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Mary Ladky is the executive director of The Children’s Book Bank

What do the cuts to library services in Ontario really mean? For many, a loss of access to books. For us all, a loss of welcoming public spaces.

Here is a scenario. A girl living in Espanola is fascinated by railroads and trains. Espanola is a Central Ontario town of 5,000 with a very decent small library located near the high school.

Funding cuts to Northern, Southern Ontario library systems hit rural and Indigenous communities

As a child, she’s able to borrow books such as The Kids Book of Canada’s Railway. By Grade 9, however, the collection in the town library can no longer feed her expanding interest. She won’t be able to borrow more teenage-appropriate titles such as Night on the Galactic Railroad or The Adventure of the Lost Locomotive. Now, the cancellation of interlibrary loans and the drastic reduction of capacity to purchase new e-resources make it almost certain she won’t have access to those books.

No big deal, you say? There is strong evidence to the contrary. Early reading experiences with parents and caregivers remain the starting point for developing lifelong reading habits. But the next key period are the teen years. Here is where the potential and possibility of adult life is first intuited, often via books.

Some years ago, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development declared that reading enjoyment is actually more important for the educational success of children than their family’s socio-economic status. In 2018, they published a study concluding that reading for pleasure at the age of 15 is one of the strongest factors in determining future social mobility.

Yes, reading books out of curiosity, and for fun, can shape a destiny. What, for instance, happens to the girl in Espanola if her passion for trains and railroads is stunted by the lack of resources. Does she abandon her dream? Maybe. Exploring it certainly gets harder.

Even the library space itself may come under threat. What if budget cuts to libraries continue and smaller community libraries are eventually shuttered or are forced to share locations with other social services, diminishing shelf space for books? Where does this girl – or anyone in small towns with limited public spaces – go after school or on a rainy Saturday afternoon? What world does she escape into if she’s feeling a little lonely or blue and wants to dive into a good book? What happens to her future as an engineer, perhaps?

Too many assume technology will somehow eventually resolve this issue, or even make the need for physical books redundant. But books still matter. Study after study confirms that they continue to provide a richer, deeper and more meaningful reading experience than screens.

While this is especially true for early readers, teenagers benefit from access to physical books as well. Hours spent devouring a favourite novel builds self-confidence and resiliency. School performance improves when kids can choose books they want to read, and believe those books are their own, part of their individuation.

A vigorous conversation is underway about the purposes of libraries. Increasingly, people are seeking a variety of services at their local library: language classes, time on a computer to job search or free family activities during school holidays. The CEO of the Thunder Bay Library, John Pateman, recently warned on CBC that cuts to library services can damage the underlying social infrastructure of a community.

This anxiety was also the topic of a recent UNESCO Forum that I attended in Italy, where libraries were discussed as spaces to build citizenship, as well as serving as catalysts for social mobility. Italians are committed to building libraries in small communities to counteract the exclusionist rhetoric of the far-right, who might prefer no public spaces to those that are open to everyone, from every background, calling these communities home.

This lesson shouldn’t be lost on Ontarians. Imagine if, instead of cutting library services, our provincial government understood libraries for what they are and can be: inclusive spaces which actually drive social mobility. Our libraries, the books in them and the services they provide foster a sense of community. Reduce their numbers, or their funding sources, and social cohesion becomes that much harder.