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Libraries ask for Ontario-wide digital system to ensure equal access to materials

TORONTO — Ontario’s libraries are asking the government to create a provincewide digital public library, to ensure residents in smaller municipalities have the same access to materials as people in large, urban centres.

Libraries are mostly funded by municipalities, so each library system has to purchase their own material, said Dina Stevens, executive director of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries.

“Many Ontario public libraries, particularly in smaller and First Nation communities, struggle to afford and cannot provide those high-quality resources and ebooks that people in their communities need,” she said.

“These e-resources are really expensive, especially when they’re purchased on that patchwork, library-by-library basis. So we think something like the ODPL, the Ontario Digital Public Library would be hugely beneficial for smaller urban centres and our rural and northern municipalities, and, of course, our First Nations public libraries.”

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Ebooks cost three times as much as print books, Stevens said.

“E-resources are extremely expensive, per copy of ebook,” she said.

“Since the pandemic we’ve had a huge increase in need from our communities and demand from our communities for e-resources, ebooks.”

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Those resources aren’t just the latest bestseller novels, Stevens said, rather they include language-learning resources, audio books for kids, and skills training programs for people working on a mid-career change.

The former Liberal government promised to create an Ontario Digital Public Library _ though that came mere days before the start of the 2018 election campaign that gutted the party — and similar systems exist in other provinces. Creating one for Ontario would cost the province $9.4 million per year, Stevens estimates.

Jessica Horne, the assistant to the Cochrane Public Library’s CEO, told a legislative pre-budget committee that smaller libraries such as hers are part of a consortium that allows for bulk purchasing, but that idea needs to be expanded.

“We then share all those books with all the libraries that are participating in the bulk purchase,” she said.

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“So 300 libraries only have access to one James Patterson ebook. They’re very expensive.”

Libraries are also asking that their provincial funding not be cut. The level of funding has been frozen for more than 25 years, but the libraries are not asking for an increase, just that the level be maintained.

The Public Library Operating Grant that comes from the province makes up a small portion of their budgets, but is critical to support operations, broadband connectivity and pay equity, Stevens said.

The Progressive Conservative government in 2019 cut funding to library services, though not the libraries themselves, affecting inter-library loan services.

A spokesperson for Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister Neil Lumsden said Ontario’s libraries are a key pillar in building strong, vibrant communities.

“The increase in digital technology and products has also transformed how Ontarians access information and services,” Alan Sakach wrote in a statement.

“The province is providing $27 million to the public library sector through a range of programs including supports for modernization, including broadband upgrades, public internet access and digital services.”

&copy 2023 The Canadian Press

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