Toronto Urban Affairs Library

The true cost of cutting Toronto's Urban Affairs Library

Tucked in a corner of Metro Hall, the Urban Affairs Library brims with hushed activity, belying any indication that the branch could soon be shuttered by the City, its staff dispersed and/or eliminated.

The modest space is lined with shelves of City Hall minutes, urban affairs magazines and books on a range of civic subjects, from urban planning and architecture to economics and transportation. Tables are dotted with people skimming archived newspapers or poring over historical maps of Toronto. Others huddle at a cluster of computers in the centre of the room. They scan Craigslist and news sites, or watch YouTube videos.

"Cities like Chicago and New York are investing in libraries as community hubs, as places that are at the centre of a neighbourhood," says Janet Davis, city councillor and Toronto Public Library Board member.

By contrast, the Toronto Public Library has become one of a number of targets on Mayor Rob Ford's budgetary hit list. Since the budget was unveiled on January 10, the Library Board has met three times to debate proposed cuts and the closure of the specialized Urban Affairs branch.

On February 2, the board voted to send back the city's recommendation to save Toronto $100,000 by closing the branch and transferring its collection to the Toronto Reference Library. The board also voted to increase their budget by 2.06%, from a proposed 2%.

The city will have the final word after budget meetings begin Wednesday, February 23.

At one point used almost exclusively by academics, planners and city staff, since 2009 the Urban Affairs library has seen a dramatic increase in overall use. Circulation has increased by 61% and visits by 16.8%. "There's a growing population that live in condominium developments in the [Metro Hall] neighbourhood--it's a busy little branch. Until we have built the much needed library branch in the railway lands that branch should remain open," says Councillor Davis.

Maureen O'Reilly, President of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union says that, if the cuts go through, the library will have seen a 10% reduction in staff over the last 13 years. "We feel that we will no longer be able to sustain the excellent service that we provide to the library patrons if these cuts go through," she argues.

O'Reilly says library administrators have not been upfront about the fact that consolidating collections at the Reference Library will limit staff effectiveness. Librarians at the Urban Affairs branch are specially trained, but if the branches merge, she believes patrons will be dealing with cross-trained staff lacking expertise.

Associate Professor of Architectural Science at Ryerson University, George Thomas Kapelos, praises the Urban Affairs branch and its staff as an invaluable resource for research in his own field, as well as disciplines like urban design, political science, public health and geography. "The city is a complex organism...those in the targeted disciplines find the Urban Affairs library to be a special purpose resource. Closing it will potentially take that collection and make it inaccessible or difficult to access."

In addition to academics, at-risk members of the community may also suffer as a result of the closure.

Regular visitor Robert Thomas Payne is homeless. He is a struggling poet who has visited the Urban Affairs library every day for the past four years. Payne says the library is a convenient location for homeless people because it is in the same building as a welfare office and an employment centre.

"They always treat me with respect here and they're non-judgmental when I come in freezing cold. I know a lot of people who are in need who also come up here to warm up or access the computers."

The library union is holding a rally at Metro Hall today in support of the Urban Affairs branch and to oppose staff cuts.

"The city is getting at the foundations of the library and weakening it," O'Reilly says. "The Toronto Public Library is the busiest public library in the world. Why would you want to dismantle such a world-class system?"

Guest contribution from Jodie Shupac

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