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PAINFUL TRUTH: Libraries are an essential service

Please, don’t ever suggest we start charging money for library services
The Sardis Library on June 23, 2022. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)

It was a comment that caused a great deal of online commentary, for a single off-the-cuff remark.

At a recent Vancouver city council meeting, Vancouver Public Library staff were making a presentation. Newly elected Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim asked if they had looked at any ideas of generating revenue themselves.

The library reps, naturally, pointed out that provincial laws around libraries limit what services they can charge for, but also that, yes, libraries do raise money where they can – mostly from room rentals. They are also supported by the VPL Foundation, which raises millions.

(Sure would be nice if someone would start a fundraising foundation for the Fraser Valley Regional Library, the largest library system in B.C. Anyone who gets this project off the ground, call me. I’ll kick in the first $50.)

But Sim’s remark sparked anger, because it showed, again, how tone deaf some politicians can be when it comes to libraries.

Should libraries charge for their services?

Of course not.

No mayor, no councillor in their right mind would ask any of the other big civic services if they’ve considered “generating revenue.”

Would you ask the fire department if they would charge for 911 calls? Maybe $20 for giving CPR?

Libraries are a deeply unappreciated resource, often because there’s a failure of imagination by the civic leaders who oversee those programs.

Everyone can imagine having their house being on fire, or being in a car accident, so they can imagine needing the firefighters, and see why it would be bad if we charged for access to them.

But politicians often have difficulty with the idea that for some people – quite a lot of people, actually – regular access to books absolutely depends on public libraries.

Our leaders are usually reasonably well off, and if they want a book, they can just buy it. Also, some of them can’t imagine needing access to literally hundreds of books a year.

Have you ever seen a parent with a couple pre-school-aged kids, taking out their bi-weekly stack of picture books at the library? Those parents are tired enough. Take away their access to storytime books at your peril.

Not to mention students, seniors on a fixed income, working people with limited means, and the general avid readers who go through two or three books a week. For these people, the library is a necessity and a refuge.

Libraries are as close to a utopian institution as we’ve ever invented, and frankly it’s a miracle they haven’t all been closed down in the service of saving “the taxpayers” a few bucks.

If you did close them, the parents of small children would probably burn you in effigy, with the help of the mystery, romance, and fantasy novel fanatics out there.

The question we should ask isn’t “Can libraries make money?” It’s “How can we make other valuable institutions more like libraries?”

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Matthew Claxton

About the Author: Matthew Claxton

Raised in Langley, as a journalist today I focus on local politics, crime and homelessness.
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