FOPL and OLA were asked to present before the Ontario Legislature Standing Committee on Finance and the Economy: June 25, 2020
Below is our prepared remarks.
We were happy to receive many specific questions about broadband, resources, and public libraries from the committee members.
Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs
Culture & Heritage Sector COVID-19 Impact Hearings
Thursday June 25, 2020, 3:00-4:00 p.m.
- Good afternoon.
- Thank you for the opportunity to participate in today’s consultations.
- I’m Stephen Abram, Executive Director of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries, speaking on behalf of FOPL as well as our partners at the Ontario Library Association.
- Earlier this year, when public libraries from across Ontario took part in the Pre-Budget hearings and shared with you the critical importance of provincial funding to local public libraries, few would have predicted the challenges that now face our sector due to COVID-19.
- While local public libraries physically closed during the lockdown, they nevertheless stepped up and continued delivering amazing services.
- Local public libraries across the province have been:
- Providing Wi-Fi connectivity for residents and essential municipal staff via hotspots lending, in our parking lots or through bookmobiles.
- Lending laptops/PCs and peripherals to municipal and essential staff to continue working from home.
- Moving programming online to help families and individuals, delivering virtual story time, tech training programs, book clubs, and more.
- Providing access to e-resources and registering non-library cardholders online.
- Organizing “care calls” to vulnerable community members, including seniors.
- Delivering reading materials to senior’s homes, essential worker daycares, and more.
- Taking part in the COVID-19 emergency response by using our 3D Printers to make PPE for frontline workers and turning library branches into emergency food banks.
- Public libraries are now taking careful steps to re-open, while keeping patrons and staff safe.
- COVID-19 has put a magnifying glass on the critical role of local public libraries and the challenges they will face over the coming months and years.
- These challenges are especially acute for public libraries in small and medium-sized communities, in rural & Northern Ontario, and First Nations.
- For them, the public library is a vital, and often the only, cost-free, stigma-free community hub for residents and families.
- There are important actions that the Ontario Government can take to ensure that local public libraries everywhere in Ontario can continue to effectively serve their communities.
- We’re proposing three critical, targeted actions to support Ontario’s public libraries.
- First – Ensure that municipalities have the funding necessary to protect front-line service delivery.
- Municipalities across Ontario are struggling with growing revenue shortfalls as a result of the pandemic.
- This is an immediate concern to public libraries, as approximately 96% of their funding comes from the local municipality.
- As municipal revenues are impacted, libraries are already under fiscal pressure.
- As of late April, 46% of libraries surveyed reported that they have already implemented partial or full staff layoffs.
- This loss of revenue is happening at a time when usage and dependence on the public library is increasing: Library usage traditionally spikes during recessions and we’re seeing the same trend again.
- We fear that if unaddressed, this will force deep cuts to local public libraries, and even permanent closures in many smaller communities.
- We strongly urge the Ontario government to work closely with municipalities to confront and address this growing funding gap.
- Implementing a supportive funding framework for municipalities quickly is essential for protecting Ontario’s public libraries and the substantial support they provide for local economic development, community supports, access to children’s programming and government services.
- Second – Leverage Ontario’s broadband action plan to ensure that modern broadband connectivity is available in more public library branches in communities across Ontario.
- COVID-19 has demonstrated that Ontarians in all communities depend on digital access – to work, to learn, to connect to community and government services, to find or train for a job, and to access health information.
- Many communities in Ontario have limited or poor residential broadband service.
- Even with our physical doors closed, demand for public library broadband increased during the lockdown period.
- Our libraries have reported a steady stream of people parked or seated outside the library to use the Wi-Fi.
- These are people working remotely, applying for government relief, and participating in remote learning for K-12 or university & college.
- We don’t expect that the need for broadband access will fall, and we must build the infrastructure our libraries need now.
- Many branches still don’t have broadband access, or have outdated internet infrastructure that doesn’t meet today’s needs.
- Investing in public library broadband infrastructure provides an opportunity to rapidly extend this critical connectivity to more people in Ontario.
- Ensuring they have the broadband access that their communities need to take part in an increasingly digital economy and society.
- Third – Provide critical e-learning support through fair access to modern, digital resources for the people of Ontario – no matter where they live – by creating an Ontario Digital Public Library.
- Public libraries are focused on meeting the needs of their community. Increasingly, this means providing digital and online resources.
- However, these are expensive, especially when purchased on a patchwork, library-by-library basis.
- Many public libraries in Ontario struggle to pay for or are unable to afford the high-quality resources available in larger urban and suburban communities.
- People living in Ontario communities of less than 5,000 people have access to less than half the selection of e-books and a third of the online databases available to residents in Toronto, Ottawa, and Hamilton.
- Yet rural Ontario residents accessed twice as many e-books per capita through the library as people in urban communities.
- Over 80% of libraries serving populations of under 5,000 have no subscriptions to e-learning platforms at all.
- These resources are invaluable for job training and re-training, lifelong learning and homework help.
- Creating an Ontario Digital Public Library through a targeted provincial investment would leverage the province’s significant purchasing power to give all Ontarians access to a common set of e-learning and online resources through their public library – at home or in the library.
- People living in small, rural, Northern communities and First Nations would be able to access the same wide range of digital resources as in big city libraries.
- Taken together, we believe that these three steps are very important to provide all public libraries in Ontario with a stable foundation upon which to continue adapting to the realities of COVID-19.
- Furthermore, they’ll directly contribute to achieving the Ontario Government’s vision of a province where every community is open for business, where a student has the tools to succeed wherever they grow up, where employment and economic and social infrastructure is fairly and equitably available, and where seniors and families can thrive in every community.
- We look forward to continue working together to maintain robust, locally impactful public libraries throughout Ontario.
- Thank you and I look forward to your questions.
I like the ideas put forth and hope we get word soon about the possibility of them being put into action by September or January of next year.