A place for everyone at the Norfolk County library

By: J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator
Heather King says she is loath to give any advice to Norfolk County council about how to appropriately fund the cash-strapped county’s library system.
But the outgoing Norfolk County Public Library CEO did urge councillors to consider the intangible benefits provided by the library’s five brick-and-mortar branches and robust online offerings.
Chief among those benefits, King said, is acting as a check against misinformation.
Whether by talking in person with reference librarians or browsing the “credible virtual library” of trustworthy academic and news sources, library patrons can skip the unverified social media rabble and get the straight goods on important issues like COVID-19 vaccination.
“It’s our role to search out and provide legitimate information for people,” King said.
“With websites, social media, you don’t know what’s fact or fiction. When you come to the library, it’s a trust issue that you’re going to be able to find something or talk to someone who can point you in the right direction.”
Libraries are good for democracy, she added, as they give everyone equal access to information and encourage critical thinking.
“They’re places where you can challenge your own knowledge base, your own thoughts about different topics,” King said.
“In ways of race, in ways of hot topics like truth and reconciliation, climate change, gender issues, LGBTQ communities. We need to be that place where there’s a depository of information that you can come and search out at your own pace.”
King is retiring at the end of the year after seeing the library system through what she hopes is the worst of the pandemic.
In her eight years at the helm, she guided the library out of a financial deficit and tripled active cardholders from 7,000 to around 21,000 today.
More than 2,000 people visited a library branch in October to get their COVID-19 vaccination certificate laminated for free, while the recent federal election campaign brought in droves of residents to vote.
“Many of them hadn’t been in a library before,” King said. “They’ll see what we’re all about and then come back and get a library card.”
Talk of a branch closure has subsided at town hall. But the library is still under pressure to generate more revenue as part of the system’s $2.7-million operating budget.
Patrons and local businesses have responded to the library’s call for donations, and King is confident NCPL will reach its $61,000 fundraising target by New Year’s Eve.
“It’s only because our library patrons have been very generous,” she said. “To see people really come through has been really uplifting. I think the library will survive.”
To illustrate the return on investment of a publicly funded library system, King points to a recent study that conservatively estimates for every taxpayer dollar invested, Norfolk’s libraries return $7.13 in spinoff economic activity and social benefits such as literacy development and health and wellness.
“We did that study as part of the budget reduction plan to go back to council and say, ‘Libraries are worth your investment, and libraries are serving way more people than you can imagine they are,’” King said.
Still, she added, even the best ROI calculation cannot accurately reflect the value in giving a homeless person a safe and warm place to apply for a job online or meet their social worker.
Nor can a dollar value be put on the cries of delight King hears from outside her office door as the library’s youngest patrons spy the colourful cover of what could be their next favourite book.
Her office at the Simcoe branch is steps away from the Canadiana Room, where historical titles, scrapbooks and bound newspapers dating back to the mid-19th century tell Norfolk’s story.
“You have a lot of people now interested in genealogy, or just stories that happened a long time ago, and they’re trying to put the facts together,” King said.
The library, she notes, is one of the few remaining public spaces you can enter for free and stay all day, with no expectation to buy anything and no one hovering in judgment.
“It’s also a place where all walks of life, all different people, all ages can be in the same space without having a paid membership,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter what background you come from, economics, your diversity in terms of your culture — you’re equal here.”