COVID-19 has definitely created new access needs. Unfortunately, not everyone has a well-equipped home office that comes with internet access, which is where the public library can help.
It’s like the flick of a switch. We go from being fairly competent at meeting our patrons’ needs to being completely inadequate. I’m talking about cottage country where the population varies according to the time of year. Haliburton County’s population triples in the summer. Our buildings are full, our programs are packed, and our broadband is stretched to capacity.
Often the people vacationing here come from a city with a better-funded library system than ours. It is a difficult task managing the expectations of those used to a larger operation. There is a growing divide in the province between rural and urban services. This divide is putting First Nation and rural children behind when it comes to life in our increasingly technological world. In my community, not only are students limited by the scarce resources at the only high school (with 450 students) in a land mass the size of Prince Edward Island, but the scarce resources in their community as well. The public library would love to be able to pick up the slack but we need help.
In Ontario culture strategy: Telling our stories, growing our economy, four goals of a vision for culture in Ontario are explored. There are 43 recommendations for action stemming from the four goals and three recommendations directly involve public libraries. The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, the Ministry responsible for public libraries in Ontario, held a series of roundtable discussions about these actions from March to June of this year. I participated as a representative of Administrators of Rural and Urban Public Libraries of Ontario (ARUPLO). The discussions included topics like partnerships, technology, funding, and how we measure value.
Public libraries already view themselves as community hubs, especially in rural and remote communities. They partner with many organizations, often with no support or compensation because they do not want their community to suffer for lack of the service. The municipalities have stepped up to the plate based on a 20 year, 60% reduction in support by the province and continue to acknowledge the value of their public libraries by making up the difference in funding levels. Increasingly, municipalities just cannot keep up. Many rural and remote libraries are now forced to go without, or limit, their offering of free public access to online databases because the program that supplied them equally to all libraries—big, small, rural, urban, and First Nations—was cancelled. Young people trying to pursue post-secondary education from remote rural communities are so technologically behind their urban counterparts it seriously undermines their ability to thrive in an educational setting. In essence, the difficult task of leaving home has been made that much more difficult by a fundamental inequality of available government services. Rural dwellers are at a definite disadvantage compared to their urban counterparts.
Ontario culture strategy: Telling our stories, growing our economy.
I tell my children that life isn’t fair. But the unfairness goes further in this case because we are all paying the same percentages for what we get from our provincial government. Just because I live remotely does not get me a break on my provincial income tax. It is reasonable to expect that I would receive the same benefit as every other taxpayer in Ontario, however this is not the case.
Besides the obvious solution of equalizing resources with either funding or capital items, there is also a long way to go with efficiency. Some of the issues raised during the roundtable discussions were how little co-operation there is between Ministries, with examples being stated in both Education and Health Care. One case of the inefficient use of funds can be demonstrated by the fact that the schools and the public library in the same area both subscribe to the same databases without the ability to combine their purchasing power. A more creative example is with health care. Why can’t a program like Meals on Wheels be combined with book deliveries to the housebound? And, just because I’m on a roll, how is it acceptable that the Health Unit that is less than 100 feet away has high-speed Internet six years before the library? How do we break down the silos that separate the Ministries so that services are effectively delivered?
There is much collaboration between government bodies that can be made in rural and remote areas, or anywhere else for that matter. The end goal should be the efficient and equitable access to services for all Ontarians.
Bessie Sullivan is the CEO of the Haliburton County Public Library. She can be reached at bsullivan [at] haliburtonlibrary.ca.
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