[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WE_ehrlJec

During university, I volunteered at the local library, shelf-reading and tidying books.  When I told a friend, she asked why I didn’t just volunteer at a food bank; then I’d do more good.  At the time, I wasn’t aware of the saying “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach him how to fish and he’ll eat for life.”  But that’s more or less what I told her.

I believed, and I still believe, that free education is one of the fundamental rights to which each person is entitled.  And education doesn’t end in the classroom – it stretches into the home and community, and libraries are at the heart of this education.

So, yeah, I believe libraries are sacred.  That’s why it scares me that they’re first in line for the Toronto budget cuts.

At last count in 2010, the Toronto Public Library was the busiest one on the continent, with over 30 million items circulated for a city of 2.5 million people.  (By contrast, the New York Public library serves over 3 million people in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, and circulated 24 million items last year.)  Torontonians don’t just borrow materials.  We buy used books, do research for homework, get together with friends, surf the Internet, and find jobs.  We take part in the homework clubs, ESL programs, book and conversation and film clubs, author readings, cultural seminars, library balls – the list goes on and on.  There’s a damn good reason we call our library system one of the best in the world – it’s because it is.

And yet, the smaller local branches – where much of this interaction takes place – may be the first to go, so that city council can balance the budget.  Never mind all the people who use libraries, including the above teenager.  Anika featured in the video above is no taxpayer, she said at 2 a.m. during a 22-hour municipal meeting.  “But when I get to use the computers in the library and do my homework, I’ll be able to get a good job someday…and when the day comes to pay taxes, I’ll be glad that you supported people paying the extra taxes to keep the system going.”

Personally, I’m willing to pay higher taxes to maintain the services that I love about Toronto – snow driveway clearing, tree-planting, city-owned theatres, and yes, the 99 library branches scattered across the GTA.  If city council is bound and determined to eliminate their deficit, then that’s how I’d contribute.

But that’s me, and a couple thousand other people.  When push comes to shove though, how many will really be willing to shell out, say, a 10% property tax hike, or a 25 cent public transit fare increase, to keep some of these services running?  And how many families are financially able to afford this?

A columnist in the Toronto Star (the author of my blog title) maintained last Thursday that “a library within handy access by foot…isn’t a right…It would simply be nice.”  Which is reducing a library’s community contribution to mere geography, and a library is more than that.

I’d like to know what you think about this issue. Vote and let us know your thoughts.

[poll id=”23″]

– Jean AAR