Put aside the question of whether or not Toronto Councillor and mayoral confidant Doug Ford knows what Margaret Atwood looks like or has read her books. What is shocking is his suggestion that a great literary icon should “go run in the next election and get democratically elected” if she is concerned about funding for libraries.
Ms. Atwood has an unquestioned right to stand for libraries. Every citizen does. As she says, “This is about what sort of city the people of Toronto want to live in.”
Presumably, they, like people in other Canadian cities, want a city that aspires to the best. And, in fact, Toronto’s public library system is among the best. Not only the best in Canada, but in North America.
Toronto’s system is the second largest, by number of branches, and the busiest by circulation, on the continent. New York City public libraries lent out 24 million volumes in 2010; Toronto’s lent out over 32 million. The system has innovated, offering music and e-book downloads, making Internet access widely available, delivering materials to local branches, and lending out cards that give free access to local museums.
Mr. Ford’s attack is ironic, because no public service puts democracy on display more than libraries. Toronto and other cities that have invested in them foster a learning and reading culture. How? By democratizing knowledge. And the value of the system is inseparable from its density. Yet Mr. Ford attacked that too, complaining about the number of libraries in his own ward.
That doesn’t mean that a rigorous review of library spending should not be part of efforts to rein in the municipal budget. And Mayor Rob Ford, Doug Ford’s brother, is right to be aggressive in seeking budgetary savings across the city. But government is not exclusively a site of bureaucratic slumber or waste. It can be a wellspring of excellence. There are some things that the city does very well, and Toronto’s public libraries represent the best of that city’s public services. There is no shortage of other areas that deserve closer scrutiny.