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  • Writer's pictureJMac

I'm worried about our local library system


Pictured: my kids participating in London Public Library Central Branch staff's version of "Ollivanders", the wand selection shop in Harry Potter during their Comic-Con Celebration, September 17 2022



I first moved to London in 1996.  Coming from the west coast into the Beacock neighbourhood, it was a tough adjustment to move to a new city in a new province and time zone and to not know anyone in the pivotal awkward teenage years of 12 to 15.


I set out confidently to explore my neighbourhood on foot and found the Beacock Library branch pretty easily.  It quickly became my new home.



Learning how to style my daughters' hair at "Dads Do Hair", Byron Library, November 2019


As a child, I grew up on dairy farms in New Zealand.  Having only two tv channels nationally and going to a two-room school house a thirty-minute bus ride away, traditional media and friends were not a way to occupy my time.  Escaping into books was.  When my former stepdad wasn't farming or riding his motorcycle, he was drinking and screaming and sometimes hitting. Books were an escape from that as well.

 

Beacock and its abundance of knowledgeable and friendly staff quickly embraced me into my re-located fantasy world of spies, superheroes, successful athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs, and other role models.  I read everything from Sports Illustrated for Kids to It by Stephen King and Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s biography while hanging out at Beacock Library. 


My dad was a chain smoker on disability who drank beer and watched Rockford Files reruns all day, so Beacock was a clean safe and inviting space for me.   They didn't care that I was the awkwardly tall and skinny teen with the speech impediment, the holes in his shoes, and the clothes that always smelled like second hand smoke. The staff treated me like a family that I didn't have at the time.


There was no money in my household for classic 90s teen stuff like cd's, magazines, books, or movie rentals. But there was my library and it was three blocks away.


Eventually, I had to stop going. As a typical teen, organization was not my strong suit. I accumulated late fees that I was unable to pay, and I was embarrassed to show my face and to receive so much free help and to not be able to pay it back. It wasn't until after university that I was able to settle my account and to re-open my library card.

 

Fast forward to 2018, and I had the honour of being selected from a pool of applicants to join the LPL Board of Directors. 


Seeing firsthand their work as a service, the people they impact, and the efficiency and joy for the community with which they do so has been nothing short of a pleasure. People who know me marvel at the time commitment I invest as a volunteer, but when you love what you do it never feels like work. That comes with credit to the LPL staff and management for their professionalism and dedication to their roles.

 

As a dad, Old South resident, and community organizer, it is a foundational personal value that we have safe and accessible places where all can turn for support, education, literacy, and inclusion. 



Playing trains, Landon Branch, August 2023


LPL lives those values from the top down, whether it be computer access, use of a housing settlement worker, fine-free access to collections items, access to free tax clinics, the distribution of vaccines, free programs to develop and foster community and literacy, tutoring, or facilitation of other important social and city services, the list does goes on.


One thing that has truly impressed me as a Board Member has been how efficiently the library operates. 


The library has almost 300 employees across sixteen branches, and receives less than $600,000 per year from the provincial government, through the Public Libraries Operating Grant (which is unchanged since the late 1990s), no sustained federal funding, and relies on City of London funding, fundraising, and revenue-generating services to provide the rest of their budget, as do most library systems.


Value for dollar, the London Public Library is one of the lowest funded libraries per square foot in Ontario, while also returning $6.48 back into the local economy for every $1 invested into it.


As a City of London Agency, Board, and Commission; the library has to participate in our city's multi-year budget process, where normally an expected four-year budget is proposed to our board, approved, and then presented to Council for deliberation. 



Signing out a No Frills Hauler full of books, Cherryhill Branch, August 2023


London Public Library brought in a new CEO in 2019, after 10 years of operations under the previous CEO.  Our new CEO, Michael Ciccone, has come to us from both New York City and Hamilton Public Library systems, with a wealth of leadership skills, knowledge, and experience in terms of what is needed and should be done to operate a big-city library system. 


Coming out of the Joe Fontana years of 0% property tax increases and into the post-COVID inflationary setting in the second fastest growing city in North America, our library is not in the same financial situation it was in the February 2020 multi-year budget process.


At that time, we as a board adjusted our budget request to meet city financial projections and were able to protect every single job, service hour, and branch in the process. 


Despite some backlash and scrutiny, we managed to endure the 20-23 Multi-Year Budget, pandemic, and economic challenges with our heads high and the system moving forward.


We are now in a new and different Multi-Year Budget cycle, with what for the first time the province has deemed “Strong Mayor Powers”.  The idea remains the same, but the process is a little bit different.


Through exceptional leadership, analysis, forecasting, consultation, and strategic planning; the senior team of the library presented a budget to the board that allowed London Public Library to pursue its new 2022-2026 strategic plan that was very much in line with the City of London Council 2023-2027 strategic plan, and to provide the services and supports needed to continue to wear so many crucial hats as a public service city-wide.


It was an honour to approve a budget request for the 2024-2027 multi-year budget that for the first time asked our City and its Council to support their local library system in having access to the resources it needed to both catch up on previous funding shortfalls and to move forward as an efficient and effective operation that meets its users where they are and helps them flourish in so many different ways. As a board member, I support and stand by the vision of our leaders and the efforts of our staff.


My children are library addicts.  We have been to every single branch more than once. Prior to carrying their own wallets and library cards, my library card was always maxed out at 50 items taken out at a time. 


We have seen firsthand what storytime looks like at Bostwick Library. How busy the after-school club is at Sherwood Forest branch, with up to what seems like 150 kids reading, laughing, having a snack, getting help with their homework, playing Roblox, or simply belonging. Seniors connecting over a game of chess at Cherryhill Branch while water drips into a bucket from the skylight beside them. The one and two room branches such as Glanworth, Lambeth, and Carson; where the librarian greets a steady stream of foot traffic often by name.



Visiting Glanworth Branch with my children in April 2022


I love my library system as a parent and as an avid reader and patron. As a Board Member, its future in light of the budget being offered to it at roughly 25% of what has been asked and is needed is making me nervous and sad for the hundreds of thousands of annual library users city-wide.


The most marginalized members of our community stand to lose the most when the library’s budget ask is not met.  Equity is a deserved pillar of our city and our community, and equity will be much harder to deliver as a standard without the financial resources required to do so.

 

If the library budget is not increased, we will have to make some tough decisions as a board concerning what will be lost. 


At risk includes things like the existence of smaller branches.  These branches offer computers, printing, wi-fi, tech help, storytime, programs, study space, meeting space, literacy programs, materials for readers of all ages, community referrals, cooling or warming space, bathrooms, volunteer opportunities, and revenue generation for our library system.

 

If we have to reduce service hours, we lose programs for targeted audiences, including ESL, parents, and seniors.  We lose opportunities for volunteers to give back and for those who need it to get their 1 on 1 support.  We lose bathrooms for the unhoused, warming or cooling space for those sleeping rough in tenuous weather, and so much more that is essential to our 16 city-wide community hubs. 

 


My kids reading in the Bostwick branch, April 2019


With fewer collections, we impact the fundamental right to literacy and knowledge development, we increase wait times, reduce the number of titles available, and are not able to so easily support marginalized groups in sharing their messages with the community at large.  Right now, teachers can get large amounts of books for their classrooms free of charge, putting hundreds to thousands of dollars per year back in their pockets and making their roles as educators easier and more fun.


  My wife is currently on an 18-week-long waiting list for a book she wants to read. She could buy it, but every dollar counts in 2024, and that $25 would mean 5 fewer trips to a local coffee shop in exchange. Even collection materials matter economically to our patrons.

 

The library’s technology has already been far behind its needs, and this has shown. 


The library isn’t sitting on large amounts of reserve funds.  We spent close to half a million dollars on security last year, to address increased demands related to welcoming our skyrocketing homeless population and their needs, while also keeping our treasured staff safe at the same time.  Surely many of you read about the 400 pound sliding glass door being pushed on top of the security guard by the irate patron at Central branch.



My wife and I took prenatal classes at the Pond Mills Branch in the meeting space as expecting parents in June 2013. We still stay in touch with classmates 10.5 years later because libraries build community.

We have cobbled together one-time funding for a CMHA Transitional Caseworker with our own money to prove to our funders that front-line support when and as needed has a tangible benefit on those in crisis.  We have also had to hire an in-house security manager for the first time; a former police officer with extensive experience working with the local unhoused and mentally ill populations.  The impacts of these investments are obvious and ongoing.  Meeting people where they are with the support they need is having a positive effect at the branch level, but is also a new expense.

 

The London Public Library annually scores first in user satisfaction in the City of London’s surveys of the users of its city services.  Our budget and investment into our system need to reflect that quality of expenditure.  Anything having an approval rating in the ninetieth percentile should qualify for as much investment as it requires as a good standard of business practice.

 

It is announced to the public that at 5.7%, LPL is proposed to be getting its largest investment ever. 


This is a kind gesture at first glance. It does not factor in that we faced 6.8% inflation in 2022 and 3.8% inflation in 2023 as Canadians.


We are facing wage increases that take inflation into account from our dedicated staff who are responsible for our excellent service. A 5.7% increase over 2020-2023 dollars as projected in 2019 does not carry the weight one may assume.

 


Crossing Hamilton Road to participate in the Crouch Branch's free Summer Block Party, July 30 2022


As a library system, we requested a budget that both allowed us to maintain current service levels, and improve essential components of that service; including improving employee safety, increasing collections availability while pricing skyrockets, investing in diversity training and programming in alignment with our and the city's strategic plans,, permanently funding the CMHA worker, improving environmental security for our staff, and updating our technology.



    #P-10 Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, page 407


⦁    #P-30 Digital Divide, page 520


⦁    #P-48 CMHA Onsite, page 633


⦁    #P-58 Facilities Capital. page 705


⦁    #P-59 Security, page 712


⦁    #P-69 Collections page 762

The Mayor’s proposed budget in response to our submission removed $3.2 million per year from that ask.  That’s a lot of money. 

 

 

In the second fastest-growing city in Canada, we need to expand our library services. Other cities see the value in doing so and are making the necessary investments. 



My son showing off the Canada Flag he made out of lego at East London Branch, June 2023


Our library staff do incredible work with outdated tools and facilities.  Despite this public show of extreme competence to patients, clients, or patrons; morale in healthcare, social services, libraries, and so many other essential parts of our social fabric is weakening. We get what we pay for in life, and efficiencies should be the standard, but "do more with less" can't be the assumption.


I fear what the next four years will look like if those elected to represent us don’t believe that we need to make specific strategic and targeted investments in the systems that we rely on and that provide us measurable value.


I just like everyone else also get the pressures of inflation on our families and our financial bottom lines. 


Galen Weston and the heirs of Ted Rogers both have their hands in my pockets too. I work in Social Services and my wife works in Healthcare.  With the repeal of Bill 124, we just got our first non-1 % raise in many years. 


Raising my property taxes significantly with three growing children to feed isn’t ideal by any means. 


But if I have established anything in my efforts as a London resident and community driver, it is credibility and doing the right thing for the benefit of all. 



Playing Shopkeeper with my daughter and a random neighbourhood kid, Beacock Branch, December 2022


If I tell my fellow Londoners that money invested in our library system is money well spent, top to bottom and inside and out, I hope that they believe me and have already seen it for themselves and that they will share that sentiment with our city decision makers.


There are two more days of council deliberation left in this Multi-Year Budget planning process and one day of public participation. left


The time to tell your mayor and our councilors how you feel about our library system is now. 


Email your letter to budgetcommittee@london.ca by February 16, to be included in the February 27 Public Participation Meeting agenda so that it is officially on record. 

 

Contact your councilor. Their contact information can be found here:


 

 

As a board member, once the Multi-Year Budget is approved in early March, it will be the job of myself and my colleagues to work with the funding that has been allocated by our Mayor and Councillors.


We will have to make important decisions about what the library system we know and love will look like with the funding that is made available to us. 


If you value what the Library currently offers for you and for those whose voices may not be heard through this process, ask your mayor and council to approve the London Public Library budget request as presented.

 

If that doesn’t happen, then I worry about the future of our system.  As a library lover, the father of three library lovers, the spouse of another library lover, and as a member of the Board of Directors.


AAs a father, I know that if I need eight slices of pizza to feed my family and I only can get two, I am going to go without for as long as I can, but long term my options become quite limited and more quickly than any of my family would want them to. We all love and believe in our library system, well 95% of us do according to surveys, so let's all tell our decision-makers exactly that.

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