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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

An open letter to Thunder Bay city councillors re: library cuts

What follows is a letter I emailed to city councillors Albert Aiello, Mark Bentz, and Brian Hamilton.

Dear Councillors,

I'm writing to convey my dismay and disappointment regarding your stances on the operation of the Thunder Bay Public Library, as reported in the TBNewsWatch article of Jan 26, "City council eyes cuts to public library."

Closing a branch merely to save money might seem like no big deal for those of us privileged enough to drive in this city. For many, including those who rely on TBPL for essential services like Internet access, this creates new hurdles. What may be a 10- or 15-minute walk for some neighbourhood kids or someone who needs to check their email suddenly becomes a bus ride of half an hour or more. While it may be true, as Coun. Bentz's research suggests, that Thunder Bay has more branches than comparable cities, I'd suggest that's not germane: just as TBPL is itself a leader, rather than a follower, when it comes to library innovation and community outreach, so too should Thunder Bay lead rather than follow what other cities do.

Coun. Aiello's suggestion that the library reduce its collection development budget comes from a faulty premise that digital services are cheaper, or even free, compared to print media. This is a seductive line of reasoning but not a sound one: the digital services to which libraries subscribe are often costly. For example, publishers charge libraries far more for a licence of an eBook (a licence which will expire mind you) than a print copy of that book. Additionally, the library maintains valuable subscriptions to proprietary databases that help high school and amateur researchers who don't have the luxury of accessing a university library like LU's.

I'm not just a resident of Thunder Bay; I'm also privileged enough to be a property owner. In addition to the portion of my property taxes that go towards TBPL, I donate $10/month directly. This might not be the most cost-effective decision for my personal budget--but it is oh-so-essential. I look at the good work TBPL does for this town and I don't know how I could do otherwise. Our library is an outstanding, shining example of what libraries should be to their communities. And you want to make it harder for it to provide programs, offer resources, and help us work towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples? For shame.

I understand your responsibility as city councillors to question and examine every investment the city makes into services. Nevertheless, I find it gravely troubling that you cast such an austere eye towards TBPL. Libraries are not and have never been merely a repository of books. They are not for any particular demographic; they are for everyone. That being said, cuts to TBPL's budget will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable sectors of our community. Your responsibility as city councillors extends beyond the fiscal: you have a moral responsibility to ensure that our community has safe, welcoming spaces for everyone. Along those lines, I close with this final thought: libraries are some of the most valuable spaces in any community, because they are one of the few indoor public spaces that remain where you are not asked to pay for your time. Coffeeshops (rightly) request that you purchase something to sit there. Stores expect you to buy. A library is always free. In a society that is increasingly commercialized and increasingly demanding of our money through ever smaller, ever more frequent transactions, that is precious. Even sacred. You can tell a lot about a city by looking at its libraries--not, mind you, at the number of branches they have, but rather how much support they receive to carry out the valuable missions they undertake every single day.

Sincerely,
Ben Babcock

This evening at 5 pm I received a reply from Coun. Aiello:

Thank you Ben for your thoughts and feedback. I am simply asking questions of the operation , the same questions we ask of all city departments . No decisions have been made - we need answers to questions as the TBPL did not show any budget other than the dollars they are requesting from the city, leading to such questions.