Thursday, July 21, 2011


A Harebrained idea

On Tuesday Rick Blechta wrote a blog for Type M for Murder about the City of Toronto's harebrained idea to privatize their public libraries. Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor's brother, said in his defense of the scheme, “I’ve got more libraries in my area than I have Tim Horton’s.” Um . . . and this is a bad thing?

It's a complete fabrication, of course. There are three times as many Timmy's in Etobicoke, Doug Ford's ward, than libraries and that doesn't begin to take into account all the other coffee shops that have sprouted like weeds in our urban communities. Apples and oranges can't describe this ludicrous argument. It's more like apples and warthogs. But before I get too personal about the delectable Ford brothers, let me tell you about my favourite library and why I think public libraries are such an important part of our communities.

The Elgin Branch of the Rideau Lakes Public Library in Eastern Ontario is my idea of a tiny perfect place. What is it about this little library? I conducted an informal survey of patrons and I got a number of enthusiastic and varied responses. Most people wanted to talk about the social aspect of the place. "It's a bit like the old general store without the potbellied stove. People feel welcome to sit around and chew the fat," said one patron.

A few years ago, Sue Warren, the CEO of Rideau Lakes Public Library came across my sister and me whispering in the General Fiction section. She put a hand on both our shoulders and in the nicest way possible said, "You don't have to whisper here. This is a community space." I looked around at that point and realized she was absolutely right. There was a spirited discussion going on in one alcove among six members of one of the library's five book clubs. Kids were crowded into the Children's Room shouting out answers to questions about a story that had just been read to them. All of the computers were in use and one man was having a conversation, sotto voce, on Skype. In the midst of this some people were reading and others visited in easy chairs.

Sue Warren explains the popularity of rural libraries this way: "Librarians have to be a bit like bartenders. Our staff members live in the area and are well-connected to the community. We know if someone is going through a bad time and we take the time to listen. Our libraries used to close between Christmas and New Years but we realized what a bleak and lonely time this could be for some folks, so now we stay open."

Many rural libraries offer courses in Computer skills and provide adult and youth literacy programs. Elgin has a Dyslexia Support Group, Summer Reading Clubs, Resume Writing assistance and they proctor examinations for people who can't get to exam venues.

I can't even begin to enumerate all the services this little library and most rural libraries provide, free of charge, for their communities but it doesn't take too much imagination to see how a private, for-profit library corporation would differ and how it would fail these same communities.

Sue Pike has published a couple of dozen stories and won several awards including an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story. Her latest, Where the Snow Lay Dinted appeared in the January issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Sue and her husband and an opinionated Australian Shepherd named Cooper spend the winter months in Ottawa and the rest of the time at a mysterious cottage on the Rideau Lakes.


  1. What a wise woman, your librarian. Libraries have been at the soul of communities for hundreds of years. Doesn't every city have a building with 'Carnegie Library' carved above the doorway?

    Harebrained, indeed! Let's hope Torontonians are able to close the book on this inane idea!

  2. Great post. Why don't you send it as an op ed piece to the G and M Many readers will agree and feel relieved that someone has expressed what they feel.

  3. I dropped Sue's books and tapes off at the Elgin library on one hot day in July, when the Ford boys and their progeny would be zooming around the once quiet lake on their Sea Doos. The library was alive with a senior returning piles of summer mysteries, kids and Mums choosing the next story for hammock reading, and cottagers checking email. Good Canadian fun!

  4. Thanks for helping the cause with a well-written piece. I agree with Joan.

  5. Thanks, Rick and Joan but I think the Ford Bros might sue me. They look like a litigious lot.

  6. Never mind - go for it,Sue Pike - they don't read the "Mop&Pail" anyway!Love the Elgin branch, as there are no line-ups for the latest reads!The web-site is also very chummy and useful...