Friday, July 29, 2011

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum (Don’t let the bastards grind you down)*

“’s difficult to bottom line a library.”

I can’t call myself a Torontonian without reservation: I was raised in a rural village two hours away and I only spend five days a week downtown for work. Cumulatively, however, I have had a Toronto address for exactly half of my adult life. Thus, I can relate to the swell of Toronto pride this week, apparent in others’ conversations and social media comments about “my [their] city.” It’s a direct response to the new era defined by the mayorship of Rob Ford.

Threats to close Toronto Public Library branches alarmed the masses, causing concerned citizens to camp out during the 24 hour City Council meeting. The concern is over what is at stake but also over the cavalier attitude that accompanies the push towards privatization. Rob Ford’s elder brother, Coun. Doug Ford, noted that his Scarborough neighbourhood has more libraries than Tim Hortons—as if the two are mutually exclusive? My hometown, incidentally, went for years without a Tim Hortons but I think if the library were missing, it would leave a gaping hole.

Celebrated author Margaret Atwood became the unofficial spokesperson for the fight to save TPL. Her alliances with the library world have been apparent for years, notably in her presentation at an American Library Association conference. At any rate, she appealed to fans through her Twitter feed on several occasions to sign an online petition. The surge of John Hancocks actually crashed the TPL Workers Union server, and at last count, I heard there were 39,000 signatures. On Tuesday, Coun. Doug Ford retorted that he didn’t know Atwood and wouldn’t even recognize her. Yet, this is a woman whose portrait has been painted by Charles Pachter. I can picture the low-brow response: Q-Who’s Charles Pachter? If he walked right past me, I wouldn’t recognize him. A-Oh bother! He painted the Queen. There you have it, Atwood is in line with the Queen…not in line to be Queen, but she is Canadian literary royalty, with a stunning 21 honourary degrees and myriad awards including the Giller Prize, the Booker Prize, and the Governor General’s Award. Even Indigo Chapters have acknowledged her heavyweight status by knocking 30 per cent off all Atwood titles until the end of July when customers present a Canadian library card.

It was at my hometown library that I first made my way through the entire Atwood collection. Some of her sentences are such zingers that I would read them repeatedly before moving on, taking forever to finish a book. I wasn’t always a prolific reader. With great embarrassment, I remember being at the same library for preschool story hour and trying to convince a friend I knew how to read by mimicking silent reading. I knew reading was cool, and beyond that, it was empowering. How did I know that? Because I watched my mother do literacy tutoring with an adult at the library, something I did myself years later with not-for-profit organizations. (If it doesn’t break your heart to learn that illiterate adults get by in Toronto by doing things like memorizing the colours and murals at TTC subway stops, then society is doomed and we can congratulate Atwood on her dystopian visionary powers, revealed in such classics as The Handmaid’s Tale). I actually watched an adaptation of this book by the Canadian Opera Company, which you might argue is an economic benefit to Toronto of me having used a public library in Ontario years earlier. Do you think City Council would buy that as an argument for the butterfly effect?

Ultimately, it’s difficult to bottom line a library. The fact that my hometown library gave me my first art show and gave me an alternative to working in the tobacco industry for five years? Priceless. The impact of helping a user with a dictionary to decipher a letter from an employer? Priceless. Of helping a senior use a computer? Priceless. Of helping an adult read? Actually, you probably can put a price on that if you consider the increased employability of the individual.

Every story I’ve read about last night’s meeting quotes the same 67-year-old woman. Mary Trapani Hynes proposed that Toronto obliterate the public library system altogether, since the burdens of a politically aware and literate community are too great. Now that’s satire, Atwood style.

*From The Handmaid’s Tale, McClelland & Stewart, Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

For background on the proposed cuts, which will be followed up in September, click here.

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