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Public Libraries and Participation

The Canadian Index of Well-being has tracked participation in leisure and cultural activities and identified a number of important trends:

“Leisure and culture make significant contributions to the well-being of Canadians and their communities. They also help shape our national identity and sense of who we are as people. Thus, the overall decline in the engagement of Canadians in such activities is of considerable concern.”

Activity Canada Ontario
Participation in social leisure activities -19.7% -4.4%
Participation in arts and culture activities -8.5% -2.6%
Volunteering in culture and recreation -21.9% -19.6%

Canadians are spending less time on social leisure activities and participation in arts and culture activities has declined; this decline was greatest among women. Adults 65 years and older spent the highest proportion of time on leisure and culture activities, in part because they had more free time.

Despite the fact that overall volunteering in Canada has increased, the percentage of volunteering time given specifically to culture and recreation organisations dropped dramatically. This decline is most pronounced among Canadians who are 25 to 34 years of age.

These trends do not bode well for the well-being of individuals, communities and society at large.

The significant drop in leisure and culture activity among women (who account for the majority of public library users) is particularly noteworthy. Equally worrying is the general decline in support for public agencies and non profit and voluntary organisations responsible for leisure and culture. The Canadian Index of Well-being concludes thatIf these trends continue, the benefits associated with having leisure and culture as key components in the lifestyles of Canadians and in our communities will simply not be realized.  We must strengthen our capacity to sustain and further develop meaningful venues and opportunities for leisure and culture.’

While participation in leisure and culture activities declined less in Ontario than the national average, there were still some significant reductions. Engagement in social leisure activities was down and participation in arts and cultural activities was also lower; this decline was greatest among women. Volunteering in leisure and culture activities also declined.

How are Ontarians Really Doing? is the first provincial report to be produced by the Canadian Index of Well-being. It describes how the quality of life for Ontarians has shifted from 1994 to 2010, and how those shifts compare to all Canadians:

Activity Canada Ontario
GDP +28.9% +24.1%
Overall well-being +7.5% +7.3%
Leisure and culture -7.8% -5.9%

This indicates that, even though Ontario and Canada show very similar increases in overall well-being, both pale in comparison with GDP growth over the same time period.

The report notes that:

“The largest negative trend in Ontario, a 5.9% drop in leisure and culture, has Ontarians asking “where have all the good times gone?” While less severe than the national decline of 7.8% for all of Canada, the trend deserves attention. Ontarians, especially women, are socialising less and spending less time engaged in arts and culture. Overall, volunteering in arts and culture, attending performances, and spending are all down significantly in Ontario. Historically, people have fiercely protected the time and money they spend on their free time pursuits. Seen across all income levels, this dip goes beyond belt tightening due to the recession. All these factors erode elements of health and community connection, and reduce the sense of who we are as people.”

The report suggests a number of ‘ideas for positive change’ and some of these are very relevant to public libraries. For example, it was recommended that access to public spaces, leisure and cultural opportunities for all citizens should be enhanced. This plays straight into the notion of public libraries becoming the ‘living room of the community.’

Libraries are perfect agencies for building relationships and rekindling participation in leisure and culture. Libraries are social in nature, bringing people into regular contact with others who share similar interests and values. These connections help to build social capital – trusting relationships, stronger ties to the community, and greater understanding of the diverse groups within the community.  They also contribute to individual enrichment, particularly among individuals who are marginalised or disadvantaged.

We need to think beyond simply creating more activities and ensure that people are aware, feel included, and have the resources to participate.

Public libraries can do this by creating many opportunities for informal interactions among diverse groups within the community. Libraries are safe and attractive public spaces where people can meet and interact, and where friendship and trust can grow through daily contact.

Libraries can maximize the use of the internet, mobile communications and other technologies to raise awareness, provide information, create forums for discussion and invite direct participation, particularly among youth.

And libraries can ensure that citizens feel welcome, understand how they can participate, have meaningful opportunities for input, and can see their input translated into action.

Libraries can also boost participation in leisure and cultural activities by becoming a place for social innovation and change. Libraries are the ideal place to build co-operation among stakeholders, to break down the silos between domains, and to experiment with social innovation. While broad public policy can be implemented at the national or provincial levels, the community level is where meeting compelling challenges head on and customizing new ways to address them may have the most, and fastest, impact on our well being.

Critically, the process of co-operation can also lead to social change and help build community vitality.  In this respect, the process is just as valuable as the outcomes.

Libraries can provide spaces in new and redeveloped communities where resident contacts and exchanges can occur. Libraries can ensure that all citizens, regardless of social or economic status, have access to opportunities for leisure and culture. Libraries can work in partnership with community groups to identify local needs and provide or connect with services which can meet those needs, especially for marginalized groups who may be unfamiliar with programs and services.

In these, and many other ways, public libraries can become agencies of positive social change.

John Pateman is the CEO / Chief Librarian of the Thunder Bay Public Library. The Open for All? column explores the nature of libraries and their commitment to openness.

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