Pierre Ducasse | CUPE Communications

CUPE 4948 members getting the message out on staffless libraries.]A dangerous new experiment is currently underway at the Toronto Public Library.

Two of the library’s branches will now be open and operate without staff on site during hours they would otherwise be closed. A risky proposition given there has never been a “staffless library” in a large urban centre like Toronto.

What are staffless libraries?

Rightfully, library workers are fighting back. CUPE 4948 is mounting a campaign to warn the public about the potential health and safety hazards of staffless libraries. The local believes staffless libraries will hurt services, reduce security and safety, and threaten jobs. More open hours at the library is a good idea but doing so without trained professional staff is not.The Toronto Public Library (TPL) is no stranger to innovation. Libraries are often early adopters of technology, and TPL was one of the first places in the city to offer public access to the Internet. But in its rush toward automation, the library is jeopardizing the personal security of its patrons—and the job security of its workers.

One of the local’s chief concerns with TPL’s experiment is safety and security.

“The security measures are wholly inadequate,” says Brendan Haley, president of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, CUPE 4948. “If a patron is being harassed by someone, how does she signal the lone security monitor who is kilometres away? And then what? We sometimes work with people in crisis, and many patrons can be anything but predictable. You need staff, on the ground, available on-site. It is a question of safety, both for staff and the public.”

Another major concern is the quality of services to the public. Library workers play a critical role in building community, delivering public programs, and connecting patrons to vital resources like computers and Internet access.

“It’s first and foremost society’s most vulnerable that need the services, assistance and programs our members provide. An empty building is hardly a step up in public service,” says Haley. “On the one hand, technology and technological advances have allowed us to find, organize and store our information better. On the other, it’s put up barriers to those who are not technologically savvy. Only real people, real humans, can help patrons with their questions and concerns.”

Finally, there is a serious concern about protecting jobs. In an effort to cut costs, the temptation might be high for employers—libraries and others—to use technology to replace workers. That would literally take humanity out of the equation.

Technology can be a useful tool. But it cannot and should not replace the human face—and beating heart—of our public services.

For more information about staffless libraries, visit ourpubliclibrary.to.