The folks at The Guardian are positively gushing over the state of Canada's libraries. They reckon they're the world's best.
Public libraries throughout the western world are struggling. Britain has closed hundreds since 2010, reduced hours in others and replaced many paid librarians with volunteers. In Belgium, an advocacy group called Public Libraries 2020 aims to “challenge outdated perceptions” of libraries – in part by cajoling politicians to set foot inside one. In North America, staff per visitor has fallen across the board since 2012, and circulation and visits are dropping. The “disruption” of Silicon Valley – in which Uber replaces taxis, Airbnb replaces hotels and Netflix replaces video stores – has many governments asking: why pay for physical book repositories when you can get so much reading material online?
And yet researchers from Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf have ranked Canada as having the best public library systems among 30 major cities studied. (All three Canadian cities included – Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver – came in the top 10.)
You can see why. Readings and events at the 575-seat theatre at the Toronto reference branch are free, and you’d be well advised to book your ticket early: a recent appearance by Roxane Gay sold out in 88 seconds. Sensibly, the researchers also rated the libraries on the availability of snacks – behind me is a cafe with Balzac quotes on the walls and urns of Margaret Atwood-themed coffee. Not bad, though no match for Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque, where you can get a risotto dinner with wine.
The Toronto reference library hosts Hand-a-thons, in which school groups use the 3D printers along with Arduino robotics kits to make working prosthetic hands. In the maker space a printing press, for self-publishing paperbacks, smells comfortingly of hot glue. There’s a podcasting studio and a green screen, where actors, models and real estate agents come to take headshots. A colleague is usually present to help answer questions about the scanners or photo suites, my guide explained, but right then he was setting up the VR superhero demo in the gallery.
“Access to information and pathways to learning were the great equalisers of the 20th century,” says Vickery Bowles, Toronto’s head librarian. “In the 21st century, we’re increasingly dependent on access to online services, and understanding of and comfort with that technology.”
Bowles sees a vital role of the public library in strengthening civic discourse and enabling political participation. Right now, the library is offering workshops on how to run for office or get involved in an election campaign (disclosure: I will be a paid panellist on a planned event in the library’s On Civil Society series). “We’re seeing more and more challenges to our democratic values and principles,” she says.