Libraries? It’s about the cars, stupid

In Improbable Mutterings on July 27, 2011 at 10:50 am

Toronto councillor Doug Ford, who has been making waves since last week’s ludicrous claim that there were more libraries in his ward than Tim Hortons, has incurred the wrath of the Twittersphere (and the never-shy Margaret Atwood) by targeting  for closure a single library (Northern Elms) — a sacrificial victim in what has become, if you are to believe the backlash, a war against books.

What a red herring. This isn’t about books. This is about cars.

David Olive made a quip in a blog post from Tuesday that cars might be behind some of Ford’s logic — voicing the notion that because another library could be found within two miles distance, that the library under discussion was geographically superfluous. Olive’s response:  “If you have a car, that is. In the Twin Freaks’ worldview, everyone has a car, or should. (Or a gas-guzzling van, in Rob’s case.) Which, alas, leaves out maybe half of us who can’t afford one, or for a dozen different reasons choose not to own or use one.”

This was all a footnote in Olive’s tirade, but I think he’s on to something.

There’s a lot of alarmism over library closures: as a symbolic move, this action evokes deep emotions. Protestors evoke the shadows of fascism in their reaction: “I do not want the official Toronto city library bookmobile to become a Tim Hortons,” said Himy Syed, who argued Toronto needs many libraries to serve its diverse, multilingual population. “If you want to destroy civilization, you burn the libraries” (from the Globe and Mail). And certainly, closing libraries in what is one of the world’s great library systems seems counter-productive, and even anti-intellectual.

And yet I doubt the Fords are looking to “destroy civilization.” I doubt they’re even as anti-intellectual as people want to believe they are.

What they certainly are, and this is almost without dispute, is bloody-minded about what it means to be a citizen of Toronto. And part of that involves owning a car, and “contributing to the economy.” Just look at Doug Ford’s reaction to the “union-organized” protests to the planned municipal cuts: “Ford Nation is too busy working, paying taxes, creating jobs. That’s what they are doing.”

Overlooking the colossal narcissism of a self-styled “Ford Nation” (where do you even start with that one?), it seems pretty clear that the Fords are simply custom-built to think in auto-centric terms. Efficiency is built around the car; jobs and contributions to the economy translate to four wheels and air conditioning, and not taking any guff from lefty nay-sayers who think that you’re trying to kill the planet just by trying to get to work. I know that’s been said eleventy bagrillion times in relation to the bike lane closures, but I truly think this goes beyond habit, or conditioning: I think it has permeated down to their ability to imagine distance. A question I’d love to ask either of the Fords: would you walk two miles to go to a library? Let’s rephrase that, post-library-cuts: would you walk four miles (given the farthest distance from the existing library to the nearest one after it has been cut)?

I think the answer to that question is visibly obvious.

What a shame that this is the case, given that Etobicoke is a region with one of the largest proportions of senior citizens in Canada, as well as sky-high unemployment. But it also has the lowest population density in the GTA: while it claims 13% of the population of the region, it also fills 20% of the land area. All of this belies the supposedly “low” circulation numbers of the library Ford wants to axe: with an annual circulation of 100,000, in a mere “industrial area” (is that much of a surprise in that part of town?), that looks pretty well-used in my eyes. For an old, relatively poor part of the city, it would seem even more important to preserve this kind of institution. This is as much an issue of accessibility as it is one of books withdrawn.

But to someone with a car, it must seem silly. Two miles? You can easily get to one of the others in the area. Why don’t those poor, old people just go out and get a car? Two miles, four miles, what’s the difference? In the Ford mindset — not to say the mindset of “Ford Nation,” who Douggie so kindly took upon himself to speak for — the distance on a dashboard-mounted GPS is sufficient explanation for the cuts.

  1. What do you make of the point that a city that heavily subsidizes public transportation, and provides additional subsidy for low-income citizens, shouldn’t have to duplicate city service access points on a large scale? Four miles is too far to walk (and for that matter, so is two miles), but it’s still a pretty short bus trip.

    • True, but, to be honest, I have no idea what the bus system is like that far outside of downtown. I know how unreliable it is here; I cannot imagine how bad it might be out there. But I’m not sure the bus system in itself is even being leveraged by the Fords as an antidote to fears.

      Libraries are obviously not priorities for the Ford administration. That is their prerogative. But the reasons they give — that they’re close together, that there are several of them — are insufficient. There is also the question of need (whether it can be met after the closure), and demand (if it can be met at the alternate location, after the closure). Libraries are also not just about books: in an area as senior-heavy as Etobicoke, they also serve a community programs function, which has been somewhat lost in all the fearmongering about book-burning.

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