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Ryan Weston, a PhD student in religious studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, says he uses the library every few weeks to access material for his research on gospel music.
Ryan Weston, a PhD student in religious studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, says he uses the library every few weeks to access material for his research on gospel music.

Library fee for some borrowers decried Add to ...

The latest scrimmage over dollars among Canadian universities is focused on the heart of learning - the library.

Beginning next month, the University of Toronto, home to one of the largest academic collections in North America, will ask scholars from other schools to pay up if they want to visit and borrow a book. The annual $200 fee ($95 for seniors) is outraging academics who say it is an attempt to limit access to a collection that is of national importance and was built with public funds.

The University of Toronto is defending its move, saying it simply cannot continue to give visiting scholars a free ride in an arrangement that for years has seen its students subsidizing faculty and graduate students from across the country who visit and use the collection.

"The costs of running a library this big and this good are staggering and we are staggering under it," University of Toronto provost Cheryl Misak said. "We really have to find a fairer way of maintaining this precious resource."

The move comes at a time when U of T and other large universities are pressing for a greater concentration of research and graduate education on a select number of campuses, and a funding model that reflects the real costs of research. Dr. Misak said the new fees are not linked to that effort and will be a "drop in the bucket," in raising the money necessary to bridge the library's funding gap.

Visiting researchers borrowed roughly 80,000 items last year, she said, with the greatest use concentrated at the massive Robarts Library. Beginning Oct. 1, scholars can still request materials through the existing interlibrary lending system, but those who visit the campus and borrow material will be asked to pay a fee.

Last year, the Ontario government gave $15-million for renovations at Robarts, which opened in 1973. Dr. Misak said that money is helping to pay for an extensive remodelling of the building, but the school does not receive any extra funding for operating costs and to maintain the collection. The university spent $23-million on acquisitions last year, and the new fees, she said, are one of several measures being considered to help cover the rising cost of buying materials.

The university is also considering charging visitors to browse the shelves of some of the busier libraries on campus, although access to the stacks at Robarts will remain free for the coming year.

Opposition to the fees has been strongest from graduate students who say the charges amount to an increase in the cost of their education that they can ill afford.

Ryan Weston, a graduate student in religious studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, figures he visits Robarts or the university's music library every few weeks to access material for his research on gospel music. "I'd say I am heavily dependent on it," said Mr. Weston, who has set up a Facebook group to protest against the charges.

Mr. Weston said the $200 represents about half a month's rent or several weeks of groceries. "There are lots of things I could do with $200."

Nathan Cecckin, president of the Graduate Students' Association at York University, said he is working with students from several campuses to try to stop the fees. "Essentially, graduate students at smaller universities are being left in the lurch," he said.

Canadian academic libraries have a long tradition of co-operation and sharing resources, and the move by U of T has some fearing long-standing reciprocal agreements may be in danger.

"I understand the position that they are in. All universities are in trouble. What's to stop others from doing the same thing?" asked Marlene Shore, a history professor at York University. "This is a systemic problem. It would be good if they could find another way to get funds than from charging users."

Kathy Scardellato, executive director of the Ontario Council of University Libraries, said the province's 21 public universities have a long history of collaboration, and since 2002 have had a direct borrowing agreement with campuses in other regions of the country. It is not clear, she said, whether the move by U of T contradicts the spirit of that agreement. "When something like this happens, obviously it makes everybody pause," she said.

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