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LETTER: Dissolution of library co-op has reader feeling ‘gutted’

‘I always thought that library users in the County had the best of both worlds,’ says reader
2021-10-14 books PEXELS

MidlandToday welcomes letters to the editor at a[email protected]. Please include your daytime phone number and address (for verification of authorship, not publication).

The following letter concerns county council's decision to dissolve the 74-year-old library cooperative. MidlandToday also featured a column on the subject in Wednesday's edition by retired Midland library CEO Bill Molesworth.

Dear Editor,

Until eight years ago I was the CEO of a public library located in Simcoe County. As such I was also a dedicated member of the CEO Advisory Committee, working collaboratively with my fellow CEOs and the County Chief Librarian to bring effective and equitable library services to the residents of Simcoe County.

I always thought that library users in the County had the best of both worlds: public library systems operating at the lower tier to meet the needs of their local residents, while collaborating at the county level to provide the most current technology, collections, and electronic resources for all residents, regardless of their municipality’s financial capability. Equitable access is one of the guiding principles of good public library service and it was the Cooperative that made this possible.

When I read an article on the dissolution of the Cooperative in the online news source BradfordToday, I felt gutted, but I wasn’t surprised. This was not the first time that the County Library was under threat. Usually, the rationale has been the possibility of saving money, as though bringing good library services to Simcoe residents is a wasteful enterprise. This time County Councillors were also wooed by the magic word “modernization”. But let me tell you something that KPGM apparently failed to mention in its report: the Cooperative library system is not only modern, but it is also cutting edge modern.

As well, the Cooperative has actively engaged in joint projects with other agencies, such as the Immigrant Hub widget on the libraries’ websites which helps new residents integrate into the community. For this cutting-edge project, the Library won both the 2020 Newcomer Recognition Award and the Minister’s Award for Innovation for Large Libraries in Ontario. As every good librarian knows, libraries are for everyone.

Two other guiding principles of good library service are freedom of information and freedom of expression. County Councillors are calling for an investigation, possibly even a criminal investigation, into the public library CEOs’ access to and use of information which had been released to the public on the Simcoe County website by County staff. The posting of the document has been explained as a “technical glitch” by County staff, but also as a ”breach” as though there was some malevolent collusion involved. Does declaring a publicly released document to be no longer public, truly make it so? It would seem not, as any tech savvy teenager could have explained. In the modern age of social media, once something is in the public domain, however briefly, there is no going back.

Despite all this, yes I do support an investigation. An Ethics Commissioner should investigate County Council’s justification for using a closed session to discuss and recommend the dissolution of the Simcoe County Library Cooperative, a public good. The Province, in fact, has legislation about what information and discussions Councils can withhold from the public through the use of closed sessions. I would like to know if we the public legally had a right to all the relevant information before the final Council vote was taken. Why was it so important that County residents/library users/the taxpayers who fund County operations be kept in the dark about Council moving against its own decision to develop “a modified status quo”, shutting down an institution that had supported effective public library service for 82 years, since it was voted into existence in March 1940. If the Committee believed it had created the best possible model why keep it a secret? And if that is the mode of decision-making the County government is comfortable operating under, one might ask what else does the public not know that it has the right to know?

As well, I do wonder why it was deemed necessary to scapegoat public library CEOs for what was actually a failure of the County process and why County Councillors felt free to discuss in a public forum the actions of individuals who might be identified or misidentified using the information provided at the Council meeting. There are also laws about that. In addition, the constant references to “the CEOs“ seemed like an obvious attempt to malign a defined group of people based on the perceived actions of some. The reading and quoting in public by a Councillor of an email addressed to someone else and sent in error is far more questionable than sharing a document that has been posted to a public website. Will that be investigated?

What “the CEOs” have been doing all along is their jobs, the jobs they have been trained for at a post-graduate level: to curate collections and resources and provide access to this information in the most effective, equitable, and accessible manner possible. There was no personal advantage to them in showing their concern and sorrow, following such an ill-conceived decision. One that will inevitably curtail equitable library services throughout the County and limit free access to information in its various formats as procurement staff, with no training in the science of collection development, discover that playing library is a lot harder than they expected. As far as I am concerned the brave, harassed CEOs deserve medals and the heartfelt thanks of the public they serve.

Janine Harris-Wheatley