Meera Nair

a last bastion of equality

In Posts on July 27, 2020 at 8:37 am

The building was more modest in 1975, but the Port Moody Library was a source of much joy for our immigrant family.

Some articles make one’s head spin. They project good argument, seemingly backed by facts and figures, maybe a dash of pathos, and even a tone of earnestness in pursuit of the betterment of all.

And yet, facts may be incomplete, pathos closer to hype than history, and the earnestness, in aid of simplistic responses to complex problems.

Such was my reaction when I encountered Kenneth Whyte’s 3000+ word opinion piece in Saturday’s Globe and Mail titled, “Overdue: Throwing the Book at Libraries.” Whyte blames libraries for the precarious state of authors, publishers, and booksellers. His argument that borrowing books represent lost sales is buttressed by an array of figures (drawing heavily from American data) about declining author incomes and ongoing struggles of booksellers and publishers. (Left unsaid is that writing, publishing and selling books have been precarious ventures for well over 300 years.)

Whyte offers two solutions: (i) increase the flow of money to libraries to enable them to pay more for their acquisitions; or (ii) restrict access to library books. With respect to (ii), he suggests that library titles be limited in number, without regard to the size of the population it serves. “Readers will be forced to choose between waiting months to borrow a popular volume or acquiring it at retail.” In short, remove access to books from people who need it the most – those who cannot afford to buy books.

Whyte’s suggestion regarding money merits closer inspection:

Perhaps adults, then, should pay for the right to borrow books for entertainment – something in the range of a Netflix fee, $12.99 a month (those below a certain income level could be exempted from the charge). Or maybe Ottawa’s “public lending right” program, which at present throws a few beans at guileless authors in compensation for the use of their works in libraries, could be vastly expanded (and adopted in the U.S.)

Through municipal taxes, many Canadians already foot the bill for public libraries. Our federal taxes also contribute financial support to aid the writing and publishing of books. (I suspect that if I look hard enough, I would see evidence of provincial funding in support of possibly both libraries and writers’ grants.) These contributions are effectively set by a means test; poorer Canadians likely do not pay property taxes and may not rise to the level of taxable income. If Whyte wishes to petition all levels of government to increase taxation on those who can afford it, and direct the monies raised to libraries, I would happily support his efforts.

But to suggest a user fee for Public Libraries is repugnant. A public library may be a last bastion of equality in modern society; it is a truly egalitarian space where all individuals have equal access to the same services regardless of income, class, or status.

(Reading Whyte’s suggestion brought to mind Libby Davies’ political memoir, Outside In (2019). When describing her efforts to assist residents living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Davies deplored those social service agencies who viewed residents as “clients” instead of “citizens.” The difference is not trivial.)

I would also happily give support to any expansion of the Public Lending Right (PLR)—a program that exclusively benefits Canadian writers. But imploring the U.S. to adopt the same program may be both fantasy and foolishness. We should be grateful that Canada’s clout does not rise to it, as Whyte neglects to consider that Canadians predominantly read content written by foreign authors. If PLRs should ever be tied to reciprocity, most of those Canadian taxpayer funds will leave the country. It would be more desirable to target Canadian money to Canadian writers, publishers and booksellers.

This aspect – that Canadian writers are not read in appreciable numbers by Canadians – has long been a source of disappointment. It dates back to pre-Confederation, when colonialists were longing for the literature of the Mother Country. Dickens and Scott were the rage, not the fare offered up by the local gentry. Yet over time, and in no small part due to public investments in writing and publishing, Canada’s literary output now holds its own, at home and abroad.

Perhaps one of the most curious aspects of Whyte’s outburst is that he refrained from any mention of the More Canada report released in December 2018. Announcing the report in the Globe and Mail, Kate Taylor wrote:

According to the report’s three organizers and authors, publishers James Lorimer, Jeff Miller and Philip Cercone, Canada’s literary culture is healthy: Writers keep writing and Canadian-owned publishers are publishing as many Canadian titles as ever, while independent bookstores are also stable. But somehow the industry’s link with Canadian readers has broken. The voluntary group of cultural professionals behind the More Canada report had sensed that; anecdotally, everybody was selling fewer Canadian books (even if more Canadian titles were being published.) So they got together to see if they could find hard evidence of a drop – which they did – and to discuss why it might have occurred. (Emphasis mine.)

The authors honed in on a particular problem, that despite the desire of Canadians to read more Canadian works, systemic problems of both discovery and cost impede heightening that connection.

Recently, those same authors produced another report: Independent Bookstores in Canada’s post-Covid Cultural Landscape. Dated to 21 July 2020, it describes heroic efforts being made by independent bookstores, supported by their local communities, to survive in our Covid-shaped world. On the topic of public libraries, these gentlemen write with no rancour:

Independent bookstores offer their communities a service that is complementary to public libraries. In fact, consumer research shows that most book readers frequent both libraries and bookstores. Library browsing and reading can substitute for book buying, but research data show that it also generates book purchases. Together, a public library branch and an independent bookstore will support and sustain higher levels of discovery and reading than either would generate on their own. Both have a common goal of encouraging book reading. Both share a commitment to the cultural goal of Canadians reading Canadian.

They call on government to address the particular needs of independent bookstores. The only time public libraries feature within the recommendations is in a request that independent bookstores may share the same discounted postal rates that libraries can rely on when shipping books.

There is much more that ought to be written about Whyte’s opinions, about his determination to cast public libraries as competitors within the book industry. I can only hope that a graduate student who has an interest in the intersection of Canada with literature or book history or intellectual property or international trade or economic development or citizenship, will draw this out in a thesis.

I’ll offer up right now my willingness to be an advisor on that project.


  1. […] the op-ed decrying library book loans, there have been some notable responses from people such as Meera Nair and Brewster Kahle, but not even a tweet from groups such as the Association of Canadian […]

  2. Brava!

  3. […] Geist notes, there have been other responses to the piece. One such response is from Neera Nair who writes on the blog Fair […]

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