Cuts to Ontario library services devastating to under-served populations, says librarian

Ontario libraries have been reeling from the news that the province has cut 50 per cent of the funding to the agencies that support them.

The Southern Ontario Library Service has announced it is suspending the province’s inter-library loan program until as of Friday — and that may just be the beginning.

Dayna DeBenedet, chief executive officer of the Dryden Public Library, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off from Fort Frances, Ont. Here is part of their conversation.

Dayna, what was your immediate reaction when you heard about these cuts last week?

My first reaction was just one of disappointment. I had presented to the pre-budget consultation in Dryden this year and I got a chance to speak with the members of the government and the Opposition about libraries, and the value that they bring to communities.

And when I was there I heard a lot of great stories from both members of the government and the Opposition about their experiences in libraries as children and as teenagers.

After this good experience you had with the MPPs, and they seemed on side, what did you think when you learned that the Ontario Library Service is having its funding cut by 50 per cent?

It was just kind of a reaction of shock because we rely on them so much for the administration that they provide to us. And so it’s a sense of shock that such a significant cut would happen, and then also worry about the services that we could lose and how they’ll impact our libraries.

What services? Tell us in concrete terms what people lose. 

Already we’ve heard that the provincial inter-library loan service was suspended. In 2017, more than 440,000 books were borrowed by inter-library loan across the province.

The way we use inter-library loans at our library is really to help supplement our collection, and one of the No. 1 things that we order by inter-library loan is large-print material.

We have a lot of seniors in our community who are wanting to read large print and, unfortunately, in our library, we just can’t afford to buy everything in both regular print and large print. So we use inter-library loan every day to order large-print material and now we won’t be able to do that. So the reading choices for a lot of our seniors are going to be really limited.

What about the software [and] cataloging? People are less conscious of how that affects them, but what happens to those aspects of your library service?

We’re part of a consortium, or a buying group, in Northern Ontario. It’s called the Joint Automated Server Initiative and basically it’s around 130 libraries. We all pay in and it’s administered by the Ontario Library Service North, and that provides us with the software that we use to check in books, check books out, search our collections, people can place a hold.

That’s what allows them to look at our collection from home, and go into their account online and renew their books. And if that service is jeopardized by these cuts, 130 library systems across all of Ontario would just grind to a halt.

Is that actually going to happen? 

We haven’t heard any news about what the impact might be yet. I’m sure that they’re doing everything they can to protect it.

But any small changes to that service, like if the libraries have to take on more cost to pay for the administration of that service, many of the small libraries in our region, like First Nations libraries, won’t be able to afford those changes.

It’s basically just a form of municipal downloading. It’s a cost that’s being passed from the province to the municipality.

What do these libraries, especially in the north, mean to the people there?

Libraries are really a community haven and a community hub in a lot of our small communities. They’re a place where anyone can go and you don’t have to be a consumer to use the library. You don’t have to buy anything.

In our northern communities, we know that there are a lot of people who do not have access to the internet anywhere but at the public library. So they rely on the library to apply for jobs, or write their essays or bring their kids for story hour.

It’s a safe place to go after school. And so the loss of that kind of public space, or even the reduction of that kind of public space, it’s a harm to our communities.

Since the budget in Ontario, we have heard that there are these cuts to education, cuts to paramedics, to some firefighting services, to legal aid and more. These are very key things that are going to lose funding, so why should people care about the libraries? 

When we did our return on investment study for the library, what we heard about it was that the library really impacts in all of those areas.

The library builds community wellness. In our library, we interact with some of the most vulnerable people in our community who are under-served and who are sometimes reluctant to access services elsewhere.

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