"Look Over Here, Guys!" (Or, How Libraries May Be Safe but Other Services Aren't)
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“Look Over Here, Guys!” (Or, How Libraries May Be Safe but Other Services Aren’t)

The Bloor-Gladstone library, which reopened two years ago after extensive renovations. Photo by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.

Frances Nunziata sounded the death knell of any potential major cuts to the Toronto Public Library today when she told Inside Toronto that she will not be supporting branch closures, period. Not in her ward, not in other parts of the city. The library is likely still in for some rollbacks—every department, agency, board, and commission has been asked to submit a draft budget showing 10 per cent cuts this year—but with this vocal backing for libraries from one of the mayor’s staunchest allies, worries that the system faces an existential threat can largely be laid to rest. (This is not to minimize the effects even small cuts might have: shortening hours and curtailing collections are non-trivial and impact a great many library users. But the worst case seems to have been averted.)
In fact, some observers have been saying all along that the libraries were one of the least likely services to be cut. Toronto loves its libraries deeply, and politicians who’ve tried to axe them in the past have been met with a great deal of constituent wrath for their efforts. With the busiest urban library system (as measured by circulation and visits) in the world, and branches in every part of the city, the value of our libraries—and of maintaining them as a publicly-operated service—is one of the things on which Torontonians broadly agree. There isn’t a councillor in any part of the city who won’t face serious resistance from his or her constituents if local branches got shuttered. And councillors like to avoid, as a rule, doing things that make their reelection bids more difficult.

So where does this leave us? The library system is just one item in the giant inventory of City services (a.k.a. “savings opportunities”) that the municipal government might cut in anticipation of the 2012 budget. And the public’s strong defence of the library system, heartwarming and essential though it has been, has had one unfortunate side-effect: distracting attention from other services that have less vocal or less organized supporters, are less politically favoured, and are much more likely to actually be cut, even though they too are much beloved and much relied-upon by a broad community of users.
At the very top of that list: community grants, which fund everything from school nutrition programs to AIDS prevention services and which the mayor has consistently condemned. Deriding them as “free money” at city council, Ford has voted against those grants every year he’s been in office. Grant recipients are at one major disadvantage compared with the library system: they aren’t a cohesive entity. The money goes to hundreds of organizations, large and small, across the city, and mobilizing that community is a much more difficult task than generating a concerted campaign to save the libraries.
We’re glad that the branches are safe. Libraries are essential to the well-being of any city. But we don’t just need to keep the doors open. We need to stock the shelves with books and the tables with computers, and we need to staff programs that help children and newcomers learn to read. We also need those community grants, and overnight transit service, and a myriad of other things on the long list of services that the City might cut but we haven’t talked as much about. This isn’t to say libraries have intentionally been used by Ford as a distraction tactic, but the public’s focus on libraries to the arguable exclusion of other service areas may certainly be playing into his hands.
It is a good thing that Torontonians rallied around their libraries, and it is a good thing that elected officials are respecting their constituents. But we aren’t done—we’ve barely even begun—the process of considering whether and to what extent our municipal government should scale back its scope and activities. For the majority who have responded to the current budget review with a plea of “even if you have to raise our taxes, keep these services,” now is not the time to breathe a sigh of relief.