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Libraries aren’t as easy a target of cuts as they appear to be

At first blush, the province’s cutting of inter-library loan services may seem like an easy place to save money: in a digital age, aren’t libraries decreasingly relevant?

That would seem intuitive, but the answer is no, it seems.

The word library conjures up a building with book-lined shelves where patrons, cards in hand, checkout reading material. That’s still very much the case, but libraries have been making changes to reflect the shift from analog to digital. It’s not just about e-books, but about providing Internet service, research skills and a host of knowledge-based offerings. There are aids for jobseekers and a variety of functions akin to social services. There are children’s programs and book clubs that have transformed libraries into veritable community centres.

The cuts to the Southern Ontario Library Service won’t have a direct impact on the emerging services, but do undercut a traditional role while curtailing access to books that remain the backbone of our system of knowledge.

Despite the shift to digital, our shrinking attention spans and a host of other distractions, books – including actual ink-on-paper books – remain a sought-after commodity.

Some 54 million English-language books were sold in Canada last year, generating a value of $1.1 billion. Booknet Canada tracked the sales of some 867,000 unique titles.

A survey conducted for the organization found 50 per cent of respondents had checked out a book – print, e-book or audio – from a library, up slightly from 46 per cent in 2017. Of those surveyed, 92 per cent had read a print book, up two percentage points from the year before. The numbers were up similarly for e-book and audio versions (smartphone use for e-reading has seen particularly big increases, with some 23 per cent of us opting to read on our phones, an increase of some 10 per cent in the last two years alone).

Canadians are still reading. And still visiting libraries. That said, there are some troubling signs about reading and literacy. We have more books to read than ever before, and more ways to read them thanks to computers, tablets, e-readers and smartphones, but we aren’t picking them up in commensurate numbers.

Beyond the risk to writers and publishers, there are longer-term implications for literacy skills, job prospects and even our very democracy given we live in an information age.

Measures are being taken to promote reading and literacy skills, especially among young people.

With so many electronic distractions available to kids, it’s hardly surprising that books have fallen by the wayside in some cases. If that’s the case, encouraging kids to take up any kind of reading is a plus – we certainly shouldn’t put a damper on it.

According to Statistics Canada, 29 per cent of individuals with low literacy levels are from low-income households compared to eight per cent of individuals who are ranked in the highest two categories of literacy.

If you’re reading this, basic literacy is not an issue. However, for many Canadians that hurdle remains to be cleared. And in a knowledge-based economy, the bar continues to rise – millions of Canadians are technically literate but can’t read at levels high enough for many of today’s jobs.

Reading – exploring new ideas, concepts and even new worlds – is the pre-eminent way to foster literacy, not only in words but in understanding the world around us. Any kind of book or other written material that sends us down that road is a good thing.

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