Without a doubt, the introduction of Bill 109's "amendments" to the present Public Libraries Act
enacted in 1984 would transform many aspects of public library service in Ontario. This
transformation goes far beyond what many citizens consider being in their public interest. In fact,
Bill 109 actually represents a complete restructuring, reorganization, and reorientation of library
service components that have provided continuity for delivering quality service levels in our
communities for most of this century. A number of its sections should be revised or withdrawn.
In order to address the major issues I am concerned with, I will refer to the Ministry of
Citizenship, Culture and Recreation's "Fact Sheet: Local Control of Public Libraries Act 1997"
and the "Compendium: Local Control of Public Libraries Act 1997." These two ministry
synopses provide the basic rationale for most of the proposed major changes and purport to
assure us that the effects of change would be positive. My references to particular sections of Bill
109 or the current Act are enclosed in parentheses.
Let us begin with ACCESS TO LIBRARY FACILITIES AND COLLECTIONS.
1. The proposed amendments in Bill 109 on access to resources [section 14] take us back to the days of the last century, they do not in any way lead us into the twenty-first century. Presently, local residents can register at a library and borrow free of charge items such as books, periodicals, printed materials, sound recordings, and video recordings. As consumers know, many cassette tapes, videos, and compact disks cost less than books, yet Bill 109 would make it possible to introduce variable charges for lending these nonbook materials!!! There is no economic sense to this as far as I can see, based on the market value of these products and the escalating cost of books.
The ministry Fact Sheet says: "Free access to information is a long and proud tradition which must be preserved and safeguarded." What are the new safeguards? The new "framework" as it is called (actually a minor regulation to be made under the Municipal Act) will guarantee that members of the public can enter a public library and use collections on the premise without charge. As well, they may borrow books and other printed materials for free, and special format materials for residents with disabilities can be loaned free. In sum, the new safeguards are actually a reduction in existing service and there is no thought about safeguarding the public's free acquisition of information via computer resources, data bases, etc. in an expanding world of digital formats and computerized information. This is exactly the new type of service our libraries should be striving to achieve. It is amazing that the provincial government, which is rapidly expanding its own program to provide information in electronic formats, should permit local councils the option to charge fees for government information.
Ontario's proposed service is in marked contrast to the provisions of the New Brunswick libraries act which was completely revised in February, just a month ago (its Bill 89). This province actually increased the number of materials by adding "electronic data bases and texts, videos, CD-ROMS, and other information in digital form" to the list of materials available free of charge. This step followed the lead of British Columbia, which thoroughly revised its library act in 1994 by passing Regulation 467/94 that specifically included "laser disks, motion picture films, Braille books, and maps" as items to be lent free of charge by public libraries. Why can't Ontario do the same? Why do we have to take retrograde steps?
Some people who accept/promote the concept of user fees in libraries often point to Alberta,
where charges have become commonplace in the 1990s for circulating library materials and using
library services. For comparative purposes, I would like to point out that this province also has
no sales tax. Question: is Ontario going to follow Alberta's example and eliminate our provincial
sales tax? This is a very remote possibility at best. If we are going to emulate other provincial
jurisdictions and provide real safeguards, then Bill 109 should be revised to include the
provisions on access that British Columbia and New Brunswick have enacted.
2. The new thinking prevalent in the Fact Sheet and Compendium would provide library boards with the power to set rates and fees for all other services according to local standards [section 14]. According to the ministry Fact Sheet: "libraries will have more flexibility to determine their own fees according to local priorities." What is really going on here is that user fees will be imposed on a wider range of services and materials. The Fact Sheet refers to existing charging practices--"room rentals, information searches, and photocopying"--but, in the future, local residents are going to be charged for more materials and services that are not mandated free in the revised Act and new Regulation.
Obviously, relatively inexpensive nonbook form materials and new information services as yet
undeveloped via the Internet fall into this mode of "flexible thinking." Additional user
charges--not tax revenue--are seen to be the best way to fund community library service. Under
this philosophy it is perfectly legitimate for libraries to cancel paper subscriptions for newspapers
and collect fees for individual access to the same newspaper content in electronic format. The
entire concept of "public good" provided by an educational service, such as the public library, is
being entirely swept away by the expediency of budget cutting and a short-sighted, hodgepodge
of user pay practices. Bill 109 should be revised to limit public charges for services by
retaining the existing text of the current section of the Act [section 23(3)] which refers to fees.
The need for flexibility argument which opens the door to additional charges brings us to the second part of the ministry's Fact Sheet's statement on FUNDING TO LIBRARIES. Before we look at this however, I will briefly review the present funding realities which have cast a long shadow on the library scene since November 29, 1995:
On April 11, 1996 additional expenditure reductions were announced, namely:
By themselves, these cuts were dramatic enough, for example, the Metro Toronto library lost a reported $182,000 and the OLS lost $2,700,000. Both organizations promptly downsized and eliminated staff positions. But the government proposes in Bill 109 to outdo these earlier, corrosive budget efforts.
1. Now the government wants to phase out completely the operating household grant "over a period of time" without offering any details. Incredibly, the conditional operating grants which have been voted annually from the Ontario legislature for public libraries since 1895 will be completely eliminated [section 30]. The Fact Sheet indicates this government proposes to transfer the responsibility for funding education (our local schools) from municipalities, therefore: "This will give local authorities greater financial flexibility to fund other service, including libraries." What a leap of faith! Where is the data!
The downloading of various social funding responsibilities from the province to the municipal sector which is currently being debated is a questionable process. Most municipal leaders, including the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, have been resisting this piece of legerdemain since January, mainly because they realize it will add substantial, additional costs to the local government tax base because original provincial estimates were not correct. How are we to square this resistance to the ministry's claim that the $24 million library conditional grant download proposed in Bill 109 is "revenue neutral" and will be assumed by the municipal sector over the course of a few years? On this score, without the presentation of any serious data analysis, Bill 109 completely lacks credibility.
Further, there is little evidence in past thirty years (since the major revision to the public libraries act in 1966) to suggest that municipalities are eager to pick up major increases to local public library spending due to provincial withdrawals. A constant position taken by the AMO since the mid-1970s has been to ask the province to deconditionalize its annual grant to libraries and to redirect this amount to municipalities for general cultural distribution, not to transfer the total amount to local tax bills. It has not been an uncommon practice for municipalities to reassess their local tax expenditures for libraries, especially when increases to provincial conditional funding were announced. In any case, as a 1990 study showed (Beacock & Erkkila, "Examination of the Funding of Public Libraries by the Province of Ontario and Municipalities"), the municipal share of library expenditures has increased very slowly at a time when provincial funding has faltered since the early 1980s.
If the government wants to persist and eliminate the conditional grant, then the least it could
do is delay the implementation for two years while other provincial-municipal transfer issues
are resolved and library boards have an opportunity to review the implications for their
2. On a second point related to funding, the government's Fact Sheet states that it will now be directing provincial support to the province-wide public library network that OLS has provided so much support for since these services were redesigned in the 1980s. The government is to be commended for defining a network [section 1], but, of course, OLS will be doing the work with 37% less revenue than before 1995. Incredibly, the ministry Fact Sheet provides no explanation for this convoluted situation, perhaps because it is business as usual, the usual logic being that OLS is a convenient source for ministry cutbacks.
At a time when the ministry is providing better definitions for systems networking, there are many
unanswered questions. Is the ministry planning any new OLS initiatives? Does it have any ideas
about putting money back into new services, once the "fat" stripped away after the difficult
downsizing exercises of 1996 and 1997 are completed? The silence on questions like these is
more illuminating than the new definitions.
Finally, we come to the Fact Sheet's GOVERNANCE OF LIBRARY BOARDS. In general, the
present government is determined to have libraries controlled locally, the main cause for which
Bill 109 will become known in the Canadian library community. Of course, by local control the
government means control by municipal councils, seemingly a more efficient way to run things.
The idea that local government includes a mix of municipal councils, independent boards (our
schools), semi-independent boards (like libraries), and other local/regional bodies apparently is
anathema, particularly in the case of library boards which have existed apart from councils for
more than a century.
1. First, the government clearly is not comfortable that present legislation outlines the composition, qualification, duties, size, and reporting procedures of library boards within the Ontario Public Libraries Act. It is too much like other Canadian provincial or American state library acts which have evolved over the past century. The new thinking requires that "process-oriented requirements will be removed" and that municipalities will determine all these variables through bylaws [section 6]. What this really means is that the present government is not interested in maintaining a provincial perspective on public matters of library governance. Providing province-wide standards and guidance is not part of Bill 109's lexicon. Let local municipalities reinvent the wheel and enact hundreds of bylaws across the province to determine the size, duties, etc. of library board members. Perhaps some municipality will come up with improvements, perhaps not. If local control and accountability are so important, retain the present Act's requirements in Bill 109 and add additional safeguards (such as recall of a trustee) instead of leaving it to the local level to introduce a multiplicity of bylaws.
2. Second, the present requirement that citizens must constitute a majority of members of the
library board is to be abolished [section 6]. Ultimately, this spells the end for meaningful local
citizen participation in library decision-making. It will become possible for councillors to
administer libraries like any other committee of council, albeit in the guise of a "board." New
provisions to utilize other municipal staff and infrastructure simply facilitate this process, as does
the elimination of board officers (CEO, Secretary, and Treasurer) [sections 10-11]. The ministry
is going ahead on this point even though it has been repeatedly advised by library groups (Ontario
Library Trustees Association, Ontario Library Association, and many boards) not to eliminate the
broader citizen base of trustee appointments. Because most trustees are not paid for serving on
boards, it is difficult to see any saving achieved by this proposal. To ensure meaningful citizen
participation retain the existing Act's requirement [section 10(2)] that citizens form a majority
on boards and extend this to county libraries as well.
3. Finally, the new thinking finds it is necessary to emphasize that "line by line" budget control by municipal councils over annual library board estimates is strengthened by Bill 109 [section 15]. This would presumably eliminate any possibility of unauthorized spending by library boards which is taking place now. Of course, no examples of current extravagant spending by libraries are offered. Considering that the current legislative language and previous provincial court decisions (e.g., the 1981 "Aurora Public Library Board and the Town of Aurora") already give councils financial control, this silence is not surprising.
Neither the Compendium nor the Fact Sheet provide a clear explanations on these points. They
don't answer the question why minor changes in this instance improve local control by councils.
This failure adds further irony to the title of Bill 109: it is being enacted to provide more "local
control" even though it is short on a rationale for this concept.
To conclude, many of the features of Bill 109 and the ministry's drastic budget cuts in 1996/98 actually diminish present library conditions. Public libraries have been controlled locally for more than a century. What is new in Bill 109 is an explicit neoconservative rhetoric on downsizing and reorganization of public services, namely:
The library community will survive the effects of Bill 109. But it is highly unlikely that the quality of public library services in our communities across Ontario will be improved by most of the Bill's provisions.