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Canada

Toronto is outraged. Rob Ford is suggesting that we close, or worse, privatize libraries. *gasp*.

Let me start by saying this: I think closing libraries is a terrible thing to do. We must ensure that people have easy access to books in their own communities. I am not putting this under debate.

Privatizing libraries is a whole other matter. Knee-jerk fears of capitalism aside, what exactly is wrong with privatizing them? Privatization generally means more money available, more efficient administration, and more accountability to the customers, i.e. those paying the fees. The Toronto Star says that:

A recent contract offer to San Joaquin County in California promised up to 47 per cent longer hours, 21 to 34 per cent lower costs, and $800,000 more spending on books and materials.

And that “Circulation, library visits, and library programs all continue to increase,” in Riverside, California. Both the Star and the Globe and Mail (notably, papers on two very different ends of the political and quality spectrum) both report that Riverside made a profit of $80,000 from privatizing the libraries, and both generally present privatization as a positive influence.

The only objection that I’ve seen that has made sense to me is that privatizing libraries would mean limiting access to books. This is a valid concern, but there must be ways around it. Paid memberships are not necessarily a given – the library could make money through advertisement, or by raising late fees. If they are a necessity, then there are ways to open access up, like making payment necessary only for taking books out, not reading in-library. The important thing here is how, not whether we privatize.

Another good objection is that libraries are community hubs. But this does not necessarily need to change in a privatized situation. Indigo runs more, and better organized and advertised, author readings, and many of the places that do end up being community hubs are actually private: think local coffee shops (lets not forget that indie coffee shops are still for-profit, and unlike your beloved hipster coffee place, libraries could still potentially be free places to gather). People in communities with privatized libraries seem to agree, according to the Globe and Mail:

Priscilla Donovan was hired by LSSI in Leander, Texas, to run the town’s library four years ago.

“As far as I know everybody’s really happy – most people have no idea [that it’s privately run]. It’s still a library. We don’t wear LSSI uniforms or anything like that,” she says.

On the other hand, libraries which are somewhat privately run, such as University libraries, are in my experience better managed, have much larger collections, and shorter waits for highly demanded books.

So, besides being the Big Bad Capitalist Wolf, is privatization really a bad thing?

Tamil CP24

Protests have always made me nervous, but Toronto’s recent Tamil protests a bit more than usual. They’ve been able to gather massive amounts of participants – by CP24’s estimate, Wednesday’s protest was to have had 100,000 attendees, although I don’t think it actually reached those numbers – and have managed huge disruptions, from forming a human chain through the downtown core a few months ago to Sunday’s impromptu blockade of the Gardiner Expressway.

Peaceful protests are great, but unfortunately it doesn’t take much to change a peaceful protest into a deadly one – especially when so many people are involved. Just how real this concern is was shown on Sunday when, in CP24’s words, without prior warning “protesters overwhelmed a handful of police officers on bikes…and swarmed onto a downtown Toronto highway.” What if someone had been hurt? Or what if these kinds of numbers had been gathered for a more polarizing issue, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Are our police prepared to deal with (God forbid) violence on such a large scale? Canada’s usual lacklustre attitude to security, as well as the “handful of police officers on bikes” do nothing to reassure me, for one. There was a much larger police presence on Wednesday, but the fact that it was a reactionary, rather than proactive, measure worries me.

The protests also raise another question: to what degree do protesters have a right to disturb Canadian civil society for the sake of a conflict in which Canada is not directly involved? On the one hand, it’s important for NGO’s and protest groups to be able to get Canadian society off of its collective behind to stop massacres, and disrupting pedestrian and motor traffic in the downtown core is a great way to get the message across. On the other hand, the peacefulness of Canadian society (among others) is what sets it apart from places like Sri Lanka, so isn’t disturbing that peace therefore counterproductive? Shouldn’t we keep stable and peaceful countries stable and peaceful, while helping others become more so?

So far the protest has only been a nuisance, but one with a penchant for unplanned detours. Sunday’s fiasco was repeated again on Wednesday when the protest, which should have been confined to Queen’s Park,  spilled into the downtown core. Added to this is the use of the Tamil Tigers flag: although the protesters claim that it is nothing more than a nationalist emblem, it nonetheless brings with it a mental association as violent as the two crossed rifles in its design. This protest is clearly too volatile and potentially threatening for comfort, and while these questions apply to more than just the current situation, the time to answer them is now.