Library Week an important reminder of role in community

First published:
October 23, 2002

Libraries across Northumberland will be celebrating Ontario Public Library Week with plenty of events, fundraising and opportunities to enjoy this incredibly important place in our communities this week.

Forty-one men organized the first library in Ontario in Niagara in 1800. The public library came to Upper Canada through local Mechanics’ Institutes. These were buildings where trades people could learn and improve their skills. Members paid fees to belong. It was not until 1882 when the Free Libraries Act transformation the institutes into public places for everyone.

Two of Northumberland County’s libraries, Port Hope and Campbellford, were helped along the way as a direct result of American multimillionaire Andrew Carnegie’s generous donations. He created a foundation to build 1,700 libraries around the English-speaking world, including 111 in Ontario.

It is amazing to realize that since the beginning of settlement in the province, communities knew it was vital to any chance of prosperity to have a public repository of knowledge supported by local taxes.

Our libraries are far more than a collection of dusty, ancient books. Reading clubs, video rentals, weekly programs and special events like the summer children’s reading program are only a few examples of the ways libraries use their resources to reach out and engage the community.

And the burden is great for public libraries. Municipalities face increasing pressure to do more with fewer taxes. Libraries are low on the priority list because it is considered a soft service. Politicians and the public are used to paying big money for hard services, such as roads, sewers and sidewalks. Library boards must fight against other items such as arenas, beaches, marinas, parks and similar recreational budgets to get their share.

Cobourg and Port Hope are fortunate, since both have seen huge capital investments over the past decade. Smaller communities in the county are not so blessed. It was only a few years ago, Northumberland County council stopped funding libraries, closing down several and turning the rest over to rural municipalities.

Local schools are also adding to the burden. While many still have a library, these are not always staffed properly with full-time librarians.

It is hard to remember the hay days of the 1970s and 80s, when school libraries were engaging, vital places where children came to learn and study. Teacher/librarians were resource people who put on programs designed to support classroom activity. This is a far cry from the new definition of the position as a part-time commitment of a classroom teacher to the library.

What is disgraceful is the lack of vision this demonstrates from school boards and the provincial government. Funding formulas from the Tories have placed so much emphasis on cutting back that trustees blindly remove vital services such as library staff and resources as a means to meet balanced budget requirements.

What is even more sickening is the issue is left to parent associations, who are so busy trying to keep schools open, libraries are left near the bottom of the priority list.

This leaves public libraries to fill the void.  And there are examples where children’s librarians from the municipal libraries are going into schools and meeting with teachers in an effort to provide the same services once provided by teacher/librarians inside schools.

But municipal libraries are far from safe. There are those who would argue the future of libraries is dim as municipal politicians continue to wield the budget axe. The Internet provides increasing amounts of information easily accessible on a computer from home. Digital resources, such as CD ROMs can also provide huge volumes of information at a fingertip. So why pay for huge, expensive buildings and staff, the argument goes.

In response, library boards are becoming entrepreneurial. Fundraising is an increasing part of every library’s budget. Used book sales are no longer the only event to make money. Pub days, raffles, book bags and proposed coffee shops are only a couple of the ways to balance the budget. Most programs offered by the library come with a fee to cover costs.

Public funding for libraries should not even be a debate. Money should be forthcoming as long as libraries can demonstrate responsible, accountable use of funds. And there has never been a politician in Northumberland who has successfully proven otherwise.

Libraries must be free, public places. It shouldn’t matter how rich or poor you are in order to use the facility or programs. Information must be equally provided to all citizens. It was obvious nearly 200 years ago. And it should be the same, now.

If knowledge is power, then for a true democracy, libraries must exist in every community and school. Information should be as plentiful as the air and water, and as easy to come by.

And once done here, visit the library and hug a librarian. They deserve it.

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