A Sign of Things To Come?


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A Sign of Things To Come?

Rob Ford's cost-cutting agenda took its first obvious toll Wednesday, when the Urban Affairs Library closed for good.

Photo of Metro Hall by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/meplusacamera/6141970563/"}mewithmycamera{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Wednesday saw the first concrete casualty of Rob Ford’s efforts to reduce city spending: the Urban Affairs Library, a small Toronto Public Library branch at Metro Hall, shut its doors for the last time.

While misty-eyed staffers worked a final day in the space—it’s a room off to one side of the first floor of Metro Hall that the library has occupied since the building opened in 1992—patrons helped themselves to a sheet cake that had been baked by an employee to sweeten the farewell.

The library board voted to close the UAL, at City Hall’s insistence, during the 2011 budget season. Its closure will save the City $100,000 in 2011, and is projected to save another $629,000 in 2012.

The night before the closure, at Tuesday’s library board meeting, City Manager Joe Pennachetti had tried to reassure TPL’s administration that the branch’s shutdown would be the last of its kind, for the time being at least.

“Assuming that all programs are meeting the 10 per cent [budget reduction] target, I would virtually say we don’t have to close any libraries,” he told the board.

But that heavily qualified non-guarantee only applies to the 2012 budget season. Pennachetti added that he would be urging the to City to review its use of facilities, and that his office might recommend library closures in the future.

On Wednesday, at the Urban Affairs Library, the mood among patrons was not optimistic. Two City employees, who refused to be identified for fear of jeopardizing their jobs, ate some of the sheet cake (yellow, with homemade raspberry filling and an Urban-Affairs-Library logo printed on its fondant topping) and traded slightly embittered observations.

“There will no longer be a centre of excellence devoted to urban affairs,” said one, who would only say that his work is “of a historical bent,” and that he relies upon the many documents held at the UAL, some of which date to the mid-19th century. The collection will be relocated to the second floor of the Toronto Reference Library, and should be available there by the weekend after next if all goes according to plan. UAL staff will also be making the move, which may mitigate the loss.

But the reference library is a fair distance away. “City legal is hopping mad,” said the City employee, “because they’re quartered here and at City Hall.” They use the UAL’s materials for statutory research, and will now have to travel if they want to continue doing so. It’s a net efficiency loss that will never be quantified.

Assuming no other library branches are closed in 2012, it still seems overwhelmingly likely that the coming budget season will impact library service in some way. The 10 per cent budget cut requested by the city manager’s office would amount to a $17 million reduction in spending at TPL, which is about what the system spent on new library materials last year.

TPL staff are already proposing that the system find $4.1 million in savings by using RFID checkout technology and a few other efficiencies to cut the equivalent of 50 full-time jobs. This would supposedly not affect service.

Finding even more savings in the 2012 library budget without closing branches would almost certainly require cutting hours—something the library board voted in principle to do the opposite of, when, in 2006, they approved a phased rollout of increased open hours at branches citywide.

Then, the intent was to use efficiencies to make libraries more convenient for users. Now, it seems that, one way or another, it will be users who lose the most.

CORRECTION: September 16, 2011, 10:16 AM This article originally stated that the Urban Affairs Library collection should be available on the second floor of the Toronto Reference Library by this weekend; it should be available the weekend after next.