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The Library debate: stale arguments and cliches abound

This week's Market Squared sets a tone for progress on the Baker District Redevelopment after a summer of mixed messages
20190715 library ts
Concept drawing of the new main library.

I’m writing this eager to see the amended agenda for the special meeting of city council on Monday, the one about the new and improved plan for the Baker District Redevelopment.

Will delegates still be mad over those two months of stewing about the possible cuts to the library project, or will they be grateful that things seem to be back on track?

By now the people in Guelph dedicated to finally getting the new main library must be feeling a little like Charlie Brown playing football with Lucy. Lucy is the city, the library is the football, and that story’s been used as an analogy for so many other things.

Pardon the expletive, but it really is time to crap or get off the pot. The present main library has had a past-due sticker for almost 20 years now, and  for years we’ve been more in a mood to kick the can than kick the ball to borrow another tied analogy.

Regardless of the outside pressures, and the excuses of Bill 108, redeveloping that section of Upper Wyndham and Baker Street has been a supposed priority for the city for at least 10 years or more. You add the word “supposedly” because a priority is supposed to have some kind of immediacy to it.

Now, I know all the reasons why this project has been pushed somewhere behind the backburner, but failing to act when opportunity knocked also comes with a price. What costs $67.1 million today might cost who knows how much tomorrow, and how much more is the city willing to gamble to get every single last duck in a row instead of just most of the ducks?

Now the delays till now have not necessarily been the fault of city staff. For years there’s been significant public discouragement of investing in a new main library branch, and they’ve had enough support on past councils to stymie any momentum forward.

It took a lot of hard work petitioning our local politicians to convince them of the necessity of a new main library. It took a lot of hard work to show that the modern concept of what a library is goes beyond book storage but encompasses the needs and demands of a major of hub for cultural, information, and community.

The pitch for the new library was always about functionality, and meeting the needs of the modern library patron. The counterargument from critics was that local elites and their allies on council wanted a Taj Mahal to their magnificence. Libraries, they argued, were part of the analogue past, what use could they serve?

July’s report by staff seemed to speak to those doubts. Its tone, and that may have been unintentional, was that the library staff wanted that Taj Mahal. It noted that several thousand square feet of staff space seemed to have no identifiable purpose, even though the purpose was clearly outlined in the business case that council enthusiastically endorsed.

That report also suggested that the new library space was going to rob revenue from the city coffers by offering cheaper meeting space than other City facilities, like July was the first time in years of planning such a thing was considered.

If watching the comment threads and social media posts to library news stories are any indication, the doubters are back in full force.

More than that, the issue is being confused as a battle of library versus hospital.

There is a clear demand for a new hospital facility in Guelph because the same facility used for the needs of 80,000 people is now being asked to respond to the needs of nearly 140,000 people. The problem is that the construction of new hospital in Guelph is not up to the will of council alone. The library is.

And why can’t we have both a new library and a new hospital? What is this world we live in that you can feed the body or you can feed the soul, but you can’t do both? As if the one isn’t inexorably tied to the other.

Yes, the new main library branch has always been aspirational, but there’s a very practical component to it as well. Perhaps City staff needed to burn off the immediate fever of Bill 108 and the new budgetary demands of the approved plan to get focused on that again.

None of this is to say that it’s going to smooth sailing ahead. The challenges are great, there are financial prospects of the project that are uncertain, but we elect people to weigh the risks and the benefits and then make the call with purpose and clarity. In January, the library project had that, by July it did not.

It wasn’t too long ago that the City had a new main library project ready to go save for council officially firing the starting pistol. On Monday council must decided if it will pull the trigger, or get us all back together again for this debate in 2040.