Matthew Lau argues Toronto should close half its libraries. Here's why that's a stupid idea.
By Christopher Bird
Periodically, one gets the opportunity to see the pundit equivalent of a caterpillar emerge from its chrysalis, typing unsupported or simply wrong and factless drivel in the same way that a veteran of Toronto newsrooms would. The difference is that these caterpillar pundits are much younger, giving us the opportunity to see how your Margaret Wentes and Joe Warmingtons enter the pundit world.
Enter Matthew Lau. Lau began publishing poorly written libertarian/conservative screeds while at the University of Toronto, and appears to have graduated, hack-wise if not degree-wise, to the Post, where he has written about how the Laffer Curve shows that Canada’s taxes are too high and how the gender pay gap isn’t a problem, thus ensuring he has a future writing hateclickbait.
Lau’s latest screed, however, is about how the Toronto Public Library is fiscally wasteful, and at a certain point one must stop indulging the follies of youth and slap them across the goddamn face.
Just the other week, the Toronto Star complained in an editorial that municipal politicians were still convinced they had to “stop the gravy train…. But there is no gravy train.” The editorial was decrying a request from Mayor John Tory that city departments, including the Toronto Public Library, cut a paltry 2.6-per-cent from their budgets. City spending, the Star insisted, “has already been cut to the bone.” Oh, please. Anyone who looks at the library’s budget will find more gravy there than at Swiss Chalet.This sort of writing just sets my teeth on edge. That Swiss Chalet line in particular is the sort of Toronto pundit quip that is completely tone-appropriate for Toronto newspaper punditry, because it is a Canadian cultural reference that manages to be hackneyed, unfunny, and not even really the right answer because Swiss Chalet isn’t known for their gravy but for their delicious barbecue sauce.
It’s a terrible piece of writing, so you have to assume that Lau is going to be writing shitty columns for conservative Toronto papers for a long time.
Toronto’s public library system cost 22-per-cent more to operate, and its staffing costs alone were 33-per-cent higher, than the public libraries in Brampton, Hamilton, London, Markham, Mississauga, and Ottawa combined. This suggests that, contrary to what the Toronto Public Library Workers Union would have us believe, Toronto’s library workers are not overworked and underpaid.Before we start discussing all the other ways Lau is wrong, it is worth noting that the cost of living in Toronto is higher than it is in Brampton, Hamilton, London, Markham, Mississauga, or Ottawa, and in particular housing costs are much higher. This is why library workers in Toronto get paid more: because Toronto is more expensive. (Besides, librarians particularly need to understand the needs of their community in order to ensure that their library serves it well, and that means living in the community, rather than commuting in from Barrie or what have you.)
All this additional spending might be justified if Toronto’s library was significantly more efficient and productive than the library systems of those other six cities. But that’s not the case. Those same six cities combined serve 26-per-cent more residents than Toronto does. Together they offered 56-per-cent more by way of programming than Toronto’s library did that year. And they had a 16-per-cent greater circulation of materials than the Toronto Public Library did in 2013. Those numbers, again, are combined. But Toronto’s library, being the largest, should actually be enjoying some efficiencies. It is certainly odd that it should actually be less efficient than a half-dozen smaller Ontario libraries combined.Some of Lau’s statistics here are misleading. Stating that the six other library systems offer “56 percent more by way of programming” is stupid, for example, because what he seems to have done is add up total program attendance, child program attendance and youth program attendance as shown here, which effectively double-counts child and youth programs. The actual figure is that the six cities have 14 per cent more programming—which means that, since they have 26 per cent more population (or at least did per 2011 census figures, a fact which Lau neglects to mention), Toronto is actually putting on programming more efficiently.
Similarly, the “16 percent greater circulation of materials” figure actually speaks to how comparably used Toronto’s library is—after all, as Lau points out, those six cities have 26 per cent more people and accordingly you would assume that their circulation would be 26 per cent higher as well. Toronto’s library users are, in fact, using the library at a higher rate than people in those six cities.
This is actually fairly impressive, because as libraries get larger, their circulation rates generally grow less quickly with population, because larger library systems have larger collections, which in turn means “a larger amount of items most people never read.” There’s nothing wrong with popular items being in a library’s collection, of course, but the entire point of a larger library—and the reason circulation does not typically increase directly with population—is that it has a wider variety of materials in it, which in turn increases its maximum variable usability. Most people will never go search through the microfiche archives of the Toronto Telegram, or read through an 19th century operatic score composed by the wonderfully-named Giacomo Meyerbeer, or read a Dan Brown novel (well, we hope they won’t read a Dan Brown novel), but the Toronto Public Library has all of those things if you need them. TPL’s engagement and circulation rates show that Toronto library users are more wide-ranging in their use than average.
What’s more, it doesn’t just have those things for Torontonians, either, because all of the libraries Lau mentions have interlibrary loan agreements with the Toronto Public Library, meaning that if someone in Brampton or Markham or Ottawa needs to review Toronto Telegram microfiche archives and their library doesn’t have them (which they likely don’t), borrowers of those libraries can, through their libraries, borrow from the Toronto Public Library. (TPL fulfilled approximately 4,000 such requests in 2015.)
This is more or less the point of libraries in the first place. Lau’s argument that there should be “economies of scale” is just dense, because libraries aren’t goddamn McDonald’s franchises. As a population grows and gets more diverse the challenges that exist for libraries grow rather than shrink. The Toronto Public Library maintains collections in nearly 70 languages other than English, as well as collections in Braille, large print, and AV works for the hearing impaired. It provides support to Centre for Equitable Library Access for people with print disabilities. It subscribes to a impressive number of international newspapers. It needs to be stressed that smaller libraries do not do this sort of thing, because they simply don’t have the resources or mandate to do so.
Perhaps others might have once considered it unthinkable that Toronto would someday have more library branches than New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago. But it does.Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.
Toronto doesn’t have “more library branches” than New York City or Los Angeles. What Lau has done here is assume that the New York Public Library and the Los Angeles Public Library are the only public libraries servicing those two cities. But New York has three separate public library systems: the New York Public Library (which services Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island), the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Public Library. All together, New York’s three public libraries have 216 branches. Similarly, Los Angelenos are serviced by both the Los Angeles City Public Library and most of the branches of the Los Angeles County Public Library; in Los Angeles (not counting the suburban and exurban cities the County library also services) Los Angelenos are serviced by about 130 library branches.
Chicago, admittedly, has only 90 public library branches to the TPL’s 100 (plus a few libraries operated by Cook County rather than the City of Chicago), but it is worth remembering that Toronto is slightly larger than Chicago is now.
Finally, anybody writing about how they favour public library budget cuts probably doesn’t want to discuss the New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago library systems. The combined annual budget of the three major New York public libraries is approximately $471 million USD. The combined annual budget of the Los Angeles City and County Libraries is approximately $260 million USD. The most recent Chicago city budget puts the total library budget at $110 million USD. The Toronto Public Libary’s 2015 budget, in comparison, was $171 million Canadian—or approximately $127 million USD. Any comparison of library expenditures of large cities on a per-capita basis shows that Toronto is arguably underspending on libraries.
Rather than the 100 branches it has now, a more appropriate number for a city of Toronto’s size might be 40 or 50.The source for this “more appropriate number” appears to be out of Matthew Lau’s ass. Perhaps he should look at Toronto’s map of locations and explain which 50–60 locations should be axed and how he would do this without impacting services?
Indeed, closing branches is not a new idea: In 2011, a businessman who was on the Toronto Public Library’s board of directors suggested slashing 38 branches to save money.The businessman in question is noted Rob Ford appointee Stephen Dulmage. He resigned after six of the most bizarre months on the board in recent memory.
But when you really think about it, isn’t it also possible that the system itself might be unnecessary gravy? Is there any evidence that the same markets that keep us well served with winter boots, cars and groceries (including, of course, delicious gravy) couldn’t also provide us a solution for shared reading material if that’s what people wanted? It seems especially possible in the age of the digital sharing economy, where anybody with an Internet connection can access an endless supply of virtually costless words.
And of course, Lau ends his sad little screed with the appeal of libertarians everywhere regarding libraries, which is a less-refined version of the “what if we just gave everybody iPads instead of having a library” argument so popular with Silicon Valley hacks. (To answer that question: real-life books survive changes in digital and technology standards, allow kids to develop a sense of patience necessary to turn children into lifelong readers, and create tactile associations with books that enhance both affection for reading and the ability to remember what has been read.) I also note that anybody who suggests that the internet provides “an endless supply of virtually costless words” is a fool who knows literally nothing about the costs of e-book licensing and who does not realize that Google is simply not a one-to-one replacement for actual reference library services when it comes to searching for data. And “virtually costless” is not the same as “actually costless,” which matters when you are, for example, homeless and thus unable to afford any cost.
The answer to Lau’s question is that we came up with a solution for shared reading material, and they were called “libraries.” Remember, the entire concept of libraries initially conceived them as privately owned resources. The concept of the public library arose because societies recognized that public access to educational and informational resources was benefited everybody, and when your anticipated user base is “everybody” it makes sense to organize the programs publicly anyway.
Of course, none of this seems to matter to Lau, who clearly hasn’t spent much time in Toronto’s public libraries or else he would at least have better research skills. It doesn’t matter to him that the Toronto Public Library generates $5.63 in value for every dollar spent on it. It doesn’t matter to him that Toronto delivers children and youth programs more efficiently than his agglomerated group of six libraries either. Lau arrived at his conclusion before he ever started writing his piece; it might make for a good pitch, but it’s terrible journalism.
CORRECTION: 6:00 PM The Toronto Public Library does not run CELA, as the article originally stated. CELA is an independent not-for-profit, and the TPL provides ongoing support. We regret the error.
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