up hurting  by chopping library services rather than helping the community by acting outside the box.