Source: Toronto Star

It’s a given. Some people scorn libraries, presumably because they can buy their own books, thank you very much. Or they think reading is effete, or dull, or that they themselves cannot be improved upon.

When people cut library budgets — as is being attempted by Mayor John Tory — they crush the life chances of children with careless or unknowing parents, of students sneaking into libraries after being bullied for bookishness at school, of people who need the library’s computers to look for work, of new Canadians trying to learn English.

A library offers everything to everybody. As Star columnist Edward Keenan recently wrote of the Toronto public library board’s refusal to give Tory the 2.6 per cent cut he wanted — though he wants it from every department and may still get it — it was a unanimous statement of defiance.

Some things can be cut. But transit needs a great deal more money. So do libraries. Not all city functions are equally necessary or similarly structured, despite what Tory says. Some are apples, some are oranges. Some are glass and laminate, some are cotton.

Yes, there are ways to cut library costs. The Star’s Sara Mojtehedzadeh has described the same bloat of highly paid administrators in libraries that is seen in universities, where precarious adjunct professors teach on the cheap. In 1999 there were six library managers making $100,000 or more. By 2014, there were 63.

I don’t want layoffs but certainly don’t want branches across the city closed on weeknights, as had been proposed, or less work for an army of precarious part-time library workers.

And then I read a peculiar column by Matthew Lau in the Financial Post calling Toronto’s entire public library system by a Rob Ford name, “gravy train.”

Where’s the gravy? It claimed Toronto’s libraries were less efficient than those in other smaller cities and that in fact, libraries are totally unnecessary. Surely if they wished, “anybody with an Internet connection can access an endless supply of virtually costless words.”

How writers demean themselves.

The columnist himself had free library access at university but doesn’t want it for the rest of us. He earned a commerce degree but wants lower taxes, which will cut higher education. He does not understand city planning, architecture, soft power, self-teaching, the publishing industry, encouraging student graduation or the existence of ethnic enclaves that would welcome more Canada via beautiful libraries.

Christopher Bird of got wonderfully irate about this. He crunched Lau’s numbers and found they didn’t make enough corn flakes to crust a tartlet. He said numbers were combined wrongly, that Toronto workers are paid more because it costs more to live here than, say, in London, Ont., and that Torontonians in fact use their libraries at a higher rate than do citizens in other cities and towns.

But this doesn’t interest me as much as how anti-tax, anti-library, anti-union people like Lau end up sounding like the Ford brothers. Maybe Lau shouldn’t have mentioned “gravy.”

I see status anxiety bubbling in the pot. Well-read people seem a threat, and the dread word “elite” always pops up, though that’s weird in the case of Conservative leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch, who is highly educated and inarguably elitist. She must hate herself but appears not to.

Toronto’s libraries give power to the people. I have never understood why populists like the Fords wanted “regular folks” not to have a multiplicity of libraries, in the same way I wondered why they disliked even basic rules of public decorum. They sensed books and courtesy were considered desirable but had been raised to sneer at both. It is an uncomfortable position for an adult to be in.

But an adult has freedom to decide what he wants to be. Children do not.

“The association between books for children and autonomy for children is very strong,” wrote Francis Spufford in The Child that Books Built: A Memoir of Childhood and Reading.

Books are an escape for children who have difficult lives, as Spufford did. His sister was very ill; his parents were frantic, and for years it was distressing to see. He survived by immersing himself in reading so deeply that it became druglike.

The comedian Stephen Colbert endured the plane-crash death of his father and two of his 10 siblings by immersing himself in Dungeons and Dragons, in Tolkien, one place to distract him, another to hone his good brain.

British feminist Caitlin Moran, the eldest of eight children growing up poor in Wolverhampton — it’s dire there — was saved by libraries, but they’re now being closed across the nation.

“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft and a festival,” she has written. “They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead.”

I want more libraries, more hours open, computers and books, softer chairs, more children’s corners, more security guards and librarians. Any cut at all will be a kick in the teeth to the ambitious people of Toronto.

© Toronto Star