Classes! Music! Video games! Modern libraries aren’t just for books

News | by Gregory Beatty


Doug Ford’s PC government made headlines recently when it slashed Southern Ontario Library Service funding by 50 per cent. SOLS covers almost 200 communities in southern Ontario, and one consequence of the cut, said CEO Barbara Franchetto, would be the elimination of the interlibrary loan service which enables patrons in smaller centres to access books and other collection materials from larger centres.

The cut was quickly condemned as an attack on rural Ontario, and calls arose for it to be reversed.

You might recall a similar scenario played out in Saskatchewan in 2017 , when the Brad Wall government cut funding for libraries as part of an austerity budget. Rural library users would’ve been hardest hit by the loss of the interlibrary loan service, but library supporters from across Saskatchewan rose up in protest and the funding was eventually restored.

Whether that will happen in Ontario is hard to say. Rural Ontarians don’t have the political clout of the big cities, but they’re bedrock conservatives, so you’d think the Ford government wouldn’t want to cross them. But when conservative politicians (and their boosters) push cost-cutting agendas, as we saw in Saskatchewan in 2017, libraries are a tempting target.

With the emergence of the Internet, the argument typically goes, libraries, with their stacks of musty books and mouldering magazines and newspapers, are obsolete. But the thing is, libraries long ago recognized the need to modernize, and have been busy reinventing themselves to serve patrons in the 21st century.

Take the upcoming Saskatchewan Library Association conference which runs May 2–3 in Saskatoon. The slogan this year, coincidentally enough, is “Libraries Transform”.

“The theme is two-edged,” says SLA Board President Alison Jantz. “First and foremost, libraries transform lives. They provide spaces and places, not only to go pick up a book, but also to use the Internet, or an iPad, or to use one of the meeting rooms.”

The corollary to that reality is that libraries themselves have been transforming to reach the diverse communities they serve. They’ve added new equipment, programs and services that provide a wide range of educational, cultural, health and lifestyle benefits for patrons.

Yes, the Internet is a great resource. But that doesn’t automatically render libraries obsolete, says Jantz. “We forget that not every household has a computer or access to the Internet. That’s not just for socioeconomic reasons either, as depending on where you live in rural Saskatchewan, a public library can really important.”

In recent years, too, we’ve seen what sort of problems can arise when people set sail on the good ship Internet to seek information.

That’s another argument in favour of libraries, says Jantz.

“In an academic setting, with our work on the reference desk, when people ask for help with research we’re usually steering them away from these unknown Internet sources and showing them how to find credible information,” she says. “That happens in public libraries too, where librarians help people recognize credible information sources. That is so crucial.”

Ministry Review

During the conference, SLA delegates will receive an update on the ongoing Ministry of Education Public Library Review. Knowing the track record of conservative governments in general when it comes to libraries, and the Saskatchewan government in particular, the review has raised alarm bells with some library supporters.

One component of the review saw a ministry panel travel the province last fall to meet with various stakeholders.

“At SLA, we were very pleased to have the opportunity to meet with the panel,” says Jantz. “They did follow through in making the review consultative, so we had a chance to talk together.

“There were no decreases in the provincial budget this year, so that was wonderful,” she adds. “And going forward we hope to develop planning for public libraries, and there seems to be a real receptiveness to that. So we’ve been pleased with the response.”

While there may not have been any decreases in library funding, neither were there increases. Factor in inflation, and a status quo budget amounts to a cut. And cuts are the last thing libraries need as they continue to adapt to patrons’ needs.

Still, there are positive signs. In Regina, Central Library recently opened a state of the art digital media suite and started a musical instrument lending program. The George Bothwell branch underwent a major expansion too, which included the installation of a Creation Cube to promote creativity and innovation.

The new Round Prairie branch in Saskatoon is another highlight, says Jantz.

“It’s our newest library, and they have a video gaming room for kids. They can come in, sign out a video game and go play it. Twenty years ago, people would’ve said ‘That’s not what a library’s for.’ Well, we’re saying ‘You bet it is’.”

Bottom line: these facilities and programs are entry points to get people from all walks to life to visit and use library resources.

To optimize their potential to serve as community hubs, libraries often partner with other organizations to present targeted programs and services. “There are things happening like Cree language classes in libraries,” says Jantz. “There’s also an attempt to Indigenize spaces, meaning that they become welcome and familiar to the Indigenous community.

“Another focus in the last few years is newcomers as our immigrant population has increased exponentially,” she says. “I believe in both Regina and Saskatoon, the library has a really strong connection with the Open Door Society. That’s a natural link, and the library is a natural place for someone who is new to Saskatchewan to go.”

Downtown Dilemma

In a world awash in buzz concepts such as “lifelong learning”, “automation” and “precarious employment”, investing in libraries would seem to be a no-brainer. But as recent budget struggles have shown, it’s a tough sell.

And in both Regina and Saskatoon, a crisis point has been reached with their respective Central libraries.

They opened in the mid-1960s, and have received little in the way of substantive investment for upgrades and improvements since then. And after nearly 60 years, they’re showing their age.

Plans have been floated in both cities for new facilities, but so far nothing’s been done. Meanwhile, other cities are charging ahead and creating iconic new libraries with daring architecture and other 21st century innovations. The phenomenon is world-wide, and in western Canada includes  Vancouver, Winnipeg and Calgary have all taken the plunge either through new builds or extensive renovation of existing libraries.

Calgary’s new downtown library opened in November. It cost $245 million, and has 240,000 square feet of learning space spread over four floors, along with over 400,000 new books and other collection materials.

“It’s amazing, I’ve heard, with these top-notch technology hubs for music, gaming, you name it,” says Jantz. “So it is happening, and I think we’ll [eventually] get there too.”