Jan 13, 2012 – 12:30 AM ETNational Post
As the City of Toronto’s 2012 budget gradually transforms into a kinder, gentler thing that even Adam Vaughan might be able to vote for, at least two things are clear. The first thing: The popular idea that Mayor Rob Ford and his committees are stocked with radical conservative ideologues has never been sillier. As my colleague Jonathan Goldsbie once observed of Mr. Ford, they don’t so much have ironclad political values as preferences.
To wit: Motions passed unanimously by Executive Committee on Thursday restored $1.9-million in funding for arts and culture; declared that three long-term care homes not be closed until “appropriate” replacement accommodations are found for their residents; earmarked $3.1-million in assessment growth windfall to offset the libraries’ budget crunch; and requested the Library Board not to make up the remaining $3.9-million with hours reductions.
The reprieve for the libraries came two days after councillor Cesar Palacio, a member of both Mr. Ford’s executive and the Library Board, launched a withering attack on the libraries’ collection of “popular” DVDs and magazines. He specifically called out Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Vogue and Playboy (to which the library maintains a single microfiche subscription, costing $278 per year).
To some extent, his complaint was cost-related: In 2010 the library spent $815,000 on “popular” magazines — examples include Scientific American, The Economist and Chatelaine, says library spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins. And it spent $885,400 on “popular” DVDs, which can range from blockbusters like Avatar to documentaries like Freakonomics. Such DVDs account for 9% of the libraries’ total circulation.
“While having a Blockbuster within our Library System may be nice to have, I believe my choice and the choice of Torontonians is clear,” he said in the release.
Well, clearly not, or people wouldn’t be borrowing all those DVDs.
There is a valid debate here: If it comes down to a choice, is it more important to maintain current library hours or not to touch the collection as it currently stands? Library Board chair Paul Ainslie said Thursday that he believes the DVD collection is integral; board member and councillor Jaye Robinson suggested movies could be a legitimate target in lean times. Both are reasonable positions.
Mr. Palacio’s release, on the other hand, argued that popular magazines and DVDs “are not even peripherally related to literacy and library purposes.”
When it comes to magazines, he’s just out to lunch. What kind of library doesn’t stock Chatelaine on principle? Or Seventeen or Vogue or Us Weekly, for that matter? If the goal of libraries is to promote reading and literacy, wouldn’t it make more sense to cancel the “popular” titles last, rather than first? And if you did want to wage war on trash, why would you stop at magazines? Why not burn all the Jackie Collins?
Presumably if a library was on fire, your average librarian would save the books first. But once you move beyond which media libraries should stock and start debating individual titles, you get hopelessly bogged down in irreconcilable personal prejudices. One man’s turd is another man’s classic.
Admittedly, I am somewhat appalled to learn that Toronto’s libraries maintain 46 DVD copies of the 2006 Matthew McConaughey vehicle Failure to Launch, but just a single VHS copy of Jean-Claude Lauzon’s 1992 Canadian masterpiece Léolo, about a Montreal boy’s transcendental escape from and descent into mental illness. I am even more appalled that, as I write this, 27 copies of Failure to Launch are out of the library. But who the hell am I to tell people to watch a tough, subtitled art film from Quebec instead of a breezy rom-com? Or to read Margaret Atwood instead of Stephen King, or Harper’s instead of Entertainment Weekly?
It’s one thing to demand the libraries outsource their cleaning, or close a little-used branch, or violently weed out inefficiencies. I’m all for it. But to criticize a repository of free culture for lending out ever more things every year that people want to read, watch and listen to is to punish success. Grown-up societies trust the experts in charge of their important, successful institutions. In Toronto, too many of us still just hurl our preferences at each other and call it virtue.