October is Canadian Library Month, a time to reflect on the important role libraries play in the lives of all Canadians. Our libraries are much more than just a space to house books and reference material. They are important community and cultural hubs that play a vital role in promoting important democratic values such as freedom, justice, and participation in political life.
Libraries also promote life-long learning. Many libraries provide educational programs on such diverse topics as computer technology, health and wellness, languages, and parenting and prenatal classes. Your local library welcomes all members of the community: newcomers to Canada, job seekers, adult learners, young mothers and their children, and people on the margins of society.
Our libraries are one of our most important cultural institutions. More than 60 per cent of Canadians, or 21 million people, have a library card. Most Canadians, 97 per cent, have access to a library. And every month, more than 200,000 Canadians visit their local library to get help finding a job.
Libraries play an important role in the lives of all Canadians. And yet in recent years, our libraries have come increasingly under attack by governments and employers. CUPE library workers have had to fight austerity budgets and cuts to staffing to maintain quality services.
Also jeopardizing quality library services is the trend toward precarious work. Nearly 45 per cent of CUPE library workers work part-time, and that number rises to over 70 per cent for CUPE library clerks. Precariously employed workers represent a less expensive labour pool for employers because they are paid less than full-time workers, work fewer hours, and are provided few, if any, employment benefits.
Privatization also threatens quality library services. Common examples of privatization include the contracting out of bibliographical services such as ordering, processing, cataloguing material, and technology. The move to self-service checkout and returns is also common, leading to fewer staff positions and a decrease in the valued frontline service culture. Further hurting quality frontline service, private contractors tend to cut corners, lay off or hire fewer staff, and try to cut wages and benefits.
The staffless library may soon be coming to a public library in your community. It’s already happened in parts of Europe, and now the cost-cutting measure is spreading to Toronto and Hamilton. In Toronto, two public libraries will participate in a year-long pilot project. There will be no staff during extended hours. The libraries will be monitored by video surveillance. CUPE 4948, Toronto Public Library Workers’ Union, has publicly raised the alarm about customer safety. Slashed security budgets and staffing levels have led to an increase in violent incidents in Toronto’s public libraries.
Library workers also have health and safety concerns. Libraries are safe places for people who are homeless, battling addiction, and suffering from mental illness. Library workers are sometimes required to work with vulnerable people but are not provided training in conflict resolution. Library workers may experience violence and harassment when situations escalate and are particularly at risk when working alone.
During the month of October, CUPE calls on members and locals to stand in solidarity with library workers as we take on these challenges in our workplaces. And we urge you to visit your local library and check out the events planned for Canadian Library Month.