Still dreaming after all these years

Remarks to the Guelph City Council special meeting on the new main library, 13 February 2018.

Thank you, Mayor Guthrie and Councillors and staff for the recommendation to endorse the New Main Library Business Case as developed by KPMG and adopted last month by the Guelph Public Library Board. It is very encouraging to see this level of support at this juncture. I hope we are still in this position after the election in October

Sometimes it seems like whenever there is a change in city council, or in the upper echelons of city management, or even in the assignment of staff to the Baker street file, someone feels the need to have another look at the library.

There is a phrase to describe the malady our library is suffering. We can call it paralysis by analysis. The current downtown library opened in 1965. After 30 years, the need for a new one became apparent. It had become too small. Public space, such as the meeting rooms in the basement, were taken over for use by library staff.

Building conditions were assessed, needs were identified, suitable locations were researched, recommendations were formulated, council agreements were made, then unmade, then made again. Now, 23 years later, we are still debating it, explaining it, needing it, and dreaming about it.

When I was appointed to the Library Board in 2004, I was under the naïve belief that I would see a new library built during my term. It came close. The old Canada Post building was ready and available but the city council in 2005 let it slip away. We have never been that close since then.

In the years following that fateful decision, library redevelopment has been studied to death. We are well past the time to start building it. We are well past the time to stop commissioning more studies as a politically convenient way of avoiding a decision. To quote a former Chief Librarian, Mr. Norman McLeod, who said in 2009, eight and a half years ago, “stop making excuses and dig the damn hole.”

Speaking of Chief Librarians, Mr. Mayor, there is one piece of historic trivia that I think captures neatly the problem of the downtown library. In the first hundred years of its existence after the old Carnegie Library was constructed, Guelph had four Chief Librarians.

A. M. Harris, Nellie Reed, John Snell and Norman McLeod held the job from 1907 until 2009. That’s an average of 25 years each. A remarkable record of administrative stability supported by consistent support from the municipal council.

In the eight and a half years since Mr. McLeod retired, we have had four Chief, or Acting Chief, Librarians. There can be no doubt that the political uncertainty surrounding the future of our main library has taken its toll on staff morale. While we all hope and expect that the current Chief Librarian, Steve Kraft, is in it for the long haul he needs the confidence of knowing that the instability is coming to an end.

There is one important point in the staff report that is of great concern. Recommendation #4 tells staff to “explore various ownership structures for the library with the preferred development partner; including full ownership, lease to own and long-term lease and report back to Council on the findings by Q4 2019.”

It should go without saying that the library can not share its ownership with anyone.

It is always important to remind ourselves of the relationship of the public library to city council. The library operates by authority of the provincial Public Libraries Act. This law mandates the city to appoint the library board members and provide the operating budget. It mandates the library board to govern at an arm’s length relationship to the city.

To put it simply, the library board decides what size operating budget it needs, the city decides how much it can afford to provide, and the library board then decides how to allocate the funding it receives.

While I am putting things simply, consider that the Library Board commissioned the KPMG study and endorsed the business plan that is before us today. For you to reject this plan, or to amend or change or otherwise tinker with it would be a profound statement of non-confidence in the Board which you appointed.

The library is a public institution. It cannot evolve into a public-private partnership without changes to provincial legislation. I suppose it is possible that the building within which the library exists to be leased from a private landlord, but that’s not what the staff report says and we need to be clear about this.

The library owns the building on the corner of Paisley and Norfolk. It owns its space in the West End Rec Centre. It leases space for the other four branch libraries. The reason for leasing branches is quite simple. Although it rarely happens, and has never happened in Guelph, it is possible that an existing branch could be relocated as population density shifts within the city.

I am not aware of any other city in Ontario, or even in Canada, that has its main headquarters housed in leased space. While in theory library branches are temporary and moveable, library headquarters are permanent and stable.

When it comes time to make an ownership decision, you should take your lead from precedent and look at the only time a decision like this was made in the past. In 1905, when the Carnegie Library opened, the City ceded the property to the Library Board and transferred ownership of the land and building. That decision stood the test of time and should be reaffirmed when the development process is completed.

The developer can, in return for its investment, have the commercial and residential components of Baker Street. In return for its investment, the city should ensure that ownership of the library building remains with the library.

When I came to Guelph in 1971, the downtown library building was six years old. I was 25. The population of Guelph was about 60,000. Now Guelph is more than twice that size. The building is old. I am old.

A few years ago, a good shot of Geritol might have been enough to make the Library feel younger. Not now. We have become like that new Netflix show, Altered Carbon. We need a whole new sleeve. Thanks for bringing it to us at last.