Toronto Libraries and How to Save them from the Ford Brother’s Thirsty Guillotine Blade

In Toronto, libraries are safe. For now. Mayor Rob Ford, who campaigned on the promise that services would not suffer from any budgetary cuts he vowed to make, has backed off. For now.

This issue is far from over but the executioner’s reprieve allows us a moment or two to reflect on what libraries mean before Doug Ford has his way and turns fifty percent of them into grade school UFC rings.

I like libraries as an institution, as an idea (and ideal), but before I get to that, I’d like to take a moment and discuss the books themselves.

You know what I miss? Seeing people read books on the subway. Library books in particular, although I always thought the plastic sheeting over the dust cover was more than a little insulting. It seems that those high in the library echelons thought it best to protect their books not from regular wear and tear (because that’s what the thing that already covers the book is called, there to protect it from dust and such, although the name for it escapes me) but from the grubby mitts of people who like books, and like to read books but, good heavens, can’t buy books.

The plastic cover is a little like the protective sheeting deployed by the elderly to preserve the quality of their fresh-from-the-Brick living room set, a preemptive defense against what is clearly the disgusting, sloppy ways of every other human being on the planet. This sheet on the loaned books is not there to protect from the elements so much as from the assumed cream soda and Cheetos dust that is the main diet of those who cannot afford to invest forty dollars in Stephen King’s latest wrist-snapper.

Sidenote: I hate e-readers. I can’t see what people are reading out there and judge them accordingly and that robs me of one of the fundamental (if lone) joys in taking mass transit. True story: I was on a crowded bus one day and could see only the hands and lap that cradled a book by sitcom star and professional boor Tim Allen (back in a day when any stand-up comic could ghostwrite twenty thousand words and get a hardcover deal out of it). Worse still, it was a follow-up book to the standard memoir, so once Allen had pushed through all the interesting material about growing up, becoming a stand-up comedian and serving time for dealing cocaine, he actually had to pick a topic. In this case, it was the faux philosophical tome I’m Not Really Here and, once I saw the cover and title I couldn’t wait to see a sample of his core literary audience. Unsurprisingly, when the crowd cleared, I witnessed a guileless grown man with Down’s Syndrome. I felt immediate guilt for my interior castigation of the reader, but found comfort in wisdom: this explains the success of Allen’s books, I thought, if not the eight year Home Improvement run.

The plastic slipcover, however superior the intention, did allow fellow travelers to provide anecdotal market research on popular books of the day and their audience. Certainly it came from a noble tradition: I can only assume that a Benedictine monk, after months of the blinding, back-twisting work required to transcribe a volume, leant it out to Arthgaul the Slaughterer only to have it returned splashed with lamb’s blood and mint jelly and that said monk would feel a little, well, pissed (wait, did Benedictine monks transcribe or did they sing? I can never keep that shit straight). Still, you don’t complain to a guy who pries animal limbs out of sockets for fun, so you put a cover on that work of art and wait for the neighbourhood alchemist to create mylar.

The plastic cover in modern times seems disingenuous at best, bull-headed stupid at worst. Monks might have concerned themselves with the preservation of epics about Charlemagne, but at least we can be certain that all Harry Potter books are safe for the ages.

The buildings themselves are without issue. Second only to movie theatres (weekday matinee showings at least), libraries are a holy place, a secular place of worship. No matter how uncouth the individual, almost to a one they will shut the fuck up once they enter a library because, if only one thing was learned from public school days, it is that a visit to the library is accompanied with a savage ‘Shhhh’.

Which leads me to the Brothers Ford. I know they like to think in easy terms and are victim of the MBA approach to governance, so I’ll put this in words they can understand (i.e. short, simple and possibly in rhyme).

We need not close libraries but rebrand them. Since the introduction of free wi-fi and the allowance of coffee, the library is no longer simply a refuge for the aimless, fans of the Dewey Decimal System, or possibly schizophrenic women in full-length parkas who pull dozens of books from the shelves to build a fort at a table, open one up and promptly use it as a pillow for an afternoon’s nap (I have no way of verifying this, but I recall seeing just such a woman many times at the Toronto Reference Library and am convinced she was the inspiration for Timothy Findley’s Headhunter).

Now, the library is free office space. Freelancer, student, start-up entrepreneurs—they are all welcome to use the space as a quiet environment in which to conduct their work. Prop up a few cubicles and charge a nominal rent for one day’s use (and by nominal I mean a dollar). Now you have a deluxe service in the libraries and one that generates income.

So come on, Fords. Even if you don’t like books because you find them intimidating and superior, what with all those words and thoughts and ideas, reconsider. Instead of a ‘library’, call it an ‘Open Office’. If you get Staples to sponsor the cubicles then it’s all free money.

You don’t hate business, do you?

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