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Readers respond: Throwing The Book At Libraries (Opinion, July 25)
Leave this much-beleaguered bastion of socialism alone. The library offers choice and plethora of opportunity for those who can’t budget for new books or see no need to amass books at home. Would patrons bring home well-thumbed, cigarette-stained books otherwise? Are used bookstores next? No one benefits from them except the retailer. The curbside Little Free Library? No one except the reader comes out ahead.
I’m biased: My father was the librarian for a regional library system overseeing 40-plus libraries in Ontario’s near north. Under his auspices, small villages (without bookshops) developed local libraries as did several First Nations. If you think a librarian’s wage (usually with at least a masters of library science) of $50,500 is generous, then one is sorely deluded.
The library is something we pay for with our tax dollars. Kenneth Whyte does not mention that the Canada Council for the Arts (also funded by our taxes) distributes payment to more than 17,000 authors through a program called the Public Lending Right Program, as compensation for having their books available for free in libraries.
I find Mr. Whyte’s opinion extremely damaging in the “make-do” atmosphere in which we find ourselves.
Hazel Smith Toronto
I am sympathetic to Kenneth Whyte’s frustration, however I find his logic flawed. If libraries had fewer copies of the latest bestseller, or fewer loans were permitted before a digital book expired, this would not necessarily translate to an equal and offsetting number of book sales.
I would never buy 40 new books a year. If I have to wait a bit longer before I get to the top of a library hold queue, then that seems a fair and reasonable compromise.
In the meantime, passionate readers would expand the practice of sharing hard copies among family and friends. Churches would see larger crowds at their annual rummage sales. And the used book exchange stores would do a booming business.
Jennifer Copeland Thornhill, Ont.
Although I believe in Kenneth Whyte’s major premise, I must disagree with his contention that books are “at no charge.”
Ottawa has a $3.8-billion 2020 budget of which, according to my annual municipal tax assessment, my share is $7,800. In the budget, about 1.5 per cent is allocated to the Ottawa Public Library, thus making my annual contribution $117.
I hope all of Canada is as well served by their libraries as we are and at a reasonable cost. We will soon have a wonderful new joint facility for the national archives and Ottawa library, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it is free.
Les Corbett Ottawa
While Kenneth Whyte makes a good case blaming public libraries for the demise of booksellers, I feel he is blaming the wrong party. Independent booksellers have co-existed for hundreds of years with lending libraries. I believe the true culprit is modern electronic media.
Let me make an analogy to the disappearance of the record store. When free music became available on radio, it actually increased the market for records. When home recording equipment became widely available, sales began to drop as people illegally copied their LPs and CDs. The death knell for stores came with downloadable music for personal players.
With books now commonly downloaded to electronic readers, many people neither buy books nor borrow them from libraries. I fear that booksellers will go the same way as record stores, but not because of lending libraries.
James Douglas Ottawa
I wonder why Kenneth Whyte seems so out of sync with today’s economic reality.
Many people these days struggle to pay rent and put food on the table, not knowing when they will have secure income. Being able to borrow items from libraries at least affords them enjoyment, entertainment and education in these isolated times.
Many seniors who are big readers and on limited incomes appreciate that local libraries allow them to keep up to date with the latest books. I borrow often from mine, then purchase copies of books I have really enjoyed from the local Almonte bookstore for gifting.
Libraries also often host local authors and book signings. Many purchase book club sets for the many group readers they serve. Libraries are significant purchasers of new book releases.
Perhaps if Mr. Whyte had time to expand his social circle, he might come into contact with a variety of library patrons who love books, but cannot afford to purchase them all. I think his elitist premise is “overdue” for a rethink. What next, grocery stores taking income away from chefs?
Penelope Bass Perth, Ont.
I’m a bit confused by Kenneth Whyte’s opinion of libraries. Was I meant to dislike and resent them at the end of it? Because the impression I got was of an institution that is nimble in the face of technological change, while still serving the learning and entertainment needs of a wide cross-section of the community – whereas publishers appear to be stuck in the same business model they have had since time immemorial (except, perhaps, with more government subsidies).
Maybe the issue is not that libraries are too successful, but that publishers have failed to find creative ways to respond to new audiences and a changing marketplace.
Rosanne Renzetti Toronto
Kenneth Whyte references Andrew Carnegie’s view of the function of public libraries, writing that they are “a last resort for those without access to books or the means to buy them.” The public he had in mind now represents a large and growing proportion of Canadians, especially those of low and medium incomes who cannot afford to buy all the books they want and need to read.
Much of Mr. Whyte’s evidence for the unfairness suffered by publishers due to access provided by libraries is drawn from U.S. sources, where commercialism is now a part of some library operations. So far, these aren’t the libraries we know and depend on for reading and information.
He also does not consider the huge impact libraries have on our economy by raising the horizons of huge numbers of people, who then are motivated to get the training and education they need for employment.
It would seem that publishers and authors will need to find ways to promote and sell the books they offer digitally.
Margaret Vandenbroucke Toronto
As a retired librarian and former library board trustee, I truly don’t know where to begin. But here goes.
Why are libraries intent on pointing out their economic value to the public? Well, because they want to be seen as leading edge, rather than bleeding edge. Witness the drastic cuts to library services in Britain. All libraries have to present their budgets to town and city councils. They need to be prepared with facts and figures.
As for “pushing bestsellers” becoming an “addiction” for librarians. Really? The two libraries that I frequent do have displays that highlight new books, some of them bestsellers, some not. That’s it – no frantic pitching from the much-too-busy staff. And, speaking of which, most front-line staff in libraries are clerks and technicians. Only at management level would there be people with library science degrees making the higher salaries that Mr. Whyte notes.
Finally, and most significantly, the most important of the two words in “public libraries” is public. Our public libraries are publicly funded community centres. They are not market-driven entities out to grab “market share” from publishers, booksellers or writers.
Dianne Harke Edmonton
Firstly, the idea that libraries are destroying independent bookstores ignores the fact that even without libraries, these stores would still struggle against mega-corporations such as Amazon, just as independent businesses do in other industries.
Secondly, Kenneth Whyte implies that the publishing industry as it stands today deserves saving. I believe traditional publishing is becoming a dying industry, and rather than advocating for saving it from “cannibalistic” libraries, we should be imploring publishers to adapt to the needs of modern customers in a new consumer climate.
Thirdly, Mr. Whyte ignores the benefit of libraries and used books over traditional bookstores to the environment, and their importance in the growing movement toward a cleaner, circular and less wasteful economy.
Finally, the idea that wealthy patrons should pay to use the library they’ve already paid for in taxes is just absurd to me.
Sidney Hurst Victoria
As a long-time writer and former librarian, I think Kenneth Whyte makes good points about the plight of Canadian writers, publishers and booksellers. Things do need to change. However, there is plenty of blame to go around. Let’s not heap too much on libraries: Canadian publishing and book-selling have been called dysfunctional for decades.
It’s unfair so few can make a living at writing, but that also applies to most of the creative arts. Federal government support has been limited for writers and artists. But a national Public Lending Right program compensates Canadian authors for the borrowing of their books from libraries.
For their part, libraries could pay retail price for their collections, rather than receive deep discounts for buying in bulk. They could restrict duplicate purchases of bestsellers. They could stop selling off donated books for a pittance.
That said, libraries have a mission to freely provide information, education and entertainment to their communities. At the same time, they are under pressure to get value for taxpayer dollars. Librarians and library technicians are not living like royalty: Full-time staff do earn pensions and benefits like other municipal employees, but the status of many others is part-time and without such perks. Rural library workers are often volunteers.
Personally, having a career in libraries supported my own writing in many ways.
David Conn Vancouver
At first I was confused: Was I actually reading a negative article about libraries? And then I got mad.
I’ve been visiting the Toronto Public Library for over 35 years. Their branches have provided a safe space, an escape – both literally and figuratively – and fostered a deep love of reading that continues to this day, a love that I have passed down to my son. The library is a transportive space.
It’s also free to enjoy, walk around and sit in for hours at a time. Those hours introduced me to authors, genres and information that only long, leisurely weekends of browsing could have enabled – try doing that in a bookstore. Sure, as a white person I might have been permitted to look, touch and not buy for three hours at a time, but I think we can safely assume that would not be the same experience for everyone.
Without libraries, there would be fewer readers – without readers, no one would buy books anyway.
Kirstin Turnbull Toronto
The obvious solution to Kenneth Whyte’s problem is to make every Canadian as well off as himself, so that they could afford a large personal library like his own. That way we could all be well-read, and Mr. Whyte’s book-selling business could thrive.
Oliver Irwin Vancouver
The library should not be seen as the villain, as I find that Kenneth Whyte oversimplifies the economic return of libraries to the community.
Mr. Whyte narrows in on collection use, whereas economic impact includes intangible benefits, such as services, technology access and the benefit of improving literacy and skills among the public. Libraries make information freely available, which is a pillar of a healthy democracy, as is having authors to create this information. Libraries provide demonstrable public goods, which is framed by Mr. Whyte as being at the expense of authors, whereas publishers have historically been gatekeepers for an author’s economic success.
Reducing library collections would eliminate services from the public without necessarily economically benefiting authors. Instead of framing libraries as the anti-hero, perhaps publishing houses, libraries and society should collectively support writers and small booksellers to remedy their historically undervalued position in our cultural and intellectual well-being.
Erin Calhoun Master of information candidate, University of Toronto; electronic resources library intern, University of Toronto Libraries
Kenneth Whyte says that “for their funding, libraries rely on the traffic generated by pimping free entertainment to people who can afford it.” Wow. I didn’t realize my little local branch (pre-COVID-19) was such a den of iniquity! I miss it now more than ever.
Casey Rock Toronto
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